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Douglas Brinkley

Bestselling author talks about Dylan, Cronkite, Nixon and FDR's Christmas trees


It is not hyperbole to say that Douglas Brinkley is one of the best historians of our time. Similar to Stephen Ambrose (a frequent collaborator) and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Brinkley has chronicled the American experience through dozens of bestsellers examining the Cold War, Vietnam and Hurricane Katrina, while crafting definitive biographies of Rosa Parks, Richard Nixon and Walter Cronkite.

Brinkley will keynote the 31st annual Frank Church Conference at Boise State University on Sunday, Oct. 19, which this year focuses on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, sponsored by the late U.S. Sen. Frank Church.

In anticipation of his visit, Boise Weekly talked to Brinkley about Church, his passion for United States history and his particular love for Idaho, something he shares with Church and his latest project, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It's our understanding that you've been spending a lot of time in national parks lately.

I'm working on a book that I'm going to call Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. I'm focusing on the national parks of the FDR era: the Great Smoky Mountains, the Everglades, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon. Plus, I'll have an entire chapter on FDR's visit to Idaho [in 1937].

What can you tell an Idahoan who has only passing knowledge of FDR's visit?

Did you know that he was a forester? On any register, he used to love to list his profession as tree-grower or forester. He would grow trees at his home in Hyde Park [New York] and in Warm Springs, Ga. During World War II, all of Winston Churchill's Christmas trees would come from FDR's farm. He came through Idaho to inspect the forests. He loved the state because they voted for him. The first Civilian Conservation Corps really took hold in Idaho. He then went to Boise and gave a very famous speech where he said there was nothing in America he loved more than the children of Idaho and the amazing amount of forestry work that was being accomplished. It became a state very dear and near to his heart.

And that naturally connects us to another famous Idaho Democrat: Frank Church.

In a way, the outlook of life from Frank Church was very similar to FDR: a Democratic liberal who loved old-fashioned values, yet be hawkish on foreign policy and want government to be run efficiently.

Where does your passion for history stem from?

My mother and father were high-school teachers. We had a station wagon with a 24-foot Coachman trailer and we went all over America to visit historic sights: Harry Truman's Missouri, Willa Cather's Nebraska, John Steinbeck's California and Martin Luther King's Georgia. My sister always wanted to go to the beach or Disneyland. But I became a junkie for historical sites.

Do you have equal passion for teaching and writing?

Teaching is in my DNA. I'm at Rice University, where I teach civil rights history, the Cold War, presidential history and environmental history, which I'm writing about a great deal lately. I know that's a big topic in Idaho and without pandering, I have to tell you that Idaho is the most beautiful of the lower 48. There's great land stewardship in Idaho.

Right now, we're engaged in a pretty fluid debate where a good many Republican leaders at the Idaho Statehouse are advocating for a state takeover of federal lands.

It's a very bad idea. This is an historical issue. Look at the Dust Bowl, caused by stockmen overgrazing of public lands in the 1920s. The entire West was a nightmare. It was the federal government that came in and began to properly run soil conservation programs, the civilian conservation corps and replanting. FDR saw to it that 3 billion new trees were planted. Also, rivers don't have borders. Migratory birds or animals don't belong to a particular state. I would tell the people of Idaho to be proud of the system they've built. Idaho has become the capital of wilderness that works. The state should be proud of that instead of trying to unravel it.

You penned a very successful 2012 biography of Walter Cronkite. What might you tell someone in their 20s who didn't have Cronkite in their day-to-day lives like so many of us did?

I'm thinking that if I hadn't written a biography about Cronkite that he may have gotten lost in history. His power was immense and will never be replicated. In an era when people weren't trusting Lyndon Johnson or [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara, by default people trusted Cronkite. His tag was the most trusted man in America, and hence his influence was large.

And your most recent bestseller revisited the infamous [Richard] Nixon tapes from the height of the Watergate scandal. How might you reconcile the vulgar Nixon as the same man who gave us the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act?

In the end, Nixon was a diabolical pragmatist. Keep in mind, he was also pro-affirmative action. Like you mentioned, he created the EPA and ESA because the public was clamoring to clean up our waterways and save wildlife. But Watergate destroyed him. You use the word vulgar and indeed the tapes didn't help his legacy because there so many ugly moments.

Do you have a wish list of topics that you still want to tackle?

Right now, I'm focused on my book on FDR, which will come out in 2016. But I want to write something on the Silent Spring revolution that deals with the environmental movement of the '60s and '70s. I'm a presidential historian, but I like music a lot.

I would be remiss if I didn't point to your now-famous 2009 Bob Dylan interview for Rolling Stone.

He's of huge interest to me. I would love to write a full book on him. I've been very luck to talk to some amazing people. [Brinkley has also profiled Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Ken Kesey]. I was Rosa Parks' biographer; and I did the official oral history of Neil Armstrong. As we're getting closer to the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, I think something might be in the making.