The scene was an auditorium at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center and Museum. The room had seating for about 200 people, and it was about three-quarters full.
Well, except for the two rows of seats reserved for the media.
A stringer for the local paper was there, at least.
I was there on behalf of The Public Opinion, located 30 miles west, on the other side of South Mountain. They are kind of far off, but it seems they have a taste for history, and stories don’t necessarily have to involve gunfire or sex for them to send a reporter on them.
That was it. No other media showed up.
I’ll wager that if the figure behind the podium had been Justin Bieber, the place would have been jammed with news crews.
No offense to Mr. Bieber. He seems a very nice young man. But, as we used to say back home, he ain’t nobody much. I doubt we will be talking about him 40 years after his death.
At the podium, Dwight David Eisenhower II and his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower took turns talking about a book they have just published, Going Home to Glory, A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969.
The elder Eisenhower has been rated by historians as one of the country’s top 10 presidents. Soldier, statesman, university president, 34th President of the U.S., which back in those days made him the most powerful man on the planet, and, finally, gentleman farmer and gray eminence much sought-after by other world leaders.
After moving 38 times in their marriage, the Eisenhowers settled on a farm outside Gettysburg. It was the only home Ike and Mamie ever knew. They’re sort of considered public property in these parts. Lots of people knew them. Old Mrs. Durboraw sold Mamie eggs. Walton Jones was one of Ike’s caddies.
Ike played regularly at the Gettysburg Country Club. One of the Secret Service agents who played along with him told me that in the unlikely event you got close enough and looked into the agents’ golf bags, you would see M-1 carbines nestled down there amongst the clubs.
David’s years spent hanging out with “Granddad” had a profound effect on the younger man. The two were close. After becoming President in 1953, Ike renamed the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains – dubbed “Shangri-La” by FDR – Camp David, in his grandson’s honor.
Julie, younger daughter of former President Richard M. Nixon, brought her own insights into the making of the book, and into life with a former president.
David’s years of observation and conversation with that very remarkable human planted the curiosity and drive that caused David, now 62, to grow into a respected historian and author. His book on Ike’s war years — Eisenhower at War, 1943-1945 — was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1987.
After their initial talk about the book, David and Julie stood around chatting with the barely-plural press. They are remarkably easy to talk to. We all walked up the steps and out of the auditorium, to discover hundreds of people lined up to get their copies of Home to Glory signed.
I took some photos, and then took my leave, as more people filed into the building.
The late historian Dexter Perkins said, “History is a kind of introduction to more interesting people than we can possibly meet in our restricted lives; let us not neglect the opportunity.”
A quarter-century and counting in journalism have afforded me many chances to stand right next to history and shake its hand, listen to the hum of its motors. Some of the people I have interviewed were celebrities. Frankly, their motors didn’t hum much.
We the media used to be pretty adept at giving you a window to that experience. Somehow, we’ve stopped doing that, unless it was disguised as disaster, painted with flames and running with blood. We’re more than ready to tell you the latest peccadillo of some celebrity flavor-of-the-week, but are too lazy or dazed by the easy stories to spend the time and money to introduce you to the people at the heart of the great events, the ones that will matter long after the celebrities become trivia questions on TV game shows.
I don’t feel as though I wasted you time over the past quarter century. I am afraid, however, that too many of my younger colleagues are.
(If you would like to read an excerpt from Going Home to Glory click on Rock The Capital.)
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