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David Herbert Donald

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

David Herbert Donald: It's hard to explain how any great writer comes to have the gift that he does, and when you don't know, you'll explain -- we'll say Shakespeare or Racine -- by saying he did this, that, or the other. So you can't pinpoint Lincoln as this was influential, but there were things that were influential. First of all, as a boy, he had very few books, and they were, as it turned out, the great books. He had the Bible, he had Pilgrim's Progress, he may have had Robinson Crusoe, just a few books like that he memorized by heart, because he had no others. He loved to read. So that the patterns that he learned growing up were those of simplicity and directness, as well as eloquence, but there were other forces, too. When he became a lawyer, his first law partner didn't teach him much, but his second one was Stephen Trigg Logan. Logan was a little dried-up man who had a hot temper, was nevertheless a master lawyer, and he would go over briefs that he and his partners drew up, and he would cross out page after page of nonsense, of legal formalities and so on, to say, "This is what we want to say, just these 12 lines, not these 14 pages," and Lincoln watched, and he learned. There's a great difference between the briefs Lincoln drew up before he met Logan and the ones after he practiced with Logan. He gained in succinctness, in clarity, in avoidance of technicalities, so that many of his briefs are really, literally short essays, works of art.
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David Herbert Donald

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

Lincoln carried over the skills that he learned from Stephen Logan into his public life as well. His early speeches were often, like most early 19th century speeches, full of flowery images and big words and long wind-up. He learned from Logan, forget all of that, get directly to the point, and people will listen to you. So he did, and he became a master of direct approach to his audience. They thought, "He's talking to me personally, not some abstract body out there." Now, this carried over particularly as he became a public figure and as he became president. No other president has equaled Lincoln as a master craftsman. When you look over his drafts, you realize how carefully he revised, how thoroughly he looked at words, how he decided on this word versus that one as being the appropriate word, not necessarily any old word. So he was a craftsman and worked at it. He knew that his success depended on his skill with language. This is the more important because, in those days, of course, there was no radio. There was no television. How do you reach people? You reach people primarily through some public speaking, but mostly through public documents, which are printed in the newspapers. People read a lot of newspapers in those days. In order to read a story in the newspaper, it's got to be short. It's got to have a structure. It's got to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it's got to be logical. One thing has to follow after another. He learned this lesson very early. By the time he became president, his presidential messages are models of what a president ought to be saying.
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David Herbert Donald

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

David Herbert Donald: Professor Randall was a great advisor and a great mentor. He taught me, I think, in the best possible way. He was not a brilliant lecturer. His courses were fairly pedestrian. I didn't think his seminars were particularly interesting, but working with him on a one-to-one basis as his assistant, I think that's the way one has to learn to be a historian. That is, he was writing, and if he needed some particular reference, I had to go find it and get it. If he was writing, he wanted everything checked meticulously over and over again. So I had to take the manuscript over to the library and check it all out. So that by working closely with him, I got to see, first of all, a lot of the library and its extensive holdings, but I got, even more important, to understand what a scholar is about. It is about care. It is about pains-taking. It is about judgment, as well as it's about very skillful writing. He was an excellent writer as well. So in that sense, Professor Randall and Mrs. Randall shaped my future career.
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Sam Donaldson

ABC News Correspondent

Now, discipline doesn't mean that you're a martinet, and discipline doesn't mean that you have to do everything anyone in authority tells you in lock-step because you can't think for yourself. But discipline means that you've got to organize your life in everything you do, for your own benefit and for the benefit of people around. If the appointment is at four o'clock, you ought to show up at four o'clock. If you're unavoidably late a few minutes, okay. But the person who shows up at five o'clock or six o'clock and doesn't think anything of it, that person is an undisciplined person. Also, that person is a person who says, "Hey, my time is much more valuable than your time." And none of us likes to hear that. So military school taught me that. And really, the basis, I think, of achieving some success in what I want to do today comes from my mother's push to get me to read and to make something of myself from the standpoint of an education. And from a military school which taught me that to fit into society, you can't just do anything you damn well please because it will suit you. And that it's much better to be with the winners than it is with the losers.
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Sam Donaldson

ABC News Correspondent

Later in the day his assistant called and said, "I'm sorry, you didn't get the job." I said, "Why? I was a leading candidate." "Well," she said, "when Mr. Hunt asked you how cheap will you work, and you wouldn't name a price, he wasn't interested, because he thinks everybody should know what they're worth." And she said, "It wouldn't have mattered if you said $1000 a month, or $300 a month." Well, I don't know what the lesson there is, because I -- you know, you name your price. But I guess the lesson is this: If you don't have confidence in yourself and think that you are worth hiring, or whatever it is, you can't expect anyone else to. And if I now call you in for a job and I say, "Can you do this job?" And you said, "Well, I don't know, maybe I can't, but I'd like to try," I can find someone else. Maybe you should be honest and say, "Yes, I can do that job. Now, I've had this much experience. Maybe I need a little bit more experience, but I can get it," and what have you. But I learned that lesson. And what it also did for me was teach me that I should go back to what I knew. I mean, go back to the game you know, go back to broadcasting. I knew that. I'd prepared myself for that.
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Rita Dove

Former Poet Laureate of the United States

I had a couple teachers who did inspire me. One was this eleventh grade English teacher -- eleventh and twelfth grade. She and I, we still have tea together sometimes today. I was frightened before I went into her class. I heard she was a battle axe. I heard that she would flunk you if you split an infinitive. And it's true. She would, but she also would tell you what a split infinitive was, and then once you knew, you never did it again. She just opened up to me, how language -- how the written word -- can also sing. And she spent, I remember once, 45 minutes on one page: the first page of a novel. By the end of the class, no one had taken down a single note, because we were absolutely enthralled. It was incredible.
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Rita Dove

Former Poet Laureate of the United States

I had a ninth grade English teacher, Mr. Hicks, who put us in groups and gave us impossible poems to interpret. When I say "impossible," I mean poems which had Greek in them -- a little bit of Greek and -- languages we couldn't even -- we couldn't even read the alphabet. "Just tell me what it means. Tell me what you think it means." And after a couple of class periods when we decided this is so impossible we might as well just make a wild guess, it turned out our guesses weren't so wild after all. So he taught us to trust what your gut reaction was to something. Even if you didn't understand every word, to work out the context.
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