Douglas Brinkley

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
July 23 1999 9:03 PM

Douglas Brinkley

John Kennedy Jr.'s most prolific mourner.

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The Majic Bus brought Brinkley minor fame. Blessed with preternatural gregariousness, good humor, and a love of attention, he's been tireless about pursuing both celebrity and the cause of popular history ever since. "The word that is used around Doug is 'operator.' That is said scornfully or dismissively," says historian and Brinkley mentor Ambrose, who tapped Brinkley to succeed him as director of University of New Orleans' Eisenhower Center. "He is an operator, and I think that's wonderful. He's entrepreneurial and enthusiastic. It's very American."

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It's hard to find anyone who knows Brinkley and dislikes him. It's also hard to find anyone who knows Brinkley and doesn't worry about his obsession with fame. "His name-dropping is almost pathological," says one friend. In my conversation with Brinkley, he touched on a dozen famous politicians and artists he knows. His writing is full of sentences that begin something like, "As John Cage once asked me ..."

Brinkley worked assiduously to join Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin on the air. "TV is the most important medium for conveying history. For historians not to reach out smacks of elitism," he says. He will happily decorate any TV or radio story with a veneer of American history. Recent months have seen him comment on the Kosovo bombing, ground troops, Rosa Parks, Independence Day, impeachment, and Al Gore's military service, to name a few topics.

Meanwhile, he has pursued a writing career that would fell a less industrious man. On the same day his Newsweek and New York Times Kennedy pieces appeared, Brinkley published a sweet article in The New Yorker about a 50-year correspondence between Ronald Reagan and a member of his fan club. Brinkley publishes in the Atlantic, Newsweek, American Heritage, and George. His work ranges from routine commentaries on the day's political news to celebrity puff profiles. He writes more journalism than most hacks, and certainly a lot more good journalism than most hacks. At the same time, he has managed to write or co-write eight books in the past seven years, including three full-scale biographies and a lively 600-page history of the United States. (Brinkley's oeuvre demonstrates his genius for endearing himself to all kinds of people: He has done books with the widow of Dean Acheson, the ultimate establishment figure; with Hunter S. Thompson; and with Carter.) He is currently working on a profile of Gore, a biography of Rosa Parks, and a biography of Henry Ford.

Brinkley's sunniness and ardor are appealing, but his public history has its shortcomings. His idols, Ambrose and Schlesinger, have won the admiration of the academy and the public. Brinkley has won the public but has not wowed the academy. Some of his colleagues' dismay is simply jealousy of his entrepreneurship, but some is more substantive. His books read like good journalism--and that's no insult--but they are not great history. "He has made no analytical contribution at all," says one Ivy League historian who professes to like Brinkley.

Arthur Schlesinger went on television to mourn the death of President John Kennedy. Douglas Brinkley goes on television to mourn the death of celebrity magazine editor John Kennedy Jr. This is why his ambition to be a public intellectual may falter. A public intellectual resists the frivolous. Brinkley does not resist the frivolous. As his mentor Ambrose says, "I wish he would spend less time on John Kennedy and more time on Henry Ford."

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