David Herbert Donald died Sunday in Boston. He was 88 and he wrote my favorite Lincoln biography.
What I liked about the book was the standard he set for it—and kept.
In his forward to the book (Lincoln, Simon & Schuster, 1996), Professor Donald told of visiting John F. Kennedy at the White House:
The only time I ever met President John F. Kennedy, in February 1962, he was unhappy with historians. A group of scholars had been in the Oval Office hoping to enlist him in a poll that ranked American presidents. I was not one of those visitors, but the next day when I gave a talk in the White House about Abraham Lincoln, the subject was much on his mind. He voiced his deep dissatisfaction with the glib way the historians had rated some of his predecessors, as “Below Average” and marked a few as “Failures.” Thinking, no doubt, of how his own administration would look in the backward glance of history, he resented the whole process. With real feeling he said, “No one has a right to grade a President—not even poor James Buchanan—who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”
What a perspective for a biographer to choose!
And, alas, how rare. It was as objective a telling as an author could take. Documented rather than conjectured—or projected. Recognizing, right from the start, that there are limits, not only to the historian’s or biographer’s ability to attain complete, objective knowledge of the past on which he writes, but of any individual’s ability to know all he needs or wishes to know about his present. Of the events swirling about him.
This is true even of presidents.
I guess it was two years ago, or so, that I first read Professor Donald’s Lincoln. The paragraph I quoted above were the first words of his I read. Reading them was like switching on a light. I saw all the controversies about presidents, especially our then-current one, in a whole new way. Even the best presidents have only a small view into the reality of crises for which they are the only people on the planet who must provide an answer.
And we, as observers and pundits and voters, have an even smaller view.
But that doesn’t stop us from making judgements we are sure will stand the test of time.
We grade our presidents with all the professorial confidence—arrogance—at our command. And we are not taken aback, even for a moment, at how often we get it completely wrong.
Jay Nordlinger, who took two of Professor Donald’s classes, tells a story in The Corner this morning:
He was a soft-spoken, gentle Mississippian — no marshmallow, though. I’ll tell you something he told us once, kind of touching. He said he wanted to be a schoolteacher and a band director. Wanted to teach history and direct the band. “That was to be my life,” he said. He became a teacher, all right, on an exalted level. But that original dream, or ambition? He would have been good at that, too.
P.S. Tell you something else. He once said, “You want to write better? See a ballet, listen to a symphony — get some art in you. Get some artistry in your prose.”
David Herbert Donald wrote with more than a little artistry in his prose.
And he modeled for us a humility in analysis and communication that, were we to emulate it, would do us—and the world around us—well.