October 2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the Naval Institute Press book History Makers: Interviews. Assembled in this volume is a select lineup of notable people whose words appeared in interviews and a few eloquent addresses that had been featured in Naval History and the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazines. Here, for the first time, are some of the stories behind those stories and accounts of how several of these interviews blossomed into relationships that continue to flourish.
In his cover endorsement for the book, David Hartman—the original host of ABC’s Good Morning, America whose trademark daily sign-off was “Make it a good day today”—refers to “the art of interviewing.” With the aim being to reveal “some basic truth or truths at that very moment in time,” the book delivers on that promise, he wrote. We figured that if anyone knew about interviews (he accumulated some 12,000 of them for ABC), it was David.
Looking back, it is worth noting just a few such “moments” and how much has changed since then. As we ushered in a new millennium two decades ago, we grew concerned over something called the Y2K bug, which world businesses feared would make computers stop running properly at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. A mix of expensive compliance protocols and luck is said to have averted a global catastrophe.
Devastating terrorist attacks had not yet taken thousands of lives on what has since been known simply as 9/11; four separate and very different administrations would occupy the White House over the next 20 years; the “Great Recession of 2008” had not yet stricken the economy; and no one could have fathomed something as baffling and deadly as the novel coronavirus pandemic, which at this writing still holds the world in its grip.
Back in 2000, the Internet was still being called the “information superhighway.” Among the first cellphones was essentially a miniature keyboard called a “BlackBerry.” And, germane to this story, the Naval Institute Press had recently joined other publishers in allowing its books to be sold by a fledgling electronic-distribution outfit called “Amazon,” which may still have a few copies left, if you Google it.
All this aside, the insights provided by the subjects in this book still resonate, and readers often have asked which one was the best or favorite. The truth is, they’ve all been memorable for one reason or another. A colleague once referred to me as “the Forrest Gump of the Naval Institute” for having found myself so many times on the fringes of fame, not unlike the title character in the movie “Forrest Gump” played by Tom Hanks.
One name, however, always heads my short list of favorites—David McCullough, two-time National Book Award winner (for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback) and twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for the presidential biographies Truman, and John Adams). Our 1993 Naval History interview was engaging, entertaining, and educational, while it also marked the beginning of a long friendship.
David came through in the interview with several quotable quotes, one of which we abridged and used as a subscription advertisement that ran for years in every issue of Naval History: “You don’t understand history if you don’t understand naval history.”
An invitation came from David one day in 1994 to attend a program at Ford’s Theater, where he was appearing—with, as The Washington Post’s acerbic columnist Ken Ringle put it the following day, other “well-heeled” historians and writers—on a program staged by something called “Protect Historic America.” It was a genteel rally of sorts against “Disney’s America,” a history theme park that Disney CEO Michael Eisner had championed for a site near the Manassas National Battlefield Park in northern Virginia. When I arrived at the historic site of President Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, David was outside the theater entrance talking to former U.S. Congressman James Symington, to whom he immediately introduced me as “editor of one of the best magazines in the country,” an ego-inflator if ever there was one.
In addition to McCullough, among the program’s featured speakers that night was Shelby Foote, a notable author and a star commentator on Ken Burns’ widely acclaimed PBS series The Civil War, and later an interview subject for Naval History and History Makers. William Styron, best known as the author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, delivered a dramatic reading from the latter book, followed by a presentation by the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom, Princeton Professor James McPherson, who also later sat for a 2004 Naval History interview. And rounding out the program, which not once mentioned the name “Disney,” was a rather diminutive fellow in a suit and wire-rim glasses, who, we were told, was there for having been a driving force in saving Henry David Thoreau’s Walden from commercial development in Massachusetts. There to read a poem about Thomas Jefferson this night was none other than Don Henley, a cofounder of the band, the Eagles, and composer of several greatest hits.
At a reception held after the program, McCullough introduced me to the program’s highlighters but also to Charles Guggenheim, known as “the most-honored documentary filmmaker in the history of the Academy Awards.” He had just been nominated for another Oscar, this time for a program titled “D-Day Remembered,” and he agreed to appear before the Naval Institute staff for one of its professional-development luncheons to discuss his highly acclaimed film work. Charles is a prime example of how long-term relationships have so often been spawned by the interviews discussed here.
The “pinch me” moment in my long association with David McCullough came while spending an afternoon with him strolling around Washington’s Lafayette Park just after History Makers was published.
David called in early 2001: “I think the time has finally come for me to speak to the members of the Naval Institute,” he said, after having declined several invitations in the past to do just that. The Institute’s Annual Meeting was coming up in April, and his new biography of President John Adams was due out in May. “Isn’t the Institute’s mantra ‘Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write?’ a quote attributed to President Adams? I’d like to speak about that in Annapolis.” And so, David was the featured speaker that year, the book with our interview together was on sale in the lobby, and I had the honor of introducing him to the dinner guests. Proceedings later published the profound remarks he delivered that night.
The morning after his address, I volunteered to drive him to Washington for an engagement he had scheduled in D.C. that evening. He asked if I was in a hurry to get back to Annapolis. The instant I said no, he motioned for me to follow him. “We’ll make a lunch reservation at the St. Regis for an hour from now so we can take a walk. Does that work for you?”
I soon found myself tagging along with the biographer of two presidents and one of the most successful nonfiction writers ever to put pen to paper. We talked about many things, including his 12-year television work with PBS as host of The American Experience, a series that made his voice one of the most recognizable in the country. In fact, my wife had favored using recordings of the series as a teaching tool in her AP U.S. History class, to such an extent that the students began referring to its avuncular host as “Uncle Dave.”
Over the course of our little jaunt and conversation, he stopped at a brick building on Lafayette Square adjacent to the White House and abruptly said, “I have someone you must meet.” The front nameplate on the building read, “Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.” He walked up the steps, flung open the door, and greeted a woman behind a desk at the base of a long staircase just inside. “Is Louis Blair in today?” he asked. To which she replied, “May I tell him who’s calling?” McCullough answered, “Just tell him it’s his deadbeat cousin, come for lunch money,” and again motioned for me to follow him, this time up the staircase, as the woman at the desk grasped for words.
The man he wanted me to meet was at the time the executive secretary of the foundation. Halfway up the staircase, McCullough paused, turned around to me, and said: “Arriving unannounced like this is very ‘Truman-esque,’ don’t you think?” I would wager that no one else in the world could have made such an entrance. And I was along for the ride.
Among his many credits, David was a principal member of an all-star (or soon-to-be-all-star) cast as narrator of Ken Burns’ landmark PBS documentary series The Civil War 30 years ago. Although the program is now under its harshest scrutiny since it premiered, spearheaded by historian Keri Leigh Merritt’s article in the 23 April 2019 Smithsonian, “Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary,” the series still stands as the most-watched PBS program ever. This latter statistic was part of the reason I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I set up an interview with Ken Burns in late 1998 and flew to Manchester, New Hampshire. There, I rented a car and drove a couple of hours past “Moose Crossing” and maple syrup signs to the little town of Walpole, where I spent the best part of a day with the public-TV wunderkind.
After winding through Walpole, I came upon a farmhouse and a barn, both painted white, and the headquarters of Florentine Films, the nerve-center for some of the most successful film documentaries in the annals of television. I was invited inside the barn and led to an upper-level room that apparently had been a hayloft for the farm it once was. It was Burns’ office now, and he appeared in a few minutes to give a tour of his operation.
Florentine Films had just completed and delivered a documentary on women’s rights pioneers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to PBS, titled “Not for Ourselves Alone,” and the crew of producers and assistants were presently at work on the Burns-directed miniseries Jazz. Ken led me through the organized chaos that pieces together his masterpieces. Particularly striking were the rows upon rows of splicing tables with short pieces of raw motion-picture film clips hanging from wire lines strung the length of the building. It was hard to envision all this being untangled and refined into yet another hit documentary, and it made one wonder what this place must have looked like with people poring over period daguerreotypes during the production of “The Civil War.”
After our tour, he led me over to the house, where we were to have lunch. At a kitchen-nook, he shooed away a cat, which had been napping on one of the benches where we were to sit, and started heating a potful of chicken soup, excusing himself for needing it to combat his cold. Ken and I proceeded with the interview, and he was as eloquent as he always is on television. This time, he openly offered his thoughts on the then-current quality of documentary filmmaking by such networks as the History Channel and Discovery. Dismissing them as “diminished” and “superficial,” he considered them “hardly more than journalistic considerations.” For the firestorm he caused with those few words, see “A Broadside from Battleship Burns,” a post on the Naval Institute blog written in 2016, borrowing the title of a story about the controversy that had been published in 1999 as part of “The Reliable Source” column in The Washington Post.
With the interview format firmly established in our Naval Institute publications, a call came one day from a frequent correspondent, a retired Navy captain named Bill Horn, with a proposal for another subject for a chat. “How would you like,” Captain Horn said, “to interview a Japanese kamikaze pilot?” Stunned at first, I replied, “yes, that would be quite a coup, wouldn’t it?” And then it registered with me what he was proposing. “Now, wait just wait a minute. . .” I replied.
Join us for Part II in a few weeks for the story behind the story of the kamikaze pilot, Kaoru Hasegawa, and other memorable History Makers.