September/October 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 6
You know what Mr. Willkie reminds me of?” It was nine years ago, and I was sitting with Geoffrey Ward, then the editor of this magazine, listening to Franklin Roosevelt’s ghostly irritation at his rival in the fall of 1940. Actually, there was nothing ghostly about it; the FDR emanating from the old Wollensak tape recorder was full of life. Vigorous, annoyed, urgent with cheerful energy, the President told us: “He reminds me of a carnival barker—one of those men who you know is cheating you, but wants to get you in. … You know he’s not telling you the truth, in order to get your money in.”
Geoff and I were privy to this interesting conversation because Roosevelt had for a short while made secret recordings in the Oval Office, and a historian named R. J. C. Butow had discovered them in the FDR Library and sent us a copy. The publication of the story won American Heritage more press coverage than the magazine had ever before received, but it had farther-reaching ramifications than that.
‘There he sits,” Geoff wrote later, “imprisoned in his chair, locked in political combat with Wendell Willkie, the most formidable opponent ever sent against him, facing the worst war in history—and he couldn’t be having a better time. … But, I wondered as I listened, where did that self-assurance come from?”
The attempt to answer that question led Geoff to produce two fine biographies, Before the Trumpet and A First-Class Temperament , and I am very happy to report that the latter—an intimate and wholly absorbing account of Roosevelt’s battle to overcome polio and reenter the political arena—has just won not only the National Book Critic Circle’s Award but the Francis Parkman Prize as well.
To have our friend, alumnus, and contributor take the Parkman is especially gratifying because the prize is awarded by the Society of American Historians, whose career has been intertwined with ours from the start. Founded in 1939 “to encourage literary distinction in the writing of history and biography,” the SAH has sponsored American Heritage since December 1954 and has recently begun to administer a five-thousand-dollar prize established by us in the name of our inaugural editor, Bruce Catton.
This year the Bruce Catton Prize for Lifetime Achievement in The Writing of History went to another long-time friend of the magazine, Henry Steele Commager. The author of dozens of books, among them The Growth of the American Republic , which is as indispensable as it is durable, Commager also has made many contributions to American Heritage. In accepting the award, he spoke of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and of how those two men, who made so much history in their own right, regarded the subject. It is Jefferson’s view that we find the more sympathetic, said Commager, because while Adams saw only the limitations of the historical lesson—all has been tried before, all has failed—Jefferson saw its gorgeous possibilities.
American Heritage is proud to have played a part in the Society’s efforts to help illumine those possibilities.