Brinkley on the art of the interview

Douglas Brinkley—a renowned historian who has contributed to, written or edited more than 60 books—knows a thing or two about a good interview. “The first rule is to know your subject,” he said at a Feb. 15 talk at Kelly Writers House. “Always try to interview people in their homes, never in their place of business.”

That was his rule of thumb when he sat down with former President Jimmy Carter for interviews (26 hours in all) for his 1998 book, “The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House.” “I didn’t go for the gold in the first interview,” he explained. In fact, in their first hour-long interview, Carter didn’t even get through the history of his family’s involvement in the Revolutionary War. Brinkley said he always tapes his interviews, too—something he said his subjects appreciate, because it allays their fear of being misquoted.

Brinkley, who is also the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at the University of New Orleans, takes his role as historian very seriously. “I try to find people in history who are important and give them their due,” he said. “Snooping…it’s what historians do. We read other people’s mail.”

Or, sometimes, their diaries. Hunter S. Thompson, the writer, cultural critic and “gonzo journalist,” gave Brinkley unprecedented access to his correspondence, tucked away in his basement. And when he decided to write “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War,” Brinkley had unfettered access to Kerry’s war diaries. He said the diaries “were extraordinary, because he’s a bright man.” Brinkley, who talked with every person who served under Kerry in Vietnam, was stunned by allegations from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an anti-Kerry group that surfaced late in the election season. “[Kerry’s] like the Boy Scout of the Navy,” said Brinkley.

The historian also never trusts any memo that comes out of the White House, “Bush doesn’t really want a historian in the White House,” he said. “There’s a continual manipulation of history coming out of the government.”

Originally published on February 24, 2005