History Buff 101: A syllabus for igniting your biographical fervor
Former Vice President Richard Nixon announced February 1, 1968, in an open letter to the citizens of New Hampshire that he would be a candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination. This picture was released by Nixon's headquarters with the announcement of his candidacy. (AP Photo/Nixon Campaign, Fabian Bachrach)
This painting depicts Gen. George Washington and his troops on the march to Valley Forge during the American Revolutionary War. (AP Photo)
FILE - In this June 18,1973 file photo, Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev, left, whispers in the ear of President Richard M. Nixon as the two leaders stand on a balcony at the White House in Washington. The meeting was the only summit ever recorded on an American presidential taping system. The last 340 hours of tapes from Nixon's White House were released Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, along with more than 140,000 pages of text materials. (AP Photo/File)
It all started with Richard Nixon. Maybe it’s because I was born in 1972, right when things started to go south for our 37th president, or perhaps it’s because I’m a journalist and few have done more for my profession than Tricky Dick. Whatever the re
It all started with Richard Nixon.
Maybe it’s because I was born in 1972, right when things started to go south for our 37th president, or maybe it’s because I’m a journalist and few have done more for my profession than Tricky Dick.
Whatever the reason, it’s safe to say that Nixon was the one who got me interested in history.
When I’m having the kind of day where no book, no subject matter sounds appealing, I pull my copy of Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1968 off the shelf or maybe I’ll choose a random section of Stephen Ambrose’s three-part Nixon biography. Occasionally, I’ll read a few selections from The Haldeman Diaries to get inside the head of Nixon’s old chief of staff.
But again, Nixon was just where it all started.
When you become fascinated by Nixon, you can’t help but think of past presidents and what made them tick. So you go back to the beginning and read about George Washington, and suddenly you become interested in the Revolutionary War. Then you realize there are too many holes in your knowledge when it comes to American wars, so you pick up a volume about World War II. As you read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you become painfully aware that you don’t know nearly enough about the Manhattan Project, so . . .
And it just keeps going. The most difficult part of the journey is finding the time to read everything you want to read. There are not enough hours in the day.
Right now, I’m reading America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, and I couldn’t be happier.
This is how the book begins: “It started with a bang. Ordinary citizens would govern themselves across a continent and over the centuries, under rules that the populace would ratify and could revise. By uniting previously independent states into a vast indivisible nation, New World republicans would keep Old World monarchs at a distance and thus make democracy work on a scale never before dreamed possible.
“With simple words placed in the document’s most prominent location, the Preamble laid the foundation for all that followed. ‘We the People of the United States, . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution . . .’
“These words did more than promise popular self-government. They also embodied and enacted it. Like the phrases ‘I do’ in an exchange of wedding vows and ‘I accept’ in a contract, the Preamble’s words actually performed the very thing they described. Thus the Founders’ ‘Constitution’ was not merely a text but a deed – a constituting. We the People do ordain. In the late 1780s, this was the most democratic deed the world had ever seen.”
It’s great stuff – and who knows where it will all lead.
If you need help getting started on your own journey, be sure to check out the Books pages in the Sunday Monitor. In the meantime, you have a group of Monitor readers to give you a little push.
Last week, we asked readers to submit their favorite history books, and what follows are the responses we received.
‘1861’ by Adam Goodheart
A distinguished historian, Goodheart brings a novelist’s skills of narrative and characterization to this highly readable history of the first year of the Civil War. Highlights include the drama of Maj. Robert Anderson’s last days in Fort Sumter and the amazing short life of Elmer Ellsworth, martyred hero of the New York Fire Zouaves.
(Submitted by Lee Richmond of Dunbarton.)
‘The Creation of the American Soul’ by John M. Barry
In this age of bellicose discourse – debate takes too long and requires thought – Barry leads us from the King James translation of the Bible through the establishment of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in the person of Roger Williams.
The concepts and quarrels described are remarkably similar to our current situation. This volume gives us the underpinnings of the notion of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” 100 years before Jefferson penned them and the current generation of pundits, both left and right have hijacked them for their own purpose.
(Submitted by Bill Wishart of Concord.)
‘Fahim Speaks’ by Mike Moffett
If I could pick or recommend one history book to recommend this summer, it would be a history/biography by local author and NHTI professor Mike Moffett, who is also a retired Marine reservist, titled Fahim Speaks: A Warrior Actor’s Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back.
The book chronicles recent Afghanistan history, from the Communist invasion, to the Taliban takeover, to the American intervention. It’s an adventure story, a love story, a war story and a Hollywood story, and it won a gold medal from the Military Writer’s Society of America. The book was also nominated for book of the year by the Oral History Association.
Moffett was in Afghanistan as a lieutenant colonel with the Marines in 2010, where he met Hollywood actor Fahim Fazli.
Fahim had returned to his native Afghanistan as an interpreter, also with the Marines. The charismatic Fazli was so effective at bringing together Americans and Afghans that the Taliban put a price on his head. Fahim is the only Hollywood actor to put on a uniform and go into harm’s way since Sept. 11, 2001.
And good news for Granite Staters! Fahim just finished filming Rock the Kasbah in Morocco with Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Kate Hudson and Zooey Deschanel and will be making his first visit to New Hampshire for a book signing with Moffett at Gibson’s Book Store on Aug. 7!
The book has received rave reviews on Amazon, and I found it such a compelling story, I couldn’t put it down.
(Submitted by Beth Anne Boardman.)
‘The War That Ended Peace’ by Margaret MacMillan
MacMillan authors a nonfiction account of Europe from 1900 to 1914 and explores the failure of leaders to stop the descent to war.
(Submitted by Robert C. Washburn of Concord.)
‘The Heart of Everything That Is’ by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
The Heart of Everything That Is is a history of Red Cloud, the legendary Native American leader, as well as a panoramic view of the Native American struggle against the U.S. military after the Civil War.
There are many good things to say about this book. It presents a fully sketched view of Red Cloud as young man, warrior, husband, shrewd military tactician and coalition-builder among tribes. It also tells a story that has not been adequately told about how the Sioux actually beat the U.S. military, at least for a period of time. The book lets no one off the hook. The authors do not indulge in romanticizing anyone.
Reading the story, you get a clear picture of what Native American tribes were up against – the string of broken and dishonored treaties, their own internal wars, the massive advance of Western settlers, the depletion of buffalo herds and the weapons technology gap that put them at a big disadvantage.
At the height of his power, Red Cloud and the Sioux controlled a huge swath of Western land that reached from Iowa to Idaho. The Heart of Everything That Is refers to the Black Hills in South Dakota, a place that had an almost mystical hold over the Sioux.
The book can be read as an adventure story, a historical narrative, a biography and the story of a people. We still lack many great books that do justice to Native American history. This book helps to fill that gap in a big way.
(Submitted by Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot.)