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L.A Times Festival Of Books Panel: Historians Discuss ‘The American Century’

Joe Peters |
April 21, 2012 | 11:46 p.m. PDT


The panel included discussion of former President Eisenhower (Creative Commons)
The panel included discussion of former President Eisenhower (Creative Commons)
A panel of historians gathered Saturday afternoon at the L.A Times Festival of Books to discuss their most recent works and the panel topic: “Biography: the American Century.”
Moderated by A. Scott Berg, himself the author of noted biographies "Lindbergh" and "Kate Remembered," the panel was a freewheeling discussion about American politics and influence in the last century.
Joining Berg were three influential writers: Richard Reeves, writer of "Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift"; Jim Newton of The Los Angeles Times, author of "Eisenhower: The White House Years;"  and John Farrell, author of "Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned" - for which he won the 2011 L.A Times Book Prize for Biography last Friday.
Berg started things off by asking each writer about the genesis for his book idea. Reeves cracked that Newton had already tackled Eisenhower, so his agent ruled that out. Newton explained that his editor was convinced there was a niche for ‘an Eisenhower presidency book,’ and that he had an edge because he had written an earlier book on Earl Warren, which covered much of the same period from the chief justice’s perspective.
Farrell cited Irving Stone’s biography of Darrow ("Clarence Darrow For the Defense") as an early inspiration for his own career. He decided to revisit his hero’s life after learning that Darrow’s granddaughter had discovered, some years prior, a large cache of Darrow’s papers packed away in a box labeled ‘Christmas ornaments.’
Reeves noted, in examining the Berlin airlift, that at the time he started writing "Daring Young Men," he was disturbed about ‘American behavior in the world,’ and was looking for a project that would show America in a more heroic light.
Berg then cited the Henry Boothe Luce quote from which the discussion drew its title. Much of the subsequent discussion concerned the definition of ‘an American century,’ and how the stories related by the three writers were connected to the theme.  
Nearly all agreed that Eisenhower’s career was representative of the ‘American Century’: first as a victorious general in World War II and then as leader of postwar America (and some would suggest, the free world).
Newton suggested that Eisenhower believed there was something unique about American values, and that this advised his general restraint in matters political and military. “He believed America was special, and would ultimately prevail.”
Reeves noted, “I think the word that would most describe Eisenhower was patience - the patience of an old man.” He continued, recalling his examination of Reagan’s career, “There’s something to be said for having old men who are already famous in the White House. They’ve seen everything, and are harder to flatter.”
The historians praised Darrow for his dedication to civil rights and determination to fight for the underprivileged. Farrell noted that his defense of Eugene V. Debs - an avowed socialist - in 1894 was pivotal in deciding the direction of his career.
“He could have been a great corporate lawyer - one of the wealthiest corporate lawyers,” said Farrell. “Instead, he chose to defend underdogs,” for paltry fees. This led to later involvement in many celebrated cases of the time, including the Scopes Monkey Trial, dramatized in Inherit the Wind, and the Leopold and Loeb case.
The closest the panel ever came to controversy was an mischievous question from Reeves to  Newton, “How do you feel about the Eisenhower Memorial?”
This brought mild laughter from the audience, apparently well aware of recent debates surrounding the planning and construction of a national monument for the 34th president.
“I’ve ducked it largely,” said Newton, to further chuckles. He mentioned that though he happened to be fond of the memorial’s design, he ‘understood the Eisenhower position,’ and didn’t particularly care to antagonize either Frank Gehry or Susan Eisenhower.
Berg closed the discussion with a question about civil rights.
Newton noted that Eisenhower’s record was ‘perhaps better than his instincts,” as he rose up through the army, a highly segregated institution, and yet was responsible for the nomination of Earl Warren and many of the appellate judges that upheld the Warren Court. Ultimately, said Newton, as a military man, Eisenhower understood the separation of powers.
As for Darrow, Farrell explained that one of his most pivotal cases was the Detroit Sweet case, in which a black family was charged with murder after attempting to defend themselves against a white mob trying to drive them out of the neighborhood.
The first trial was a mistrial, and in the second, Darrow succeeded in getting the charges dropped. Still, the stress of the case was such, said Farrell, that he suffered a heart attack which limited his abilities for a while. Historical accounts note that Darrow’s closing statement in the case is considered a landmark of American oratory.


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