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If you like Stephen Ambrose's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
David Herbert Donald,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Shelby Foote,
David McCullough
and James Michener

Stephen Ambrose's recommended reading: R.E. Lee, A Biography

Stephen Ambrose also appears in the video:
The Power of Words

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Stephen Ambrose in the Achievement Curriculum section:
The Power of Words

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Stephen Ambrose
Stephen Ambrose
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Stephen Ambrose Interview (page: 3 / 7)

Biographer and Historian

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  Stephen Ambrose

You have said that to write of war and battlefields, you have to walk the battlefields. It sounds like to do a biography of a living person, you need to spend as much time with the person as possible. You certainly spent a great deal of time with Eisenhower.

Stephen Ambrose: I spent a lot of time with Ike, really a lot. Hundreds and hundreds of hours, talking about his life. Not talking politics, not talking the future, not talking about anything other than his life, and the people that he knew, and the things that he was involved in.

I did a biography of Dick Nixon, three volumes. I asked Nixon for interview time and he refused. There's a little story there. He later was asked by Charlie Rose on the television what he thought of my second volume, and Nixon said, "I don't read that stuff." And Charlie said, "Come on. Of course you read Ambrose." And Nixon said, "Ah, he's just another left wing historian." Well, I loved the line, because it's so Nixonian. One reason I love it is -- he can call me a left wing historian, if he wants to, that's --I call him names. I can add however, that Dwight Eisenhower didn't think so. What I love about the line is that Nixon doesn't just stick the knife in with the "left wing historian" business, but he had that twist: "just another." And for a man with my ego, oh my God! "Just another left wing historian."

So to come back to the point:

I have never shaken Mr. Nixon's hand. I never had one private moment with him. But I really think that I know him as well as I do Dwight Eisenhower with whom I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours. I never met Meriwether Lewis, but I feel like I know Meriwether Lewis better than I know my brothers. So there are various ways that you get to know people, and I don't know which one is best. You just work on what you've got. When Nixon refused to see me, I just thought, "Well all right. I'm just going to have to work harder, and interview more people that were with Nixon at various times in his terribly long career."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Did you read his letters, and so forth?

Stephen Ambrose Interview Photo
Stephen Ambrose: Sure. I read the letters. The diary. They were very different, Ike and Dick. Eisenhower had a great love of life and a love for people. Nixon was five times nominated for national office. He won four of those elections, and in the fifth, 1960 against Jack Kennedy, we'll never know who really won that election. Kennedy was declared winner. So this is Nixon's life. And do you know, he's a man who felt that life cheated him? Isn't that remarkable?

Eisenhower had little sayings that he liked, such as, "All generalizations are false, including this one". He liked to use those kind of things. One of them was: "Never question another man's motives. His wisdom yes, but not his motives." Dick Nixon was just the opposite. He always questioned the other guy's motives and always figured that they were base. Of course Nixon's motives were very often base. That love of people was Eisenhower's most obvious characteristic. And Nixon just -- the damnedest thing for a politician! The business of a politician is being gregarious, backslapping, being friendly, and Nixon hated that part of being a politician.

I understand that it wasn't your idea to spend that much time on Nixon. How did that come about?

Stephen Ambrose: Well, it came about 'cause I have an editor -- she's very well known, her name is Alice Mayhew, she's about five foot one, and must weigh about 95 pounds -- who is the terror of the publishing world. She's Bob Woodward's editor, and many other famous writers. She pushes her writers around shamelessly, and she's always telling us what we have to do next.

I started off with Alice with Eisenhower. We did the Eisenhower book, the two volumes together. And then she said, "Steve, you've got to do Nixon." I said, "Alice, I don't even like Nixon. I've never liked the guy. He's just the opposite of spontaneous. Everything he does is contrived. The only goal he has is self-advancement. He's just not the kind of guy that I want to spend that kind of time with. He's not the kind of guy I'd want to go backpacking with." And she said, "Where else are you going to find a bigger challenge than to do a good job on the life of a man that you don't like or even approve of?" Well, she caught me with that. She caught me with that just as effectively as Mr. Hesseltine caught me with the, "You're going to make a contribution to the world's knowledge." And I thought, "All right, Alice. I'll show you. I'll go out and do a book on Nixon that is not stabbing him in the back and not putting him on a pedestal, but is attempting to get at his character, which is virtually impossible." I think you've got to be Shakespeare to get Dick Nixon's character. But as Samuel Johnson says -- my favorite line of advice for a biographer -- "We cannot look into the hearts of men, but their actions are open to observation."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

So three volumes later, 800 pages per volume, 2,400 pages on Dick Nixon! I think I accomplished my goal, which was to write a book about Nixon that was fair and honest, and praised him where he deserved to be praised, and damned him where he needed to be damned. It came out to reviews that centered on the objectivity of the author. So I'm very proud and pleased about that aspect of it.

I learned a hell of a lot doing those Nixon books. I came from the University of Wisconsin, a very liberal school. As a student, I joined the Socialist Party. So I was a Nixon hater. Doing the book, I spent 10 years with Dick Nixon. I interviewed ever prominent Republican in the country. One of the things I learned from doing that book was that Republicans aren't bad people. I ended up becoming one, but that happens to you when you get old.

I learned to have respect for Nixon, primarily because men that I respected respected him, and I had to try to figure out why, because I'd never seen anything in the guy that was at all positive. Well once I started, I found a lot of things about Nixon that were very positive, and, on balance, if we went back to 1968, Nixon versus Humphrey, I'd have voted for Nixon. At the time I didn't, but I would change that vote. And I was amazed to see this happening to me. And... I ended up having a great deal of admiration for Nixon. I never did learn to like him, but he never wanted to be liked anyway. He wanted to be followed. He wanted to be powerful. He didn't care if he was loved. People that don't love don't care if they're loved or not. Ike always wanted to be loved. That was another big difference between the two of 'em.

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This page last revised on Sep 22, 2010 11:44 EDT
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