Richard Rayner: Stephen Ambrose exaggerated his relationship with Eisenhower





[Richard Rayner writes for The New Yorker.] Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that. Before publishing a string of No. 1 best-sellers, including “Band of Brothers” and “D-Day,” Ambrose had made his name chronicling the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969....

In Ambrose’s oft-repeated telling of the tale, Eisenhower contacted him after reading his biography of Henry Wager Halleck, Abraham Lincoln’s chief of staff. “I’d walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes,” Ambrose told C-SPAN. “I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office.”

Last November, Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, in Abilene, Kansas, moderated a panel that celebrated Ambrose’s writings, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the completion of his two-volume Eisenhower biography, a work that is still regarded as the standard. Rives was looking for items to put on display at the event when he came across previously unpublished source materials that debunk the Boswellian tale that Ambrose loved to tell....

Ambrose continued to draw on his supposed Eisenhower interviews in subsequent books, including the two-volume biography, although in the later footnotes the specific dates were replaced with vaguer notations, such as “Interview with DDE.” As the citations grew more nebulous, the range of subjects that the interviews allegedly covered grew wider: the Rosenberg case, Dien Bien Phu, Douglas MacArthur, J.F.K., quitting smoking, the influence of Eisenhower’s mother, Brown v. Board of Education, and so on.

Tim Rives, who still considers himself an Ambrose fan in spite of these discoveries and the various brushes with plagiarism that Ambrose had later in his career, said, “The discussion of so many diverse subjects in less than three hours strains credulity.” He pointed out how minutely Eisenhower’s busy schedule was documented. “He answered letters for the first hour of the day, before receiving guests,” he said. “On doctor’s orders, he napped after lunch. He greeted more visitors after his nap, or took telephone calls, which could reach more than three thousand a month. A quick round of golf might follow the workday.” He went on, “This full schedule demanded that anyone wanting an appointment with him needed to begin the process months ahead of time. His declining health also limited access, especially for scholars. He simply didn’t see that much of Stephen Ambrose.”


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