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Stephen Ambrose

Interview: Stephen Ambrose
Biographer and Historian

May 22, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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What was your family situation like when you were growing up? Where were you? How many siblings did you have?

Stephen Ambrose: Well, my dad was a small town doc in central Illinois, about a thousand people, Lovington was the name of the place, and I had an older brother and a younger brother, and the war came. I was five years old, and he enlisted immediately and went off to the Navy, and we spent the war as camp followers, going to various Navy bases, as he did. Then he went off to the Pacific and we went to my grandmother's town, Whitewater, Wisconsin, where he settled after the war. So I grew up in that little town in Wisconsin, and eventually went to the University of Wisconsin from there.

The doctor in a small town is a pretty big personage; a lot of respect. Being the doc's son, the teachers paid a little more attention, maybe. Anyway, it was nice.

How did you get along with your siblings?

Stephen Ambrose: I don't have any dramatic stories. The usual competition. The fights. The cooperation. Camping out together. An awful lot of sports, and a great deal of competition in the sports. My mother was encouraging of that, and also encouraged competition in grades, and in reading, and in activities -- Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, and who's getting the most merit badges. So it was very competitive in a positive way, and very strongly encouraged by my mother.

You were the middle child?

Stephen Ambrose: That's the best. It is really. The youngest is always going to be the parents' favorite. I've raised five kids myself, and I know that's true. I think that carries a burden with it, and the oldest has got responsibilities. The middle one -- you're competing with somebody who's two years older, and that's very good for you. You can get away with things 'cause you're not carrying the responsibility of being the oldest. The youngest is getting picked on by two older ones, and being in the middle is the best place to be. I think you have to work a little harder when you're in the middle, and I think that's good for you.

Were you a good student in school?

Stephen Ambrose: Fairly good. I was in the upper third at least, if not the upper ten percent, but I wasn't valedictorian in high school. I wasn't straight A's, by any means.

I've read that Latin was important for you.

Stephen Ambrose: It was.

It's a sad thing in America today, that kids don't get Latin anymore. I did four years of high school Latin. Now I can't remember very much of it and I certainly can't do Latin; but boy, I'll tell you, that helped me as a writer. And where it helps most of all is with verbs. Language turns on the verbs, and you learn that in Latin, and you learn the strength of verbs in Latin, and it was a great thing, in this little tiny high school -- 300 students -- in the rural Midwest farming community, we had a Latin teacher, full-time Latin teacher. That's all she did. And four years of Latin in high school is a great thing.

Do you think verbs are more important than adjectives?

Stephen Ambrose: Verbs carry everything. The verb is the clincher.

I was taught as a graduate student, by my professor, that a good sentence is like a good play. You start off with where and when. Where are we at and what's the time? And then you have the action of the thing, and then you have your climax, and that verb is the action and that's what carries the whole story, and everything in the sentence has to balance on that verb. And if you've got the wrong verb, your sentence isn't going to work. If you've got the right verb, you can-- the adjectives don't really matter much anymore. The verb is the action, and that's what's so great about Latin.

Who was that teacher in graduate school? He sounds like an important influence.

Stephen Ambrose: He was. His name was William B. Hesseltine.

I started off at the University of Wisconsin as a pre-med, wanting to follow in my father's footsteps. The idea was I'd take up his practice in this little town, and at the second semester of my sophomore year, I was required to take a course in American history, which I didn't want to do. I wanted to get on with physics and chemistry, and get into medical school. But the university required me to take it. I sat down in a big lecture course -- 300 students -- and Mr. Hesseltine began to lecture. He was talking about George Washington. The course was called "Representative Americans." It was biographies. He hadn't been going 10 minutes and my life had changed. I went up to him at the end of the lecture and said, "I want to do what you do for a living. How do I do that?" He laughed and he said, "Well, to start with, you'd better major in history." I went to the registrar that afternoon and changed my major, and never looked back.

One of the things (Professor Hesseltine) said that so struck me was that, "In this course, instead of doing a term paper in which you read three or four books, and then do some kind of a synthesis of them and just regurgitate knowledge, you're going to be doing original research." And what he had us do was to go to the State Historical Society and go through 19th Century documents -- letters, diaries, newspapers -- about Wisconsin people who were not important enough to have a real biography written about them, but who'd made an impact, because he was compiling a dictionary of Wisconsin biography. And we would each write a 10-page biography of this politician, businessman, teacher, whatever, and it would go into this biography, series of Wisconsinites. And he said, "You're going to be adding to the sum of the world's knowledge." And that just hit me like a sledgehammer. It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world's knowledge.

I went down to the State Historical (Society) and got to work on a man named Charles Billinghurst, who was a one-term congressman from Wisconsin, just before the Civil War. And I'll never forget the feeling I had when I finished that work, and, and wrote the 10 page bio of this guy: "I know more about Charles A. Billinghurst than anybody else in the world!" I just thought that was marvelous. Now what I soon learned was, the reason for that was that nobody else cared about Charles A. Billinghurst. And then what I learned after that was, "But I can make 'em care if I tell the story right." And that's how I got into history.

So when you were a child, your ambition was to be a doctor?

Stephen Ambrose: It was through high school and the first year and a half of college, yes.

Whitewater, Wisconsin, like every small town in America, had a Carnegie library. Andrew Carnegie built libraries everywhere in this country, and they were usually in the center of town. This one was, and it opened the universe to you. This was pre-TV. My introduction to the world came in that Carnegie library, and I just devoured those books in there while I was in high school. I was either playing sports or going to school, or in that Carnegie library, reading.

What particular books do you remember making an impression on you when you were a kid?

Stephen Ambrose: I read some historical romances on the American Revolution that got me interested, and I remember reading Emil Ludwig's biography of Napoleon, and being caught up in the sweep and the drama. I don't think I really retained very much out of it except the story-telling aspect of it, and Ludwig is not--he would be scorned by professional historians as a writer. He was a popular writer, but he sure did catch me up. Now, I didn't go from reading that book to saying, "I want to tell stories for a living." I still wanted to be a doc. But as soon as Mr. Hesseltine said that you could add to the sum of the world's knowledge, and tell stories, and make a living doing it -- phew! Throw me into that briar patch!

As you grew older, what other books were important to you?

Stephen Ambrose: In high school I was reading Civil War stuff, and once I'd been exposed to Mr. Hesseltine, I was just ingesting Civil War books. The Civil War was his specialty, so naturally it became mine. He smoked a big oompah pipe, so I smoked a big oompah pipe, and so on -- hero worship to an extraordinary degree. I read all the good books on the Civil War: Bruce Catton's, Douglas Southall Freeman's.

I think the book that I learned the most from in terms of technique, as a storyteller, was Douglas Southall Freeman's biography of Lee. The great biography of Robert E. Lee. Because he does this in it, and he tells you in the foreword this is what he's going to do. You're never going to know anything in this book that Robert E. Lee didn't know. So if we're in the middle of the Civil War at the time of the Battle of Chancellorsville, and Hooker is coming around Lee's flank, and he's going to try to sneak in and make an attack from the rear, and Lee doesn't know that, you're not going to know that as a reader. You're going to find out what Hooker is doing at the moment that Lee finds it out. And what that really means is, in telling a story, don't ever flash-forward, don't ever give your story away. Keep your concentration on the person you're writing about, or the event you're writing about. Let things develop chronologically, because that's the way it happens in real life. Now that sounds very simple and very easy to do. It's awfully hard to do. Awfully hard to do. The temptation of flashing forward and saying, "But he was going to find out how wrong he was about that one," and you give the whole damn story away. So that's what I learned from Freeman.

That's a lot. When you made this rather dramatic switch to history, how did your folks react? Was your dad disappointed?

Stephen Ambrose: Very. My father was very disappointed. He had really counted on it, 'cause I'd been talking about it, and it fit so naturally into the pace of life in Wisconsin in the early 1950's. There was another doctor in town; the town was big enough. Whitewater, with 5,000 people, had two docs in it. The other doc's son had just graduated and come into the practice, and it looked like I was going to do the same. Dad was counting on that.

My older brother had gone off into business, and my younger brother was showing no interest at all in any kind of medical or scientific career. So I was the hope, and I let him down. But on the other hand, he grew up on a farm in Illinois. His dad wanted him to take over the farm. Instead, he went off to the University of Illinois and went to medical school and became a doc. In a way, it was a part of youthful rebellion. It didn't feel that way to me. I think it may have felt that way to him. But he did it to his dad, so I wasn't going to feel all that bad about it. It helped a lot that he liked history, and read Civil War history. After a while we started traveling to Civil War battlefields together. I don't want to say there was a reconciliation, because there was never that big a split. But it was nice that we shared this interest in the Civil War. When I started publishing books, he was very proud, and took it like a man.

I can imagine. Tell us how you became connected to Dwight Eisenhower. That's an amazing early part of your career as a writer.

Stephen Ambrose: I was teaching at the University of New Orleans, doing Civil War studies, and I had published a book called Halleck. He was Lincoln's chief of staff, an obscure figure from the Civil War. This came out of my dissertation that I wrote under Mr. Hesseltine.

I got a phone call -- it was 1964 -- and it was Dwight Eisenhower on the phone, and he said, "Would you be interested in writing my biography?" And I said, "Yes, sir, I sure would." I was 28 years old. "I sure would." He said, "Well, come on up to see me." And I flew up to Gettysburg and we spent a day talking about what would be involved, and access to his papers, and he would tell his friends that, "Yes, you ought to have Professor Ambrose in for an interview," and so on. A whole day of this. At the end of the day, he said, "Well, you must have a lot of questions, young man." I said, "Yes sir, I sure do, but number one is: why me? I mean, there's dozens of Civil War historians out there, older men." He said, "I read your book on Halleck." Well, you could have knocked me over. That book was published by LSU Press in 1962, in an edition of 2,000 copies. It sold 931 copies. But one of 'em was sold to Dwight Eisenhower, and he read it, and he picked me on the basis of that book.

Ike died in 1969; I had been with him on a daily basis for a couple years before that, doing interviews and talking about his life. Mamie was still alive, she had the farm at Gettysburg, and then 10 years after that she died. Ike had willed that farm to the Government, and it is now part of the whole Gettysburg complex there. It belongs to the National Park Service and is open to the public.

Stephen Ambrose Interview Photo
The day after Mamie died, John Eisenhower, the only son, called me and said, "Steve, we're getting stuff out of here before it becomes property of the National Park Service. It is very personal to us, me and my kids." And he said, "Dad's copy of Halleck is here, and he's got it all marked up. Do you want it?" And I said, "What's the alternative?" He said, "The alternative is it's going to stay here in dad's bookcase, where it was." And I thought for a very few seconds, and John said, "Quick, you've got to decide, I've got a lot of other people here to call with this sort of thing." And I said, "John, let's leave it where it is." So it's still there on that Gettysburg farm, and I don't know to this day if I made the right decision or not. Anyway, that's how I got into Eisenhower. He called me on the basis of this book that I had written on Henry Halleck.

How did you feel when he called? Did you recognize his voice?

Stephen Ambrose: Sure. Of course I recognized his voice. How did I feel? Ten feet tall. Curious, overwhelmingly, and he said that he wanted me to come up and talk about doing a biography. I thought that I had flown to the moon, and it turned out I had.

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."

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."

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.

It sounds like curiosity and having an open mind is very important to what you do.

Stephen Ambrose: Curiosity is essential. You've got to have a burning curiosity to find out, "How did Lewis and Clark do that?" To find out "How is it that Dick Nixon impressed these guys that I know are good, honest, substantial, contributing people. I'm curious. How did -- what was there about -- that they saw in Nixon, or that Nixon did? With Eisenhower, curiosity about of the whole of his life, and "How did he rise from rural poverty, and West Point, and on to D Day, and how did he do it?" and so on. You've got to be driven by curiosity. If you don't have that curiosity, find another way to make a living, you're never going to make it as a writer. Because if you're curious, and then you find the answer, then you want to share it, and you want to tell that story, and you want to say to the world, "Listen, come, come here, sit down around this campfire. I want to tell you a story. I want to tell you about this kid from Whittier, California who is about as obnoxious a kid as you'd ever imagine, that nobody wanted to be around. Nobody. And he went on to be President of the United States, winning two elections -- how did he do that? And I'm going to tell you how he did it." If you don't have the curiosity, you're not going to be able to do it that way.

You've said that teaching has helped you tell stories.

Stephen Ambrose: There's nothing like having an eight o'clock class in a non-air conditioned building at summer school in New Orleans, Louisiana, to sharpen your skills as a story-teller. Because those kids come in there, and there's a big fan, a big floor fan rattling away over there, and they're in that heat, and if you want to get 'em up here like this, boy, you damn well better learn how to tell a story! And you better learn to do it quick, and how to capture their interest and then hold it. How to impart information in a dramatic way, that keeps them awake. You've got to keep your audience awake.

I was very struck by something you said, that the act of biographical writing is the act of learning. Is that what drives you?

Stephen Ambrose: Sure. I get curious about a subject and then I go out and start the research, and at some point I've just got to start writing. I want to start moving it in the other direction. I'm ingesting all the time when I'm doing research. Now I want to start telling the story. And as soon as I start telling the story, I realize that what the reader needs to know next, to make this understandable. If I don't know, I've got to go find that out.

You learn what the gaps in your knowledge are by starting to tell the story. So the act of writing becomes the act of learning, and "Whoa! I can't tell this story unless I find out." I'm currently working on a book on the building of the transcontinental railroad, and I'm in a research stage now. I have been for about six months, and I'm dying to start writing about it, but I know I don't know enough yet. And once I start writing, I'm going to learn how much more I don't know, that I'm going to have to learn in order to make it understandable to my readers, so that the writing guides the research. I think a big mistake that a lot of young writers make who are doing nonfiction is you complete the research and then you sit down and write the book, and it's not like that. There's got to be a flow between, and the writing guiding the research, or at least for me. That's the only way I can do it.

What does it feel like to pick up a book of you've written? What did it feel like to pick up your first book in print?

Stephen Ambrose: The same way it felt to pick up the 20th. Wonderful. My college roommate was Dick Lamm. He went on to great fame as governor of Colorado. He was a four-term governor. We had a room above the pub in Madison, and we were both avid readers, and very active liars beyond that, but avid readers, and we would talk about, "God, what a thing it would be to see your name on the back of a book, that you had written." And both of us have done it. Dick's done four or five books now.

I've done a whole bunch of books, and it always feels wonderful. And when that book finally comes from the printing -- now it's a long process, and it's almost a year between handing in the script and getting the book back -- and during that time you've had to read that damn book another four or five times until you're just sick unto your death of it, going through the galleys. And then there comes a period when the galleys are done and the pictures are ready, and you've done the captions, and then you wait, and wait, and wait, and then -- and of course you're waiting for the reviews. You're dying to know what the reviews are gonna say, and there ain't anything you can do to speed up the process! And then finally that book comes, and it's a wondrous moment. And it's not like a woman giving birth, but it's -- that comes to my mind, every time I pick up a new book. I did it!

You've said writing is a very lonely occupation.

Stephen Ambrose: Writing is a monk's life. When I'm heavy into a book, I'll spend ten hours a day on it. It used to be at the typewriter; now it's at the computer. Ten hours a day. You're all by yourself, you and the cigarettes and the coffee. I'm glad to say the cigarettes aren't there anymore, but the coffee still is very much there.

I have a little cabin in northern Wisconsin where I do a lot of my writing, and it's situated on a little lake, and there's a porch that I sit at and write, and a neighbor -- friend, farmer -- came by one day, and he was going to go swimming in the lake, and he came around the corner, and I never saw him. He stopped and he looked at me for a while, and he turned and went back and went up to another neighbor's and said to the farmer's wife, "Hazel, what's the matter with Steve?" And she said, "Nothing. He's doing fine." He said, "But he just sits there." And Hazel said, "No, no, Henry. He's writing." And "No he's not. He just sits there."

That's what you do when you're writing. You just sit there, and it all goes through your fingers into that typewriter or computer, and that's all that moves for hours at a time. It's like the monks doing the illuminated manuscripts. The only movement is in your fingers and your wrist.

Did it ever feel too lonely?

Stephen Ambrose: Never. Never. Your body is immobile, but oh my God, what's happening up here? I'm with Meriwether Lewis, and we're getting into the gates of the Rocky Mountains. Or I'm with Dwight Eisenhower, and the question is: "Are we going to go or not. God almighty, who knows what the weather's going to be? We've got this great invasion set to go. I've got to decide, now, whether we're going to go, or we're going to stand down and postpone this thing." It's a wonderful way to make a living, I've always thought.

You're a time traveler in a way, aren't you?

Stephen Ambrose: Very much so. You're in different times. Undaunted Courage went on to success far beyond anything that my publisher or I or anybody had anticipated. One of the factors is science fiction in reverse. I've never written science fiction, but what works in science fiction is seeing how people do things; it's so foreign to us. Space travel of any kind or -- with Jules Verne -- travel into the interior of the Earth, or whatever. That's what grabs you about science fiction. They do things differently. The same thing happens in history. That's one reason people latched on to that Lewis and Clark story so hard. How did they do things? How did they measure distance? How did they start a fire when they didn't have any matches and dry newspaper? How did they study the stars when they didn't have the kinds of equipment that we have today? How do you make a canoe when all you've got is an ax and some big trees? How do you do that?

Your career sounds like a pretty smooth road, but there must have been times that were tough. Tell us a little bit about some of the challenges you've faced along the way.

Stephen Ambrose: Let me do two, as briefly as I can.

Stephen Ambrose: My first wife, who I loved dearly -- and my two oldest children she is the mother of -- killed herself when I was 29 years old, and she was 27, and she had been in Phipps Clinic at Hopkins Hospital for a year. And she killed herself, which was -- leaving me with two kids that I'd been living with -- just the two kids for the whole year that she had been in the hospital. That was rough, difficult, hard. I couldn't exaggerate it.

How old were the kids?

Stephen Ambrose: When she died they were four and two. It's a time I obviously don't like to think about, but it did have one impact on my career as a writer.

Meriwether Lewis was a suicide, and one of the things that drew me to Meriwether Lewis as a subject was that. And like Judy, my wife, he was a manic depressive. She was off the charts. 190 IQ, age 16 she started at the University of Wisconsin, and a fairly classic manic depressive syndrome. When she was manic, oh, she could move the world! She was the most wonderful person on the Earth. When she was in a depressed state, oh God! It was terrible for everybody around her, and worst of all for her.

Another time of great difficulty was in 1969, when I went to Kansas State University as the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of War and Peace. We started in September of that year. Dick Nixon had just been elected President. Lyndon Johnson had not been on a college campus for four years. Nixon decided to break that ice and go to a college campus in September of 1969. That was about seven months after his inaugural, and he picked Kansas State because it seemed safe to him. It was a good choice on his part. Now I was holding this chair at Kansas State. He came, and my wife Moira and I went to the lecture, or to the talk. We sat in the faculty section, had the front row center seats. It was in the field house. Nixon came in and gave a lecture on violence -- a good subject -- and how we oughtn't to engage in violence, and it was directed at college students. In 1969, there was a lot of violence going on in America's campuses, and it was a good reminder from the President that this isn't a proper way to proceed. But...

Moira and I found it very hard to listen to Nixon. That morning's headlines had been "a new record tonnage of bombs" had been dropped on Cambodia, and the stories in the papers were about free fire zones and napalm, and, and we just couldn't take it. So we started to heckle, and as the national press reported, "From the faculty section, obscenities were hurled at the President." And it was true, because the heckling that we did was "Free fire zones! Napalm! B-52s!" And halfway through I was --Moira was really louder than I was on this, I've got to say, with whatever feeling about it. I said, "We gotta get out of here. I can't take this." And we go. And we were front row center. We got up and walked out on the President. Well the reaction in Kansas! I had just arrived, I had this prestigious title, and I'd insulted the President. And they wanted to fire me. And I was -- yeah, I was 35, I guess. Thirty-three, and had five kids. When I married Moira, she had three kids. You know, I didn't have any money. I mean, I had a nice salary -- the biggest salary I'd ever had -- when I got that chair, but I didn't have any savings or anything like that. And I was looking at getting fired in September. We had just committed to a house, had a huge mortgage on the house, and so on. That was a difficult time.

Stephen Ambrose Interview Photo
To Kansas State's credit, despite the pressure from the politicians to "fire that SOB," they let me finish out the year. In the course of that, I went in to see the president of the university and I said, "Now look, I know that you're resisting a lot of pressure, and a lot of people around here want you to fire me, and I'm also aware that you would find it deeply embarrassing to Kansas State to fire me. Not from the people of Kansas so much, but from the other universities around the country. You'd look pretty bad. I know you're in a difficult position. But I've got to tell you that Moira and the kids and I, we really love Kansas. We like living here a lot, and I like the students at KSU. We'd really like to stay here. But I have the distinct feeling that you would be a lot happier if I left, and I've got a lot of job offers. So it's your choice." He said, "I'd be a lot happier if you left." So I went back to the University of New Orleans, where I'd been teaching earlier.

That was the only time I ever saw Dick Nixon in person, and I ended up writing a three volume biography of him. The last line of that three volume biography says: "When Dick Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained." I never in this world thought I would come to such a conclusion as that.

You've talked about Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their friendship, and how much can be accomplished as a team. It's an interesting paradox. You're sitting there alone, writing about teamwork, but your work is really not teamwork.

Stephen Ambrose: That's right. I'm not a team player. I don't team teach. When I'm teaching, I do the teaching. When I'm writing, I do the writing. I've never co-authored a book. I don't know how people could do such a thing. But I'm writing about other people. I've had team experiences. I played football in high school and in college, I do a fair amount of hunting, and hunting has got a lot of teamwork in it. So it's not completely foreign to me. But no, I'm not a military man, and that's where you see teamwork most often and most effectively. That was the case with Lewis and Clark, and it was the case with Dwight Eisenhower, who are my greatest heroes. These guys knew how to put a team together and how to make it work. I'm a student of teamwork, but I'm not a participant or a player.

Talk a little bit about the passion that you developed for the story of Lewis and Clark, and their team.

Stephen Ambrose: My interest in Lewis and Clark began with reading their journals, which my Aunt Lois had given to me in the summer of 1975. And I'm embarrassed to say that I had a Ph.D. in American history and had been teaching American history for -- by that time -- 20 years, and I'd never read the journals of Lewis and Clark. Well I read 'em, and I was enthralled from paragraph two on. And at Christmas dinner, sitting around the table with the kids, after the turkey and all the rest, 1975, the question came up: "What are we going to do to celebrate our nation's 200th birthday?" I mean, it's something that mattered to everybody of course, but I'm an American historian and had a special interest in -- I wanted to do something really special. And it just popped out of me, "I want to be on Lemhi Pass." That's the Continental Divide, the border between Idaho and Montana where Meriwether Lewis became the first American to step over into that great northwestern empire of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. "That's where I want to be on the 4th of July." And the kids loved the idea, and Moira loved the idea, and I invited students to come along, and about 25 of them did, and we pulled it off. We were there for the 4th of July 1976, and it was the most glorious wonderful night. Clearest sky. You could reach up and touch the stars. We climbed out of the pass to the top of the mountain, sang patriotic songs, not so easy to do in 1976. I mean, these students were -- Nixon had just resigned, Saigon had fallen, cynicism was the order of the day. But in that setting it worked very nicely.

I wanted to follow Lewis and Clark. I mean, having read those journals, I wanted to see what they had experienced. I wanted to camp at their camp sites. And we had always taken the kids out for summer camps. I'd done a book on Crazy Horse and Custer; that had led us to camping in the Black Hills and in Montana, as a family, and we just took it for granted we would spend our summers camping. And I had to have some way of tax deducting the expenses, I couldn't afford it otherwise. So I had to be ready to stand up in front of the tax judge if the deduction was challenged, and say, "Your Honor, I'm really writing a book about Lewis and Clark, and some day I'm going to make some money off of it, and I'm going to pay taxes on that money, so it's a legitimate tax deduction." So -- and I must say, in the end, given what happened with the success of the book, I paid one hell of a lot more in taxes than I ever deducted back in the '70s on that book.

You've talked about how their story shows us that America is the land of opportunity. Could you tell us what the American Dream means to you.?

Stephen Ambrose: The American Dream means, to me, that you can go as far as your abilities and your energy can carry you, and you're not going to have any artificial barriers put up. This isn't Europe. You are not stuck in serfdom. You are not stuck with your class. You are able to go as far as you want to go, if you're ready to work hard enough, and you've got the ability to do it.

One of my favorite lines was given to Dwight Eisenhower by his father, who by any standard was not a great success in life. He raised five boys successfully in Abilene, but David Eisenhower never had an extra $10 bill in his pocket in his life. He was very ashamed when he died, that he had no estate to hand on to his children. There was nothing there, and yet he gave them a priceless heritage of course, and a big part of that was this advice that he gave to his son Dwight, and to his other sons, all of whom were also very successful in their own fields. And that advice was, "America is the land of opportunity, reach out and seize it." And it still is, and pray God always will be. So long as this republic lasts, it will be.

Your wife helps you edit your books, I understand.

Stephen Ambrose Interview Photo
Stephen Ambrose: I was smart enough to marry an English lit major who has a great ear. At the end of a day of writing, she has to sit down and listen, and I read what I wrote that day. It helps me enormously to read it aloud, and, and I can't read it aloud if I'm the only one in the room. I've got to have an audience, and she's the audience. She's very, very good. She has a sense of the right word, and she will stop me in the middle of a sentence and change a word. Not terribly often the verb, I usually get my verbs right, but very often the adjective, or frequently enough the noun, and it's a great help to me. And then I love it when I'm doing a piece of reading and she's in the audience, and I come to a word that she has changed, or a sentence that she has changed. I'll catch her eye, and it's a nice moment. I've tried on a couple of books to get her name in as co-author, and Alice won't let me.

Has criticism of your work ever affected you strongly?

Stephen Ambrose: No. I read all the reviews, and I get criticized. Patricia Limerick is a very well-known Western historian at the University of Colorado -- a New Wave historian who's interested in women in the West, and minorities in the West, and the New History kind of thing. Patricia Limerick labels me a triumphalist, and she means by that a celebrator of the American achievement. The implication is that I refuse to look at the warts. Now that's not true. I look at the warts.

When I write about Thomas Jefferson, I make sure my readers know that he was a slaveholder, and when I write about William Clark, I make sure they know that he beat (his slave) York, who went all the way to the Pacific and back with him. I don't leave the warts out. But I look at Thomas Jefferson and I see a great man who has done great things for me, and you, and all Americans. Yet people say, you know, "Why should black Americans care one thing about Thomas Jefferson?" I'll tell you many, many reasons. I'll tell you one right off. Because of Thomas Jefferson, we got religious liberty in this country, and African Americans are the most religious of all of our peoples, and they exercise that privilege, that right, because of Thomas Jefferson.

Patricia wants to look at Jefferson and all of his hypocrisy and his sins. I want to look at Jefferson and say, "Boy, that's great, what he did there for us." I read the reviews, and I get into debates with the critics, but it doesn't change what I'm writing. I'm not going to back off on Thomas Jefferson. He's one of the greatest men who ever lived, and we, all of us, have freedoms and liberties today, thanks to Thomas Jefferson.

For Lewis and Clark, the adventure included people, 50 different tribes, all of them distinct. One of the features of Lewis and Clark's journals is that you get to know Indians as individuals. You almost never get that out of white men writing about Indians. With Lewis and Clark, you get to know various Indians as personalities, not as generalizations.

What are you most proud of, that you've contributed to the world?

Stephen Ambrose Interview Photo
Stephen Ambrose: I guess I'm most pleased by the numbers of people that are out on the Lewis and Clark trail. The mail that I get: "I took my grandson out on the trail," or "The whole family is going out on the trail." That's very good. I take great pride in helping people to understand why Dwight Eisenhower was a great man. Right now I'm taking tremendous pride and pleasure out of the mail that's coming from a book called Citizen Soldiers, because it's coming from the GIs themselves, who are writing to me. It's even a hundred letters a day, six months after publication, generally saying, "Thanks for writing about my war. You got it right. When you praise those medics, boy, let me tell you about my medic." That's awful nice when the guys that you're writing about come back to you and say, "You got it right."

You're adding to the world's sum of knowledge too, aren't you?

Stephen Ambrose: That's what I've been trying to do all along.

Well thank you for a great interview.

Sure. Thank you.

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