National Book Festival: Douglas Brinkley on Teddy Roosevelet, Katrina, Hunter Thompson, More

Douglas Brinkley
Presidential Historian and Contributing Editor, Vanity Fair
Monday, September 21, 2009; 12:00 PM

Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, contributing editor at Vanity Fair and presidental historian, was online Monday, Sept. 21, at Noon ET to discuss his latest book, "The Wilderness Warrior," which focuses on the environmental achievements of Theodore Roosevelt, "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast" and his many other notable books, including "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," "The Reagan Diaries" his work with Hunter Thompson and Rolling Stone, and more.


Derwood, Md.: Prof. Brinkley, As a man ahead of his time, did T.R. have the sense of international urgency to protect the environment similar to that which is pressing on us today, or was he focused solely on protecting the U.S.' grandeur?


Douglas Brinkley: Yes. At the end of The Wilderness Warrior I write about TR's attempt to create a International Conservation Congress. He understood that migratory birds didn't no borders. That if Canada polluted the Great Lakes, they would be polluted for Americans. He was the leading cheerleader for creating global conservation policy. There was no U.N. back then, so he wanted to create a new entity to protect the forests and streams of the world.


Washington, D.C.: You're the literary executor for Hunter S. Thompson -- how did you two get to be friends, and what does that job entail?

Douglas Brinkley: I first met Hunter in 1992 when I taught a course called American Odyssey. College students would register for my class and we'd take off across America on the Majic Bus. We would read Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and then visit the playwrite at his home in Connecticut. Over a period of years, a number of authors ranging from William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Toni Morrison, and dozens of others would lecture to my students. Hunter loved my class and when we would come through Colorado we would read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and he would talk to us about the 1960s and 70s.

We became fast friends. When he died, I was on the will as an executor.


Kensington, MD: Doug, it's great to see a fellow used book shop owner make it big. And I still remember the time that Timothy Dickinson got you connected to Dean Acheson's widow, right there in the Georgetown Book Shop. Keep up the good work---I'm continually impressed.

Douglas Brinkley: Wow! That brings back old memories. I learned more about history and literature in the used bookstores in DC than in college libraries. I used to be a manager-clerk for Second Story Books on Pea Street in Washington and Second Story in the Adams Morgan District.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the current update on Hurricane Katrina? How many people remain displaced to this date? How much action has been taken to revitalize the destroyed areas and how much action has been taken to guard against this devastation from happening again?

Douglas Brinkley: All very complicated questions. But I've been pushing the US Army Corps of Engineers to build a category 5 levee system. We need to treat New Orleans with the same respect the Dutch do Amsterdam.


Arlington, Va: In the book you wrote about Rev. McGivney and his creation of the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus you discuss the disconnect at the time of Catholics in the American society. Move forward to today and the Catholics hold 6 of the 9 seats on the Supreme Court. Seems Catholic-Americans have come a long way. Can the Knights of Columbus take credit for helping with this? Do you think the Catholic justices will sway cases as a bloc or do you think they vote regardless of their religious beliefs?

Douglas Brinkley: The Knights of Columbus remains the Catholic Church's top paternal order in the United States. They're extremely active in helping all Catholics have a form of life insurance. I wrote about a priest in the 19th Century so I'm not sure I'm qualified to speak on the role of the Knights of Columbus in regards to today's justices.


Historical Perspective: As a historian, what do you think we'll be looking back on in 20 years from the current political discourse? There seems to be a lot of light, but not much heat.

Douglas Brinkley: Forget politics. The real story is the advancements being made in medicine. We're on the verge of conquering cancer and Alzheimer's and numerous other diseases. The DNA revolution has just begun. Scientific advancement usually trumps politics.


Birmingham, Alabama: About TR. There are two views. One is of Robert E Osgood as TR as a war lover, a warrior. The other is more recent, of Professor Herring, indicating a much more subtle internationalist, and deserving of his nobel prize. What's your take?

Douglas Brinkley: Let the record speak for itself. In seven and a half years as US president TR never brought America into war. And, as you mentions, he won the nobel peace prize. The notion of TR as a hawk gets overblown. It is true he wanted to fight Spain in 1898 and Germany in 1914.


Falls Church, Va.: What is it that allowed T. Roosevelt to be a Republican, and a strong advocate for preserving the environment, and what can modern day Republicans learn from what he knew?

Douglas Brinkley: True, Theodore Roosevelt was Republican, but he was a Lincoln Republican, maintaining a large federal government. He liked Big Forest and a Big Navy. He was very skeptical of corporatism, which made him many enemies on Wall Street. In The Wilderness Warrior I write about T.R.'s big battles with the timber barons and mining companies of the West. Roosevelt became so frustrated with the conservative wing with the Republican Party that in 1912 he formed the Bull Moose Party. One of the heroes of my book is John F. Lacey - a Congressman from Iowa who worked tirelessly to save American scenic wonders. In the election of 1904, TR won the North and lost most of the South.

Modern day Republicans need to understand that the federal government is a marvelous custodian of public lands. The National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife, and Department of Agriculture all do a good job of saving America's wilderness heritage.


Baltimore MD: I knew of your connection to Hunter Thompson, but not that William Burroughs had talked to your students. Was this in Lawrence KS, where he lived the last years of his life? What did your students think of Burroughs?

Douglas Brinkley: We used to stop and visit Burroughs in Lawrence. He would do shotgun art and take us to an ancient Indian medicine wheel. My students read Naked Lunch. I write about our experiences with Burroughs in my book The Majic Bus.


Timken, KS: Your friendship/relationship with S. Ambrose proved such a productive one. Tell us what you learned about writing history from an author I genuinely admire.

Douglas Brinkley: I shared with Steve Ambrose a great love about America. In order to write a lot of books about history - you have to have a deep curiosity about our nation's past. Steve and I once traveled from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Itasca, Minnesota (the entire length of the Mississippi river). Often Steve would close his eyes along the river and imagine what it was like when Abe Lincoln took a flatboat down to New Orleans or Ulysses S Grant was living in Memphis. It was almost as if he learned how to channel the past. He was a wonderful, witty, and kind-hearted friend. I miss him daily.


Travels with Douglas...: That American Odyssey class sounds incredible. How did it work logistically (was it during vacation, the summer or some other time)? Did you visit any historians/biographers or was it all fiction writers?

Douglas Brinkley: It would be a regular classroom on wheels. Students would earn up to 12 college credits/semester living on my bus. We visited presidential libraries, battlefields, and national historic sites. At various times scholars on the bus included Waylon Jennings, Bo Diddley, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Starting in 1994 the majic busses ran on natural gas. We went all the way up to Fairbanks, Alaska. They were all amazingly fun semesters.

We would also visit with people ranging from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, among other historians.


Philadelphia, PA : Professor,

I'm working on a pet theory, that our current President may be, by traditional definitions, the most prominent conservative in America. I mean that both tempermentally and in approach to policy.

Look at the disappointment of progressives. Even where Obama has popular support, eg gay right issues, he's moving extremely deliberately. He seems to be subsuming some of the executive power and to be delegating in a more traditional way to Congress. I see "security" and "stability" underpinning his policies far more than "change." Even where he embodies the progressive mindset -- on civil liberties, rule of law, transparency (even though he moves slowly) -- those are areas where true conservatives are in alignment with him.

What say you? Is Obama really Dwight David Eisenhower in disguise?

Douglas Brinkley: Obama is like D Eisenhower in many ways. He's trying to govern from the center. Ike was successful at it. Only time will tell if Obama manages to pull it off. I'm starting to see Obama more like Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, and FDR.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I like how Teddy Roosevelt was an accidental President. He was such a great politician and such a reformer that political bosses thought they were getting rid of him by making him Vice President.

Douglas Brinkley: That's exactly right. The Republican party bosses were aghast that TR was in the White House. They feared, in particular, his radical conservation agenda.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Gifford Pinchot was a leading Pennsylvania politician, Governor, and forester that was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt. How close were they and what mentoring did Roosevelt provide Pinchot?

Douglas Brinkley: I write about this at great length in The Wilderness Warrior. Pinchot was like a son to TR.


Douglas Brinkley: Thank you to everyone who joined me today and sent in such thoughtful questions! Best wishes to all.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company