Interview with Richard Brookhiser

Richard Brookhiser YC ‘77 is a historian, biographer, and American political journalist, who spoke at a dinner of Buckley fellows on January 15, 2020. Previously, Mr. Brookhiser has written about everything from today’s headlines to the Constitution. His latest book, Give Me Liberty: A History of America’s Exceptional Idea, was published in November of 2019. He graciously agreed to sit down for an interview with The Beacon, the student publication of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, and the transcript is below.

Kevin Xiao: Thank you, Mr. Brookhiser, for taking the time to speak with The Beacon. I wanted to start off by asking you about your time at Yale. What are some of the things you remember fondly (or not so fondly) about the school?

Richard Brookhiser: Well, I was Class of ‘77. I had a good time here. I was an English major.

Yale was kind of unusually calm then. The draft for the Vietnam War -it still existed- I had a lottery number, but Vietnamization had begun, so that was no longer an impetus for college radicalism. So there was not a lot of on-campus political frenzy, although it was an overwhelmingly liberal environment.

I was in the Party of the Right of the Yale Political Union, which is still around.

I was in the Glee Club and the Russian Chorus for a year, and I was in the Doox, and that was just a wonderful Yale thing. I think Yale singing is more flourishing than at any other Ivy League school. I mean, they all have this stuff, but I think Yale sort of got in first and has had more such groups for years and years than any other. That was wonderful.

And, you know, I made some friends that I’m still in touch with, and I was a happy camper.

KX: That sounds very exciting, a very busy time for you.

RB: After I graduated, I applied to Yale Law School, but I didn’t go. I put it off for a year because I was going to go work at National Review. I had been an intern between my junior and senior year, and then I went to work there after I graduated. I never went to law school because they persuaded me to stick around. I had begun writing for National Review when I was in high school. I really had this, you know, early and fortuitous connection with what my job was going to be.

KX: At age 15, right?

RB: Yes, yes. I wrote a book about my relationship with Bill Buckley, which was very close. It had some hair-raising twists and turns, but it ended close, and he was certainly a great character. He was certainly a great influence on my life, fascinating figure, I was lucky to have known him and to have worked with him. But the unusual thing was that I already knew pretty much what I was going to do with my life before I even came here, which is rare. My career choice came when I was my 30s, when it became clear that I was not going to be a full-time journalist, when I had to pick a path, when I started writing about history. Another thing I had at Yale, which proved valuable then, was that I had taken very few history courses when I was here. I took a couple, Donald Kagan, his Herodotus and Thucydides course.

I took a course from Stephen Ozment,but I did write one paper on the John Trumbull paintings in the Yale Art Gallery, and that was for an English class actually. It was about, Ronald Paulson was the professor, it was about visual imagery in 18th century English literature, it was like Blake, Hogarth, and for his class, I wrote this paper about Trumbull’s paintings. Well, if you see them, they’re very easy to find, it’s called the Trumbull gallery. He was born in Connecticut, died in New Haven, his father had been the governor of the colony of Connecticut and then the state. And then his brother was also the Governor of Connecticut, so this was a very politically connected family. He went to Harvard, for some reason, as an undergraduate, and then he wanted to be a painter. This young man, his father said, “come on.” He said, “no, shouldn’t there be artists who will celebrate the glories of America as Greece had artists to celebrate the glories of Athens.” And his father said, “You’ve forgotten one thing. Connecticut is not Athens.”

He was able to become a colonel on Washington’s staff because of his family connections, he did that for half a year, then he went to England to study painting under Benjamin West, who was an American-born but had moved to London and was George III’s favorite painter and a considerable talent. If you wanted to paint, you had to get out of America and go to London and Paris and Italy and to study models of great art, which we didn’t have here. He was arrested as a spy, he may well have been spying, West got him out and got him off. And then, after the war, he decided I’m going to be a painter and my primary work is I’m going to paint the history of the American Revolution. Then he consults with Jefferson, what could the Continental Congress look like when the Declaration was being written, he gets introductions to people whom he’s going to portray in his portraits. He goes around the country, doing portraits, and then he produces, over the course of his life with lots of distractions, he does 8 paintings, kind of small, and then 1 standing portrait of George Washington on the Eve of the Battle of Princeton. Four of these paintings that he does, he blows up at huge size for the rotunda of the Capitol a few years later.

KX: Very famous paintings?

RB: His Declaration of Independence painting is on the two-dollar bill, everyone’s seen that. But this is what he considered his life’s work, and when he was an old man, fashion had passed him by, people wanted landscapes, and he was kind of neglected, and he made an arrangement with Yale, and if Yale gave him an annuity, he’d give all his paintings to Yale. But he had conditions: he said: they must all be hung together, they must be in Trumbull Gallery, I must be buried beneath my portrait of George Washington because that’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, and he is in the basement of Yale gallery, I’ve seen where they’ve stuck him. And apparently one of the conditions was that they may never be loaned, and if this is broken, Harvard gets the paintings. This may be apocryphal because I’ve read his memoirs, and I don’t see that in there, but apparently the story I heard was that the bicentennial year Yale did loan these paintings to the Smithsonian, but they had to send a lawyer to Cambridge to make sure that they would not invoke the terms of Colonel Trumbull’s will. But if you see those paintings, and they’re all hung together, they’re like high points of the American revolution. 8 paintings, 1 portrait, and it is obvious that the star of these paintings and of the war is George Washington. He is the central figure, he is in 4 of the 8 small ones, he is the figure portrayed in the large one, and you just see that as far as Trumbull was concerned, this was the man. This was the man who made things work, and I got it. I got that visual message.

I also took a course by Garry Wills, who was visiting from Johns Hopkins, and he was doing a course on Jefferson. I took that course and Garry thought Jefferson was fascinating, but he clearly loved Washington, and he would sometimes use Washington as a stick to beat Jefferson, and that also got my attention. There were these two seeds planted while I was at Yale.

In 1989, I wrote an essay for Time, 200th anniversary of Washington’s first inauguration. Just one thousand words on how come the American Revolution worked and so many others later did not. And then, in 1994 or 1995, I was trying to think of a third book, not coming up with any ideas. My agent said, and this is a typical writer’s exercise, “if you can’t come up with one idea, come up with 10.” Just gets your brain out of a rut, so I came up with 10 ideas, and then my wife said, “why don’t you add Washington to the list?”, so he was number 11. My agent looked at the list, and he said, “that was the one I can sell,” and he did. So then I had to actually learn about George Washington. I had bluffed my way into this contract, and I think was fortunate enough to get him. You know, it’s not obvious because he has a shell, he imposes distance between him and both his contemporaries and of course us. But if you penetrate that, then he’s very consistent, and his consistency is that he really means what he’s engaged in, and he’s going to follow through. He will not betray this revolution, either as a military commander or as the first chief executive, and both times he proves that by going home

KX: Like Cincinnatus?

RB: Exactly. Does at the end of the war. Does it again after two terms. And that was both something he wanted to do and something he thought was right to be done, and a lesson. He was giving an example, you know, I’m not Cromwell, I’m not Caesar, I’m not Napoleon, he didn’t know what Napoleon would be, but Napoleon was already on his way. So it turned out that at Yale that that was the lesson I took at Yale that is now my career, now my second career. I would call myself a biographer, more a historian, than I am a political journalist, though I still do that. I still go to editorial meetings at National Review every two weeks, and I help write the editorial section. I’m still concerned who’s going to win in Iowa, but the turn to history was begun here. So, pay attention to what you’re doing as an undergraduate. It may actually have an effect on what you do.

And you know, I wasn’t a history major. And I took like two history classes, and none of them were about American history, well except Garry Wills’ seminar. You know, Thucydides and Herodotus and medieval German history, and that’s very much off-topic, but that turned out to be where my life was going to go, and who knows what you’ll catch.

KX: I wanted to move us to some of your current work. I know you have written extensively about nationalism and how America is one of those countries for which it is difficult to find a set of common principles, a creed maybe, and one of those things that has inhibited this is the kind of localism that the federal structure provides. Do you think that delegating more power to the individual states would actually negatively impact national cohesion, or would it have the exact opposite effect and bring the country together?

RB: I would say that it doesn’t impede cohesion because I think the defining quality of American nationalism is its concern with liberty. Now that’s primarily liberty of the person, but that also has consequences for the federal system, and it is definitely not a top-down system, certainly not an autocracy, not even a centralized state like France, which is a democratic country but is very much under Paris’s command and everyone is supposed to salute. But we have, as you said, federalism. But I think animating that, behind that, is this concern with liberty that I’ve been trying to trace through 400 years of history.

KX: Thank you for your time, Mr. Brookhiser.