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The Political Guns Of August Are Firing

In America, we are clearly ambivalent about history. We bemoan that our schoolchildren know so little of it, that the country looks always forward and rarely back. Brinkley considers himself a serious historian, with a curriculum vitae 20 pages long and a doctorate from Georgetown. He directs the university's Eisenhower Center for American Studies, founded by his mentor, the late Stephen Ambrose, the popular chronicler of World War II and the Lewis and Clark expedition. He teaches and publishes academic papers.

Brinkley "straddles both worlds," said Peter Charles Hoffer, a University of Georgia professor whose latest book, "Past Imperfect," examines the plagiarism scandals of the discipline and bemoans the chasm between popular and academic historians. "He moved from writing about [former secretary of state Dean] Acheson and [former secretary of defense James] Forrestal to writing about Henry Ford and now John Kerry. He is publishing with trade presses now.

"Any contemporary history is going to be politicized," Douglas Brinkley says of the debate his book has triggered. (Ted Jackson -- The Times-picayune)

"I think it's a good thing. Anything that gets them to dial up their Amazon and gets them reading and thinking is a good thing," said Hoffer.

Added presidential historian Richard Norton Smith: "Academic snobbery is as unattractive as any other kind of snobbery." He credited Brinkley with writing books based on "very extensive, original sources, designed to reach a broad audience."

"There are people like Doug, like David McCullough, who believe that particularly now, when we are part of this historically illiterate culture that it is more important than ever to have people who combine rigorous scholarship with popular accessibility," said Smith, who collaborated with Bob and Elizabeth Dole on their biography. "We are storytellers. And in some quarter of the academy that is a dirty word. We equate obscurity with authenticity."

"Tour of Duty" evolved, as book ideas often do, far from Brinkley's original concept. His favorite book is Ambrose's "Band of Brothers," and collecting oral histories of Vietnam veterans for an Eisenhower Center project inspired him, four years ago, to propose a book about all the senators who had served in Vietnam. He was struck by how the six men had used Vietnam to launch their political careers and shared a bond that bridges partisan lines. John McCain, Bob Kerrey and Max Cleland had written their own memoirs. "When I got to John Kerry -- just a few years ago -- there was no book, no memoir. I knew the Navy world a little bit, and I realized when I went to interview him: This is a coming-of-age story. This is both the war, and the anti-war. You can't separate the two."

His first interview with Kerry was "unsatisfactory," recalled Brinkley. "He was preoccupied." Then he learned about the copious notes, stored in stacks of boxes in Kerry's Boston townhouse. The historian badgered the senator's chief of staff nearly daily, for months, until Kerry finally agreed to allow Brinkley to view the materials. (Their deal: Kerry would have no control over the manuscript; Brinkley would publish in 2004.)

"I'm talking a massive archive. I had to sit in his house, with this woman watching me, and go through the collection -- 12-page letters, notebooks, journals. I made three different trips, and stayed there for days," said Brinkley, who also interviewed the senator for about 12 hours. The Kerry who emerged from the pages is sometimes painfully introspective, sometimes self-consciously aping the Lost Generation writers like Hemingway and Dos Passos whom he had studied at Yale.

"He once told me he would have wanted to be a religious scholar on ancient text," said Brinkley. "His is a restless, restless mind. It's a side of him I like, but that doesn't mean it plays well on the campaign hustings."

Of course, with this book, Brinkley has become a political historian as well, having authored a book that burnishes just the part of Kerry's biography that the candidate chose to highlight to defeat a wartime president who never has seen battle himself. "These days, Brinkley is acting a lot less like a historian and a lot more like a PR flack for John Kerry," wrote Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam. In its review, the New York Times referred to "the odor of salesmanship that lingers around 'Tour of Duty.' "

"Any contemporary history is going to be politicized in some way," said Brinkley, whose Republican parents are much prouder of his television commentary during the Reagan funeral than they are of his bestseller. "I'm in the [political] center. I honestly have to tell you that's my framework."

As someone "too young to have an emotional investment in Vietnam," he believes now he underestimated how Kerry's war and anti-war activities would re-ignite the '60s' cultural wars.

He had hoped, he said, his book would be about "healing the wounds. This August will be seen as picking the scabs apart."

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