Book Review: ‘The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians’

February 9, 2020 Updated: February 11, 2020
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It’s 2020. Another year, another decade. As we contemplate the future, we can always look to the past for inspiration. “The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians” by David M. Rubenstein is the perfect book to do so. In it, Rubenstein asks famous historians about the legacies of compelling people in American history.

Rubenstein, a renowned financier and a pioneer of patriotic philanthropy (he’s donated money to educate Americans about their history and heritage), is also the television host of “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations.” On the show, he interviews leaders to discover their paths to success.

In 2013, Rubenstein decided that it would be a worthwhile exercise to interview accomplished historians about their books on great leaders in American history. The audiences were principally members of Congress, and they met at the Library of Congress.

Building on that idea, Rubenstein has selected some of his most intriguing interviews and presents them in what I think of as a reader’s digest of American history. Together, the interviews offer a sampling of famous historical figures—each chapter devoted to a different author and a different historical figure—which will inspire you with an eagerness to learn more. It did for me.

The American Story Cover
The cover of “American Story: Conversations With Master Historians.”

Jack D. Warren Jr. on George Washington

Even though General Washington lost more battles than he won during the Revolutionary War, he was determined to hang on. His battered army believed in him and followed him back across the icy Delaware to victories at Trenton and Princeton. Finally, in 1783 a treaty of peace was signed.

In the past, victorious generals typically became rulers for life—not Washington. He resigned his commission and went home to Mount Vernon. When King George III heard this, he said, “If George Washington gives up power, as I hear he’s going to, he’s the greatest man in the world.”

Later, when Washington was president, he could readily have had a third term and presumably serve as president until his death, but he chose the opposite course. He knew full well the legacy he was leaving, and it was not a monarchy.

George Washington
“George Washington” by Gilbert Stuart at the Phoenix Art Museum. (Public Domain)

David McCullough on John Adams

One of the bravest and most important acts of John Adams’s life took place when no one would defend the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. Adams took the job. He felt that they were entitled to representation because of his belief in the fairness of American law and justice. Yet he guessed that this act would destroy his political ambitions.

Instead, it worked in his favor. People saw his backbone. Over and over in offices that Adams held (including the presidency), he always did what he felt was right.

In one such example, as president, Adams kept us out of the war with France. The United States had no money, no army, and no navy to speak of. He understood the importance of this decision: “If I have anything on my gravestone that I should be remembered for, it’s ‘I kept us out of an unnecessary war,’ ” he later said.

Because of his decision, however, Adams lost the election of 1800 to his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams portrait
A portrait of President John Adams (1735–1826), second president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand. (Public Domain)

Cokie Roberts on the Founding Mothers

Traditionally, writing on the Revolutionary War has focused on the accomplishments of men. Yet the founding mothers played crucial roles in the beginnings of the new nation despite their lacking independence in economic, political, and civic matters.

During the long winter months when the fighting in the Revolutionary War was basically at a standstill, Martha Washington was called upon by her husband to come to his winter encampment. She boosted the morale of her husband’s troops by organizing other officers’ wives and bringing clothes and food to camp. She was of enormous help with her husband’s victories.

Abigail Adams served as the unofficial adviser to her husband. She and John Adams, the nation’s second president, have been called “America’s first power couple.” When her husband was in the Continental Congress, she wrote him to “Remember the Ladies” when talking about human rights of the individual in forming the new nation.

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(L–R) Portraits of Abigail Adams by Gilbert Stuart, and John Adams by Mather Brown. (Public Domain)

Dolley Madison served as unofficial first lady to President Thomas Jefferson, who was a widower. Her enormous popularity as a hostess was essential. The young country was fragile and might not have survived the time’s rampant partisanship and regionalism were it not for Madison. She set up a power center at the Secretary of State’s house where both Federalists and Republicans could come, eat, drink wine, and behave civilly. No one boycotted these evenings because that’s where all the trading and deals were made, and all the information was exchanged. Later, she became the official first lady as the wife of President Madison.

Dolley_Madison-portrait
Portrait of Dolley Madison, 1804, by Gilbert Stuart. (Public Domain)

Jean Edward Smith on Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower has been seen by many as a gifted and experienced general, but not as a successful president. Rubenstein’s interview reveals this impression to be false.

With his low-key leadership style, Eisenhower shrewdly steered America through crises in the 1950s that might have turned out much differently. He was disciplined, a hard worker, articulate, an excellent writer, and knew how to get things done. He was always able to make the decisions that a commander should make without waffling.

Most of all, he had a way with people. In the Army, he was able to draw the attention of three of the Army’s stars: General Fox Conner, General John J. Pershing, and General Douglas MacArthur. They helped him get promoted.

As his career blossomed, Eisenhower was given command of Operation Torch—the invasion of North Africa—when President Roosevelt reluctantly acceded to Winston Churchill’s insistence that Torch should take place before a cross-channel invasion of Europe. Later, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Eisenhower commanded the Allied forces during the Normandy invasion.

After the war, both Democrats and Republicans wanted Eisenhower to run on their tickets since he wasn’t defined by a particular ideology. He didn’t run immediately, but in 1953 he became the 34th president of the United States.

As president, he made peace in Korea and thawed the Cold War. He took action to enforce Civil Rights legislation, balanced the budget, and helped to create the Interstate Highway System. He was willing to work with politicians of all stripes to create a consensus on many of the country’s big issues.

Eisenhower’s character can really be seen in his reaction to the National Security Council suggestion to aid the French in Vietnam by use of atomic bombs:

“You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against the Asians for the second time in ten years. My God.”

Eisenhower
July 1942: Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower in his office. Eisenhower was later elected the 34th president of the United States. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln

Today Abraham Lincoln is greatly honored, yet he barely got the Republican nomination.

Lincoln, knowing that he would never be the first choice of any of the delegates, brilliantly told his managers: “Just tell everybody if they can’t get their first love, I’m there. I’ll be the second love.” When William Seward missed securing the majority on the first ballot, people did turn to Lincoln because he hadn’t attacked anyone.

Instead, he tried to work with his competitors, saying: “I’m the humblest of all of you. I need your support.” When he became president, he invited his main competitors to join his cabinet.

Whenever Abraham Lincoln felt the urge to tell someone off, he wrote a “hot letter” wherein he would put his anger, but he would never send it. He would cool off and reflect on his thoughts.

Finally, Lincoln was able to inspire Americans to see themselves in a different way. Terms in the Gettysburg Address like “all men are created equal” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people” created a noble vision for America as important and relevant today as in the past.

Washington’s perseverance and selflessness, John Adams’s integrity, the first ladies’ kindliness and support, Lincoln’s humility, and Eisenhower’s industriousness—these are qualities, when remembered, that can shape us to create a better today and a better tomorrow.

abraham lincoln
A detail of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy. (Public Domain)

“The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians”   
David M. Rubenstein
Simon & Schuster
416 pages

Linda Wiegenfeld is a retired teacher with 45 years’ experience teaching children. She can be reached for comments or suggestions at LWiegenfeld@aol.com