Interviews with 15 major American historians and the current chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Since 2013, financier and philanthropist Rubenstein, co-founder of the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, has corralled the heavy hitters of American history for conversations held in the Library of Congress, intended for the edification of our elected representatives. His admirable goal has been to provide “information about the great leaders and events of our country’s past, with the hope that…bringing the members together in a neutral, nonpartisan setting might modestly contribute toward reducing the seemingly increasing partisan rancor that has become so commonplace in Washington.” That aim has flopped, but the text, accompanied by a generous selection of archival images from the LOC, provides a smooth education in American history, with an emphasis on presidents. Eschewing controversy and avoiding penetrating insights, Rubenstein asks leading questions; his responders, all veterans of the lecture hall or book tour, lay out the facts and their expert interpretations. According to Jack D. Warren Jr., George Washington was America’s essential man. David McCullough joins the chorus supporting John Adams’ rising reputation. Though Thomas Jefferson’s continues its decline, Jon Meachem finds much to praise. Women are underrepresented, but Cokie Roberts has good things to say about Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and others. The longest biographies—Robert Caro’s five volumes on Lyndon Johnson and Taylor Branch’s three on Martin Luther King Jr.—are already classics only partly because of their literary brilliance. LBJ’s support of the Civil Rights Act was perhaps the most courageous political act of the century because he did it with full knowledge that it would inflict permanent damage on his party. MLK and his allies were certainly heroes of their time, but the villains he faced make a more vivid impression. Other contributors include H.W. Brands, Bob Woodward, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Breaks no new ground but provides an excellent introduction to leading historians and the books every engaged American should read.