By DONNA URSCHEL and TODD FINEBERG
Rick Atkinson Tells Soldiers' Stories
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Atkinson explained why he is spending years writing a trilogy about the liberation of Europe during World War II.
"It's the greatest story of the 20th century," said the author of "An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy."
"At the center of the action are human beings and that's what really mesmerizes me. The characters are fabulous, and they're fabulous not because they're flawless, but because they're so flawed."
Atkinson, a former investigative reporter and assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, is a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Volume two of his trilogy, which comes out in a few years, will deal with the fighting in Italy and volume three with Western Europe.
"I write about war because war is a great revealer of character. The extravagant stress of combat refracts character, allowing you to see its basic components the way a prism refracts light," he said. "This is true for the leaders, with the heaviest responsibilities of command. It's true for every soldier in a foxhole.
"My ambition is to bring them back from the dead, and to do that by illuminating the past through storytelling suffused with rigorous scholarship."
Atkinson took a break from writing his trilogy in April, when he covered the war in Iraq for The Washington Post, embedded for two months in the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division. He explained: "Getting to know the Army of 2003 helps me to understand the Army of 1943."
"It's not George W.'s Army; it's not Rumsfeld's Army. It's not yours. It's not mine. It's our Army. We own it collectively. I do believe one of the obligations of citizenship, of ownership, is to understand the heritage and values of that Army. Its story is our story. Its fate is our fate."
Juan Williams Discusses "This Far by Faith"
Book festival guest Juan Williams emphasized the importance of religion in the African American experience and discussed his new book, "This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience" (Morrow, 2003).
The author of several books, Williams wrote for The Washington Post for 20 years and is now a correspondent for National Public Radio and a political analyst for Fox News and CNN's "Crossfire."
Williams said the religious scene of his youth in Brooklyn, N.Y., "was the greatest show on earth." African Americans from many different places participated avidly in a mélange of religious sects that coexisted peacefully, among them Baptists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Black Muslims and Black Hebrews. People from the Caribbean Islands practiced "versions of voodoo and Santería." He recalled the best food and music at the Baptist churches and people talking in tongues and "foot-stomping about Jesus" at the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.
In contrast to white communities he had visited, blacks practiced a "boisterous, exuberant" form of religion. "I came to see how black people had a unique experience of faith," he said. "Religion was used to confirm their humanity, often times in the face of inhumane treatment."
"[Faith] was truly affirming that yes, indeed, they were God's children, reflecting God's glory, no matter what anybody had to say about the color of their skin, their intelligence, their beauty—all of this didn't matter when God was standing with you," Williams said.
In the old South, Williams said, upper-class whites used their interpretation of Christianity to enforce their slaves' subservience as essential to their ascent to Heaven. But blacks in the South thought Jesus belonged to them—the poor and enslaved. They wondered if the whites may have been reading a different Bible. Williams said they thought "there must be another book inside that book."
"God is a Negro," Henry McNeal Turner said at a Baptist church convention in 1895. Williams said these words were "an electrifying declaration" that "changed the status quo."
One of Williams' themes was the importance of exercising faith in the rise of the African American people throughout American history. What is more, he said, through faith, a person could "remake" himself into something better.
In 1913, a young black man, the son of former slaves, migrated from North Carolina to Newark, N.J. He changed his name to the Noble Drew Ali and encouraged other blacks to deemphasize their skin color and to recreate themselves. "He used his faith in God to reinvent himself. He wanted to recreate himself instead of viewing himself as a child of slaves. He told stories of not being raised by blacks, but by American Indians," Williams said.
Martin Luther King Jr. relied on faith to lead and inspire the civil rights movement during the 1960s. "Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly preached that any man, black or white, who stands against integration and equality is not only standing against the principles of democracy but against the eternal edict of God himself," Williams said.
"We shall overcome" became the theme of the civil rights demonstrators following King, and this was "really the anthem of the civil rights era," Williams said. It signifies that "God is on our side today."
James Bradley Tells Secret Fate Of Flyboys in the Pacific
At the National Book Festival, James Bradley put a human face on war when he described the fate of eight airmen on Chichi Jima, 150 miles from Iwo Jima, during World War II.
Bradley, the author of "Flyboys," told the audience how, at the moment U.S. soldiers were raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, eight airmen were in trouble on the closest neighboring island. Japanese soldiers had shot down nine flyboys, captured eight and eventually beheaded them. One got away; his name was George H.W. Bush.
The American government thought the fate of the eight men was so gruesome that the families could never be told. The details were kept secret. Even Bush, as director of the CIA and president of the United States, never learned of their fate.
Bradley said "Flyboys" is the story of youthful enthusiasm, puppy love, courage, the eerie other-worldliness of death and of mothers' pain. He described how the men lived and how they died. One soldier never cried out. Another, with defiance, rolled down his collar as he looked square in the eyes of the executioner.
"'Flyboys' is a story of war, so it's a story of death, but it's not a story of defeat. ‘Flyboys' is, at its heart, the story of eight nice young boys, eight boys who were made to kneel one day, so many years ago," said Bradley, who in his research was able to use transcripts of the secret war crimes trial in Guam of the Japanese officers who beheaded the airmen.
In 2000 Bradley wrote "Flags of Our Father" to honor his father and the other men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. "The boys who raised the flag received a lot of attention, a lot of honor over the years. I felt it my duty to bring these flyboys to life, too."
After his presentation, Bradley promoted the Library's Veterans History Project by interviewing Everett Alvarez Jr. about his war experience as a POW for eight and a half years in Vietnam.
Alvarez said he was able to survive imprisonment because of the support from the other American POWs. "We had a total commitment to each other. We were open, honest and prayed a lot." Alvarez has since served as deputy director of the Peace Corps and deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration.
CBS Anchor Reveals the Stories Behind the Stories
When Bob Schieffer is on the air, he is reporting the most important national and international news stories of the day as the White House correspondent for CBS News and anchor of "Face the Nation." But in front of an enthusiastic audience at the National Book Festival, he was all fun, smiles and laughs as he reviewed highlights of his career in television journalism.
He gave the audience a glimpse of some of the tales from his new book, "This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV" (Putnam, 2003).
Schieffer recalled "the biggest story that I almost got." A young reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he was interested in President John F. Kennedy's visit to Dallas in November 1963. "I had been told by my city editor in no uncertain terms that "Yes, the president is coming to town. Yes, this is the biggest story we've had in years, but no, you're not involved," Schieffer recalled.
Assigned to the police beat, Schieffer worked the late shift until 2 a.m. and slept until afternoon on Nov. 22. While the rest of the Star-Telegram staff was in Dallas hunting for news of Kennedy's assassination earlier that morning, Schieffer fielded an afternoon call to the office from a woman asking for a ride to Dallas. "I said, ‘Madame, this is not a taxi service; besides, the president has been shot.'" And she said, ‘Yes, I heard it on the radio. I think my son is the one they've arrested.'"
Eager to accommodate Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, Schieffer borrowed a friend's Cadillac and drove her to jail to see her son. When an FBI agent at the jail learned that Schieffer was a news reporter looking for an exclusive interview with Oswald, the agent threatened to "kill" him if he ever came around there again.
Imitating the voice of his famous colleague Walter Cronkite, Schieffer told another story, recalling how he and Cronkite scooped Barbara Walters, who believed she had an exclusive interview with President Gerald Ford for the NBC Today show. Walters had admonished Ford's press secretary, Ron Nessen, not to allow any other interviews until she aired hers.
But Schieffer spoke with Ford's young chief of staff, Richard Cheney. "Well, do you think I could just get Walter in to say ‘Hello' to the president? A handshake?" Schieffer pleaded. Cheney consented. Cronkite went in with his right hand open for the handshake, but he held a microphone in his left. He asked the president if he was getting a flu shot. The president said, "Yes, Walter, I think I ought to set an example to the nation."
Before the Walters interview could air, CBS Nightly News carried the flu shot as its lead national story. "Ran all nine sessions—biggest scoop I've ever had," Schieffer said.
In response to a concluding question, Schieffer rejected the thesis of Bernie Goldberg, a former CBS reporter, in his book "Bias," that television news has a liberal slant and is distorted. "The conclusions that Bernie presents in his book simply cannot be supported," said Schieffer. "The driving force in journalism is not ideology; the driving force is the story."
Caro Conveys Importance of Place In Shaping Lyndon Johnson
Robert Caro, the biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson, in a special program concluding the National Book Festival, talked about an element he considers to be of great importance in books—a sense of place.
"For a book to endure, that sense of place must be present," Caro said, recalling memorable settings described by Tolstoy, Dickens and Melville.
"This is the perfect place to be talking about a sense of place, right here by Capitol Hill. The Capitol, the House buildings, the Senate buildings—that was Lyndon Johnson's place," said Caro, whose "Path to Power," "Means of Ascent," and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Master of the Senate" comprise the three volumes in his continuing biography of Lyndon Johnson.
"By a sense of place, I mean letting the reader see, in his mind's eye, a place in which the book's action occurred, to see it clearly enough so that he feels he was there, in that place. I think—and this is what I want to say today—a sense of place is just as important in nonfiction, in history and biography, as it is in fiction," Caro said.
In writing the Johnson books, he tried to convey the sense of magnitude and power on Capitol Hill. He also tried to convey a sense of "the terrible emptiness, the terrible loneliness" of the Texas Hill Country and the poverty into which Johnson was born.
A source told Caro, "You're a city boy. You can't understand Lyndon unless you understand the land, the earth."
So Caro, a New York City resident, took a sleeping bag and slept out near the Johnson ranch, listening to the wind and the gnawing of rodents in the night. He knelt down on a ridge top overlooking the ranch and fingered the soil, eroded long ago by wind, water and overuse to a thin covering over rock. He visited Johnson City, population 363, where Johnson lived after his overly optimistic father had lost the beloved ranch for which he had paid too high a price, not realizing that the depleted soil could grow no crops or grass for grazing.
That perspective helped Caro understand why Johnson was one of the best vote counters ever to work in the Senate. "Lyndon Johnson had seen firsthand what the cost of wishful thinking could do," Caro said. Nothing made him angrier than an aide who "thought" a vote could possibly swing the way Johnson wanted. "What the f… good is thinking?" Johnson would roar. "I need to know."
Caro also learned that Johnson, as a teenager, drove a "Fresno," a road-building machine pulled by a team of mules. "With the reins looped around his body, he was in harness with the mules," Caro said.
That helped him understand Johnson's "desperation to get ahead fast," Caro said. "He never forgot the reality of that harness."
Caro said he tracked down Estelle Harbin, a secretary who had helped 23-year-old Johnson when he first came to Washington to work for Rep. Richard Kleberg. She said most mornings Johnson arrived out of breath at Room 258 in the House Office Building, now the Cannon Building, and she often saw the tall, gangly young man, wearing thin suits, loping past the Capitol.
Again trying to understand and capture a sense of place, Caro traced Johnson's steps up Capitol Hill from the cheap hotel where he had lived near Union Station. But it wasn't until Caro made the trip early one morning that he got it right. He read that passage, which conveys Johnson's ambition, from "The Path to Power":
"When he turned the corner at the end of that street, suddenly before him, at the top of a long, gentle hill, would be not brick but marble, a great shadowy mass of marble—marble columns and marble arches and marble parapets … and the marble of the eastern façade, already caught by the early-morning sun, would be gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzling white. … And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running."
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area, and Todd Fineberg is an attorney and freelance writer in the Washington area.