BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Michael Korda, when anybody writes about you, they often refer to your storytelling. So, I’ve got to start off by asking you your favorite Ike story.
MICHAEL KORDA, NOVELIST, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I would have no difficulty with that.
LAMB: What is it?
KORDA: I think it’ll be Ike’s – my favorite Ike story is absolutely his relationship with General Douglas MacArthur and what each of them had to say about the other, because it’s – what I’ve tried to do in the book is to open up these people and show you what they were really like and make human beings out them, instead of historical figures.
And the relationship with MacArthur is just a fascinating relationship. It explains so much about Ike.
LAMB: What did you take away from their relationship, the first thing you think about?
KORDA: The overriding vanity of MacArthur, and Ike’s ability, nevertheless, in spite of their great disparity in rank, to work very loyally and very, very productively for MacArthur for seven years.
LAMB: Where were they together? And what was the relationship between the two of them?
KORDA: Well, you know, it’s better to start, in a way, with the end than with the beginning, when they were both five-star generals and supreme commanders.
A lady came up to MacArthur and said, ”General MacArthur, do you know General Eisenhower?”
And MacArthur said, ”Yes, ma’am, I do. Best clerk I ever had.”
LAMB: Did Eisenhower ever hear that?
KORDA: Oh, Ike heard that all right.
And when an aide, after the war, told General MacArthur that Ike had had a mountain named after him in Canada, MacArthur had an aide send for the atlas. And he took a magnifying glass, and he looked at it.
And finally he found it and said, ”For the terrain, it’s a pretty small mountain.”
So, I tried – one of the fascinations to me in writing this book was to explore the relationship, of course, between Ike and other people – between Ike and Marshall, between Ike and Mamie, which was a fascinating marriage, between Ike and Churchill, between Ike and Montgomery – and also between Ike and MacArthur, because Ike spent seven years.
When somebody asked Ike if he knew General MacArthur and how well he knew him, Ike replied – which was very unlike Ike – ”Yes, ma’am. I studied drama under General MacArthur for seven years.”
LAMB: Where did you go – well, let’s start from the beginning. When did you think you had a book called ”Ike”?
KORDA: Well, I wrote a biography of Grant. And as I wrote that – of course, I’m a great of admirer of Grant, so it was a pleasure to write – it began to occur to me more and more that Grant and Eisenhower resembled each other in many ways – the drinking problem that Grant had left to one side.
First of all, they were both brilliant generals and successful generals – victorious generals. And Grant’s strategy was the winning strategy for the Union in 1864 and 1865. That strategy very much formed what Ike did when he landed in Europe in 1944. He was an admirer of Grant.
They were both small-town boys. They both grew up poor. They both went to West Point and were uncomfortable there for some time, and didn’t rise and shine in the West Point cadet hierarchy.
Their approach to war was very similar, and they were both two-term presidents whose two terms are, in my opinion, vastly underrated. I think they were both good presidents – Ike a better president than Grant. Ike, I think, in fact, one of our best presidents.
So, the more I began to think about Ike and read about Ike, the more I discovered I didn’t know and wanted to know, and the more I liked him. I mean, I know it’s a cliche, because the 1951 Irving Berlin musical, ”Call Me Madam,” has, of course, a famous song, ”They Like Ike.” And that became Ike’s political theme song – through no choice of his own.
But the truth of the matter is, as I began to read – particularly the letters and the correspondence between Ike and Marshall, and the correspondence that Ike had with his wife, Mamie – I began to like Ike.
And for a biographer, that’s the first big step. It’s very hard for me to imagine writing a long biography of a man – or a woman, for that matter – whom half-way through the book I begin to dislike. I never had that problem with Ike. I began liking Ike, and the more I read about him, the more I admired him.
LAMB: You are the editor-in-chief emeritus of Simon & Schuster.
LAMB: What does that mean?
KORDA: That means I’m retired. But I continue to edit a number of authors, including David McCullough and Mary Higgins Clark and Stephen Hunter and James Burke and Michael Beschloss. And I’m very happy doing that. But I don’t go into the office anymore.
LAMB: You live in Dutchess County, New York, on a horse farm.
KORDA: On a horse farm.
LAMB: What’s it like?
KORDA: What’s it like? Well, we have not that many horses. A horse farm makes it sound as if we had hundreds. At the moment we have five. And our maximum capacity is six.
But it’s still a lot of work, and a great pleasure. I ride every day. My wife, Margaret, is an active competitive rider.
And it’s a major part of our life – a part, by the way, which Ike would have shared. He loved horses. He was a good rider. It was the form of exercise, before he started to take up golf, that most interested him.
LAMB: You’ve written a book on horses.
KORDA: Yes, ”Horse People.” And I wrote a book with my wife, Margaret, on how to care for horses, called ”Horse Housekeeping,” and, of course, a book on cats with my wife, Margaret, called ”Cat People.”
LAMB: How many years with Simon & Schuster?
LAMB: Nineteen fifty …
KORDA: In 1958 I came to Simon & Schuster.
LAMB: From where?
KORDA: From CBS, of all things. I was a script reader at CBS for about a year, and then slid my way into book publishing, about which I’d never given much thought – and stuck.
I not only stayed in book publishing, but stayed at the same house for nearly half a century, which is very unusual in book publishing.
LAMB: How did you lose your British accent?
KORDA: Well, by small degrees rather than in one big jump. But, you know, my British accent was never that firmly fixed, because when I was a child, I was evacuated to the United States, late in 1940, and didn’t go back to London till 1947. So, I had already lost a portion of my accent then.
And then I went to school in Switzerland, and lost still more of it. And now I think I’ve probably lost all of it.
LAMB: When did you find out that you were a writer?
KORDA: I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I went into book publishing, I somehow felt that I couldn’t write, I shouldn’t write, that it’s wrong to compete with you own authors, for one thing.
And then gradually, I realized that writing is just something that comes naturally to me. It interests me. It keeps me involved. It keeps me thinking about other things.
For years, I thought of it as a hobby until it became, in some cases, too profitable to be treated as a hobby, and in other cases too difficult to be treated as a hobby.
And I have always zigzagged between one thing and another. I’ve been a novelist. I’ve written self-help books like ”Power!” My novels include ”Queenie,” which was made into a big miniseries.
And then I started to write non-fiction books, and I began to write memoirs – ”Charmed Lives” and ”Another Life,” my publishing life.
And it was only with the opportunity to write ”Grant” that I finally realized what I probably should have realized when I was 17 or 18, which was that what I’m really cut out to be is a biographer and a war historian. It’s what’s always interested me. When I read, I read biography and war history – military history – for the most part.
And so, I suddenly realized, I’d been preparing myself for this particular craft for most of my life without ever thinking that I was going to do it.
So, when I sat down to write ”Grant,” and now that I’ve written ”Ike,” it was like being released. It’s like being at the beginning of the track, and they fire the gun and say ”run.” I loved it.
LAMB: And when you were here in 1999 for ”Booknotes,” you told me that you were a man of the left.
KORDA: The moderate left.
LAMB: But then you’ve written two books on Grant and Eisenhower, who – I don’t know how you characterize them, but they’re certainly not known as people of the Left, except the right-wingers during the Eisenhower years thought he was a man of the left – thought he was a Communist, I guess.
KORDA: In the views of many.
LAMB: How do you find yourself attracted to both Grant and Eisenhower, then, under those circumstances?
KORDA: Well, I don’t think of Grant politically, quite frankly. Grant ran as a Republican, but a Republican meant something quite different in the Civil War and post-Civil War days than it seems to me today.
Grant ran as a Republican, because of his respect for Lincoln. I don’t think that Grant had major political ideas, although he was quite an effective president in many respects.
Ike is a political conundrum, and I explore that in Ike considerably. I don’t think Ike was ever at ease with many of the positions of the Republican Party. I think he could just as easily have run as a Democrat.
And indeed, Harry Truman offered to let Ike run for the presidency, and he, Harry Truman, would drop down for the presidency and run as vice president, if Ike did that as a Democrat.
Ike was not particularly tempted by that. As a Kansan, he knew more Republicans than he knew Democrats, I suspect, and was beginning to feel himself pulled to the Republican side.
But I would characterize him as a very liberal Republican. Ike said, remarkably, that he thought that, if any American political party tried to abolish or tinker with Social Security, that in the long run that American political party would not be heard of again in American life. He was very strongly in favor of Social Security.
He was a much, much more devoted and hard worker to bring about civil rights than he is given credit for. He did more for civil rights, I think, than either Jack Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson. But he didn’t seek the applause and the acclaim for it, because it was simply not Ike’s style. And therefore, he has never had the praise for it that he deserves.
When Orval Faubus tried to keep black children out of the schools of Little Rock, Ike had no hesitation. He did not send in peace officers or the FBI or United States Marshals. He ordered out the 101st Airborne Divisions, one of the divisions that had dropped on the night before Normandy and been under his command, to escort those black children through the mobs into the schools.
Ike understood the use of force. He was not only in favor of civil rights, but he also understood that, if you were going to do it, you didn’t fool around. You faced the segregationists with a massed group of 101st Airborne troopers and got the job done.
So, in many respects, I think, Ike is a much more liberally minded president than he is given credit for, and also a man who devoted himself for the eight years of his presidency to peace. The second volume of his presidential memoirs is called ”Waging Peace.” And he waged peace, I think, just as hard as when he was a general he waged war.
LAMB: If he were sitting here – well, first, have you ever met him?
LAMB: If he were sitting here, after you finished this rather large biography of Eisenhower, and you had a chance to ask him a few questions, what would they be?
KORDA: I’d love to have Ike be able to tell us what it felt like on the evening of June 4th, when he postponed the invasion of Normandy for 24 hours because of the bad weather, and what it felt like that night when the weather was still bad and the seas were high.
He had 170,000 men at sea. He had three million men at his command – 1.7 million of them American, over a million of them British and Canadian. He had 7,000 ships and 11,000 airplanes.
And all of that responsibility was on his shoulders. And the decision was his – and his alone – to make. He didn’t pick up the phone to Washington. He didn’t ask anybody for advice.
He simply sat there, having listened to the weather report, and smoked solidly for about three minutes in total silence except for the ticking of a clock, and then said, ”Well, I don’t like it any more than you guys do, but I think we have to go.”
And then stood up and walked out, went back to his trailer and – which I think is remarkable – sat and wrote on a small piece of paper what he would say on the morning of June 6th if the invasion failed, that everything that could be done by courage and by planning by bravery had been done, that he had been obliged to withdraw the troops from the beaches, and that the responsibility for what had happened was his, and his alone.
I think that is the key to understanding Dwight D. Eisenhower, that he was willing to undertake enormous responsibilities and was willing to undertake them completely. He took responsibility for things.
His devotion to duty, his courage, his willingness to shoulder these extraordinarily heavy burdens by himself and alone, and to make up his mind what he wanted to do and how to do it, and see it through – these are very, very rare.
The most striking thing to me about Ike is the strength of that personality and the intelligence that was behind it.
LAMB: Which of the presidents have you known personally?
KORDA: I knew Ronald Reagan, because I edited his autobiography and his book of speeches. I edited a book of speeches by Jimmy Carter. I edited six or seven books by Richard Nixon.
That’s about it. Those are my presidential authors.
Of them, I like best Ronald Reagan, who was an absolutely wonderful and genial fellow, and great fun to be around – and a wonderful storyteller. I myself like telling stories, but Ronald Reagan was one of the best storytellers I’ve ever heard.
LAMB: You told us the story when you were here about the cookies. And we’ve got that on our Booknotes.org Web site, if people want to read it.
But what I wanted to ask you about the – you told us also that Simon & Schuster paid $8 or $9 million for his …
KORDA: Something like that, yes.
LAMB: … his biography or autobiography.
Did Simon & Schuster publish Bill Clinton?
LAMB: But he was paid similar, I mean, lots and lots of money …
KORDA: Even more than that, I think – 10 or 12.
LAMB: But he sold a significantly higher number of books than Ronald Reagan.
KORDA: He earned out. The books earned out.
LAMB: What does that mean in book terms (ph)?
KORDA: If he was paid $10 million – I forgot whether it was $10 million or $12 million – he earned – his books earned out $10 or $12 million. He was an astonishing, huge bestseller. Ronald Reagan, I have to say, was not.
LAMB: Well, you told us, I think, he only sold like 22,000 copies, or something like that.
KORDA: I won’t vouch for that amount, but it was disappointing, let us say.
LAMB: What, in your opinion, sold the Bill Clinton book? And why didn’t the Ronald Reagan book sell?
KORDA: Well, for one thing, Bill Clinton wrote his own book and is an extremely clever writer, and a good writer. That, by the way, is not uncommon among presidents.
Grant’s ”Memoirs” is probably the most eminent work of literature in the non-fiction field in America. It’s by any definition as much of a classic as ”Moby Dick” is in fiction.
Ike’s ”Crusade in Europe,” his story of the Second World War, is to my mind one of the best written – and certainly the most fair-minded – books about the Second World War that anybody has ever written.
LAMB: Did he write it?
KORDA: He wrote it himself, absolutely wrote it in longhand. I know that, because his editor, Joe Barnes, was a friend of mine at Simon & Schuster. And it reads like Ike. It sounds like Ike.
It’s a wonderful book. You could pick it up today and recommend it to anybody as a book to read about the Second World War in Europe.
LAMB: Did Jimmy Carter write his own books?
KORDA: Well, he wrote his own speeches, and those are the only ones I published. But I believe he writes his own books, yes.
I know his editor. And he’s actually very much a stickler for having his books exactly the way he wants them. He wrote a novel, a big novel, which I helped edit some time ago, and he was, though receptive to certain changes, basically he absolutely wanted it his way – and got it his way.
So, he writes his own books. And Clinton does the same.
Ronald Reagan, I have to say, does not fit in that category. He was a very good writer. His letters and his diaries are extremely well written and very readable, even today.
But when it came to his autobiography, I think he felt that that was something that somebody else should do for him. And it was, in fact, done for him by somebody else – and it showed.
LAMB: You told us early in this conversation that you still edit David McCullough.
KORDA: Yes, I do.
LAMB: What is his secret to success? And how successful is he compared to history book writers in the past?
KORDA: I would say that he’s probably the most successful writer of history and biography in the United States today, and has been for a large number of years – certainly since the publication of his book on Truman.
What his secret is, I’m not so sure I can answer that. If I knew it, I would do it.
But I think it’s in part that he writes wonderfully well. It’s in part that he has tremendous empathy for the period and for the people he is writing about.
It’s in part that he never forgets that biography and history have to be told as stories. They have to be told as stories, so that you can read them as if you were reading a novel, with a beginning and a middle and an end, and a continuous story that pulls you along.
That sounds obvious, but probably 90 percent of the history and biography that’s published is not readable as a story.
LAMB: What’s his next project?
KORDA: I’m not at liberty to say that. That’s, unfortunately, something that only David McCullough could tell you. But whatever it is, it’ll be a huge bestseller.
LAMB: And you’ll edit it.
LAMB: Do you have a favorite David McCullough story?
KORDA: Well, my favorite David McCullough story is that he sent me the most wonderful picture taken of him at his house in Maine, with a lovely handwritten letter – he has the most wonderful handwriting, which I have always envied – about the – he wanted me to have this – and I’m paraphrasing – this photograph that showed the distinguished historian receiving the news that he has been awarded his second Pulitzer Prize, with his customary dignity.
And it’s just this wonderful color snapshot of David McCullough going like this, holding the telephone in one hand.
I think it’s important in people that they be able to enjoy success when it strikes them. And David certainly does that.
And I’m very distrustful of people who don’t enjoy their own successes.
LAMB: And when would we have seen you in that same position?
KORDA: Well, certainly, when I hit the ”New York Times” bestseller list, I was just bowled over.
LAMB: Which book?
I’d been on the bestseller list. I’d been number one on the bestseller list, actually …
LAMB: With what book?
KORDA: … early on, with ”Power!” on the ”New York Times” bestseller list. And I think I got up to number two with ”Queenie,” and number two on the fiction bestseller list on the ”New York Times.”
But, you know, I put so much thought and feeling and energy into writing about Eisenhower, that I came to feel that perhaps this was just a personal obsession of interest on my part. So, when the book got out there and hit the ”New York Times” bestseller list, I was just overjoyed.
I thought, that’s just wonderful, because I wanted people both to understand what a great man Eisenhower was, and also to understand two things, which are extremely important to me and which form, as it were, the structure of Ike.
One is that, I want to put Eisenhower and his life in the context of the great events that formed his life and that, from middle age on, he helped to form as he rose to positions of greater and greater power.
The other is to remind people – because it’s a continuous story – that simply because we won the Second World War does not mean that we were fated to have won it. There were many, many chances that we had to lose it. We could have lost it in 1940. We could have lost it in 1941. We nearly lost it in 1942. We could have even lost it in 1944.
We have to understand that, because we look back on it and know we won it, doesn’t mean that Eisenhower, sitting where he was, could be sure he was going to win it. Ike thought that the Normandy landings had no more than a 50-50 chance of success, even if he had good weather – and he had terrible weather.
And we have to put ourselves in Ike’s shoes to understand the stress and the strain, to understand also that this was a war in which terrible things were done, but in which our loss, had it happened, would have been catastrophic and, perhaps, permanent. A world dominated by Nazi Germany and by a militant Japan would have been unimaginably different from the world we live in today.
And a large part of the credit for that victory has to go to Eisenhower and to the way he fought that war and the way he planned that war.
Also, I wanted to explore, because it’s fascinating to me, how it was that a boy – a boy who grew up poor in Abilene, Kansas, and came from a family that was Mennonite. As you know, the Mennonites are bearded, often German-speaking, farmers, predominately, who avoid alcohol, gambling, smoking, and are pacifists. Part of their religion is a militant and absolute pacifism.
Ike’s mother converted to Mennonism. She was from a very fundamentalist background, but she converted to Mennonism when she married Ike’s father, and then converted later on to become a Jehovah’s Witness, which is, once again, an extreme pacifist sect.
So, Ike grew up not only in a family, but in an extended family and among neighbors, all of whom had in common a deep and militant belief in pacifism.
So, it has to be carefully explored. How it is that a boy from that background should grow up and become a great general?
Ike’s mother, who was an extraordinarily interesting woman, when she saw Ike off on the train to West Point, carrying his suitcase, she came home, and one of Ike’s brothers said it was the only time he had ever seen his mother cry. She cried, not because Ike was leaving home, but because Ike was leaving home to become a soldier – the most unthinkable thing possible for somebody who was a Jehovah’s Witness and married to a Mennonite.
So, there is much there which is fascinating. Ike is the last of our 19th century presidents, the last one born in the 19th century.
He grew up in Abilene when it was still a frontier town. Or it was a frontier town in the process of becoming a respectable town. The streets were still mud.
He actually saw as a child a pistol fight in the streets outside his house, and remembered that one of the participants – with the eye of a future general – used a nickel-plated Colt Peacemaker revolver. And Abilene, which had been the haunt of Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, and where the streets were lined with bars and brothels, was in the process of transforming itself into a town with more churches than brothels and bars.
And a part of that transformation was the arrival there of this Mennonite group from Pennsylvania, like the Amish, that changed the entire complexion of the town, and turned Abilene into a very different town from the sort of raw frontier town it had been.
Ike came from that background. And for him, probably the most enormous and unexpected and unimaginable sight of all was when he went to West Point on the train and saw for the first time, going through the New York, the sea and the Hudson River. It was unimaginable.
He came from a town that’s surrounded by probably more miles of dry land than you could find anywhere in the world, where the local river is, for very good reasons, called the Mud River.
And curiously enough, which I found marvelous – so many surprises in exploring Ike’s life – Ike was actually intending to go to Annapolis and become a naval officer. He had never seen the sea or been near it, or smelled it. But he knew that a military education, or a naval education, was the only way a poor boy like himself from Kansas was going to get a college education for free.
So, he was determined to follow that path. And with that great intelligence, which he always had and very artfully concealed quite often, he sat for the competitive exam and got an exceedingly good place in it – so high up that he would have gone to Annapolis and become a naval cadet, except that the kid ahead of him got sick at the last moment. And there was, therefore, a vacancy at West Point.
And Ike chose, without giving it much thought, to go to the Army instead of the Navy. Otherwise, he might have turned up – who knows – as a five-star admiral.
To trace the background of how this man from this background, without ever – like Grant – turning his back on his background. He always remained humble, modest, devoted to duty, very conscious of the need for discipline, self-discipline, and driven by the spirits of small town, Midwestern, home town America.
I think it’s part of Ike’s charm that he brought that with him, even though, at the peak of his power as a general, he not only commanded millions of men in battle, but dealt as an equal with Churchill, with Stalin, with de Gaulle.
But there was something about Ike, a kind of friendly, honest, decent sense of respect for people, that made people – however difficult they were and however high up they were – instantly like Ike.
I found that he was a fascinating man to read about and write about. I would like to have known him.
LAMB: You say you knew Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
What would happen if you put those three men and Eisenhower, General Eisenhower, at a table – those four men, and you’re at the table. How would they interact with one another, based on what you know?
KORDA: Well, of course, Richard Nixon had ample opportunity to react within to Eisenhower, because for eight years he was Eisenhower’s vice president.
LAMB: But I mean, from what you personally know, how would these men interact? Would they get along? Would they like each other? They almost all came from a small town.
KORDA: Well, I don’t know whether they would like each other. I’m skeptical of the notion that Richard Nixon liked Jimmy Carter, or that Jimmy Carter liked Richard Nixon.
Nixon and Reagan always got along quite well together, although they didn’t see that much of each other.
All of them, I suspect, would get along with Ike. Ike could sit down at a table of people who were at daggers drawn with each other, and get them at ease and cooperating. That was his …
LAMB: Who was the smartest of those four?
KORDA: Oh, Ike.
I mean, Nixon was very smart, a very, very smart man – possibly too smart. But Ike was not only a brilliant general, but a very astute politician – always conscious of how to make politics work for him, how to get what he wanted out of Congress. And how to always make it seem as if it was easy, and as if he hadn’t done it.
The trademark big grin of Ike concealed an icy intelligence, a streak of ruthlessness, certainly, and a violent temper. There are many instances of it in my biography of Ike. Ike had a temper, just hair trigger temper, held back by great, great effort.
I mean, the chain smoking didn’t help, but one large part of his ill health in old age and his heart disease, I’m sure, was that he spent a lifetime holding back that temper. People would see him turn red, and the veins in his forehead pulse – even when he was a cadet at West Point, when he was challenged. And I have many instances of it in my book, or when he thought that somebody was being treated unfairly, Ike’s temper was horrendous to behold.
The only two people, so far as I know, in the whole world of whom George Patton was afraid were Mrs. Patton and Ike.
LAMB: Go back to that table. Who would have had the best personality at the table?
KORDA: Ike. Although Ronald Reagan was a charmer. But I don’t think he was any more a charmer or a good storyteller than Ike was. Ike was a natural.
I would say it would be a contest between Ronald Reagan and Ike in that respect, and I’m not sure who would win, because that’s a contest of the giants.
LAMB: Who was the best leader?
KORDA: Ike. Ike.
Also, you have to bear in mind that Ike was not only the best leader, he was a man who led a most precarious and difficult coalition for almost four years from very, very shaky beginnings to ultimate complete victory in Europe. That takes a degree of leadership of a very special nature.
I mean, Ike had serving under him prima donnas ranging from Field Marshal Montgomery to the French generals, to Patton and Bradley. And although Ike was quite fond of Bradley, there are plenty of instances in the book where Ike, as we say in England, tears a strip off Bradley to the point where Bradley is just white. In the Battle of the Bulge, Ike gave Bradley a bawling out such as no man has ever heard.
And Henry Kissinger told me that when he came to the White House as Nixon’s national security advisor, that he met, at Nixon’s request, with Eisenhower to get Eisenhower’s point of view about various foreign and domestic problems.
And the next day, that story ran in the ”Washington Post.” And he had not leaked it, but somebody did.
And he picked up his phone, and it was Ike from his hospital bed. And Kissinger said to me, ”I have never been cursed out that way in my whole life, before or since.” He said, ”I have never, ever been cursed out that way.”
He cursed Kissinger up and down, as only an Army man can.
It turned out that it wasn’t Kissinger who had leaked it. But Kissinger said that having Ike vent his temper on you was an experience that no man ever forgot. And I can promise you that Bradley and Patton felt the same.
When Ike was angry, and when he thought somebody hadn’t done their best or tried their best, or when he thought they were not obeying an order of his, his temper could be ferocious. And yet, that’s completely concealed. You could read biographies of Ike and suppose that he was always this smiling, genial fellow with the big handshake and the great smile.
He was. But behind that was something else – a much tougher guy.
LAMB: Now, in 1999, when you were last here, if I had asked you the same question, and you knew President Nixon and President Reagan and President Carter then, would you have said the same thing about Eisenhower? Or is this something you’ve learned since then?
KORDA: It’s something I’ve learned since then. It’s something I’ve always suspected, because I’ve read all of Ike’s books.
And also because, being a Churchill scholar, one of the things that interests me most is that, within weeks of Ike’s arrival in 1942 in England, though he was only an unknown major general at that time, he had won the confidence of Churchill completely.
And that argues for a very high level of ability, and also for being able to hold your own against an overwhelming personality, because Ike and Churchill did not agree. And their views of strategy and how to win the war were radically different.
And Ike fought for his views against Churchill. That’s fighting against one of the giants. And he very often won.
So, you can’t ignore, even from the very beginning of Ike’s meteoric rise to fame as a general, and to power as a general, that he was capable of holding his own with anyone.
LAMB: Would General Eisenhower have ever gone into Iraq like President Bush did?
KORDA: No. He said very clearly, in unmistakable terms, that – and I think I’m quoting him accurately – that if America ever becomes an occupying power in a seething Arab world, I am sure we would regret that decision.
And Ike knew whereof he spoke. He had, after all, conquered Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, which was then French North Africa. He knew what the ”seething Arab world” was like.
And when he said we should not become an occupying power in it, he meant exactly what he said. And he was right, I think.
LAMB: Another book that you wrote some years ago – I think 1991 – was ”Man to Man.”
KORDA: It was about prostate cancer. I was operated on for prostate cancer. That would have been in 1994, I think.
LAMB: I may have the wrong date.
KORDA: And it was a memorable experience, which I felt that I should share with other people, partly because I wanted to draw men’s attention to the fact that this is as serious a problem as breast cancer is for women and, therefore, not something to be taken likely, and partly because I wanted to make them question doctors about their treatment.
I think that, had I known then what I know now, I would probably have thought twice about undergoing a radical prostatectomy and the heavy surgery that was, in my case, involved, and might have opted for a different kind of treatment.
So, I partly wanted to empower men to challenge their doctors, because I think all too often, particularly with surgeons who have a lot of personality and are very forceful in their manner, that patients are swept into surgery, when later on they might go back to that moment and say, I wish I’d asked X, Y and Z. I wish I’d taken a second opinion, and so forth.
And I partly wanted to make men more aware of the fact that prostate cancer is very dangerous. You’ve got to take care to be tested for it at regular intervals. And you’ve got to pay attention to it, if those PSA numbers begin to rise.
So, it’s a book I’m proud of having written. I found it more difficult to write than most books, because it’s not pleasant to deal with subjects like prostate cancer or urinary incontinence, rising PSAs, surgery.
But I’m very happy that I did it. I get still many letters today, even though the book is somewhat out of date now, because in some respects the treatment for prostate cancer has advanced beyond what it was in 1994.
But I get many, many letters from men who have read the book and say that they’ve been helped enormously by it, and that their wives have been helped enormously to understand what’s involved by reading it. That, I think, is perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of writing a book, is to know that you have not only written something that you want to do, but that people are helped by it.
LAMB: You were born in 1933. What year did you have a heart attack?
KORDA: I had a cardiac arrest – and possibly a heart attack – in August of 1999, and was in a coma for a period of time.
I am very fortunate that it happened in Central Park, opposite some park rangers, whom I would like to thank here and now on television, because they were standing outside the Tavern on the Green when I collapsed, rushed across and gave me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, all of which they’d been trained in.
And had that not happened, I would have been dead. So, I owe my life to the knowledge of CPR and to the swift action of those park rangers, who phoned for an ambulance and undertook to keep me going.
Again, I am always happy to share that, and I do my best to talk to recovery groups and patients’ groups, because I think it’s, again, important for people to understand that this is not an abstract problem. CPR and knowing how to resuscitate somebody are things that should be available, and things that people should know how to do and how to use.
LAMB: I ask you both of those questions, because I want to know what impact it had on your ability to concentrate, your ability to read. You call yourself a great reader. Obviously, you’ve edited a lot of books and written a lot of them.
And your ability to write – as you get older and health concerns come along, what’s it do to the way you look at the world and your ability to do what you do?
KORDA: Well, as you know, Ralph Richardson – a great actor, who was a friend of my father’s and whom I adored, and was like a kind of honorary uncle to me – Ralph once said – and I’m quoting, I think, very correctly – he said, ”When I was young, I thought it would be very jolly thing to become old, because people would come to me for advice, and I’d give them the benefit of my wisdom and knowledge.”
He said, ”And now I am old. Nobody ever comes to see me at all, and I don’t know a bloody thing.”
And there’s some aspect of that which is true for all of us. I’m astonished at the whole areas of one’s mind that have gone AWOL since 1994 and 1999.
But also, I believe that, just as exercise is good for the body, and certainly good for anybody who has had any kind of heart problem, that exercising the mind is absolutely vital. And that if you allow the age process and the various calamities that ensue for most of us along the process of aging in the form of operations, or whatever, if you allow that to numb your mind, then it will, in fact, become number, and you will, in fact, end up knowing nothing.
And so, I regard my plunging into, let us say, the Eisenhower-Marshall wartime correspondence – one of the pivotal and most central and most fascinating correspondences of the Second World War – they’re as important as the correspondence of Churchill and FDR, which consists of almost 1,700 long, long letters.
Ike and Marshall wrote each other almost on a daily basis, long, long, long letters – wonderful stuff to read.
But I felt that in reading it and digesting it, and coming to grips with what it meant and what it was about, that I was not only enjoying myself, because I like that kind of thing, and not only reading background for the book, because that’s a necessary thing if you’re going to write one, but also exercising my mind in a way that was good for my mind.
And I think that that’s the most important thing that people can do as they get older, is to isolate, as it were, the things that they’re interested in, and really work on those things. I think the mind needs to be exercised, just as much as the body does.
LAMB: Where do you read, or you’re the most comfortable?
KORDA: Sitting at my desk at home in Dutchess County. I have a very comfortable chair and a big desk, and an office which, as my wife Margaret says, is absolutely littered with books and papers. And it’s true. Every once in a while we make an effort to get it all tidied up, but that’s not an easy thing to do.
And I’m very happy reading there. I love reading. I’m a book publisher, so, of course, to some degree I’m paid to read – or was paid to read, at any rate, before I retired.
But I am somebody who is never totally happy without a book at hand, or several books at hand, that I can read through and interest myself in.
So, for me, writing a biography of somebody like Eisenhower is, to begin with, an immense pleasure. There are those letters to read. There are those other books about him to read. There are the war histories to read. There’s the German war stuff to read. There’s the French war stuff, there’s de Gaulle’s memoirs.
Book after book after book. And each time you read one, you say to yourself, yes, but I haven’t yet read that. Or this points out to that, and I ought to read that, as well. Or this particular set of correspondence makes me want to read some of Patton’s letters or Bradley’s letters – or Rommel’s letters to his wife.
Each thing leads you to another thing to read. And I find that a wonderful, wonderful process, a very exciting process.
At some point in time, of course, you have to put all that away. It’s even a moment of sadness, where you brush all that to one side and sit down in front of a piece of paper or a word computer and write page one, chapter one, and have to really start using that stuff and writing the book.
But the researching of it is a pure joy.
LAMB: Who is the most difficult person you’ve ever edited?
KORDA: The pause is to try and think of, because most have not been. I must tell you that I am not an intrusive editor. I try to phrase everything in a positive way. There are some things, of course, that are very difficult to phrase in a positive way, but I have always done my best.
I would say that probably the person with whom I had the most difficulty in terms of editing was Faye Dunaway, when I edited her autobiography, because we absolutely didn’t agree on what should be in the book.
A person of whom I’m very fond, but never managed quite to come to grips with editing was Cher, because it was very hard to get her to see that a book should proceed chronologically, rather than back and forth in a zigzag way – though we remain very good friends.
I’ve never had a big fight about editing, that I can remember, with any author, except possibly Faye Dunaway.
Most of the time, I’ve had authors who simply rejected the entire notion of being edited, and have said, no, I’m not going to do any of that, and it’s my way or forget about it. That has happened.
LAMB: Who was the easiest? Or maybe a better question is, who is the single best practitioner of writing that you can remember editing?
KORDA: Well, I would say that Graham Greene and David McCullough are ideal writers. They don’t need editing in a blue pencil way at all. Both of them, of course, in different ways – wonderful writers, civilized, worldly and charming.
But very receptive to an intelligent and helpful suggestion, which, by the way, they do not necessarily accept, but they certainly will listen to.
I’ve edited Larry McMurtry for more than three decades, and we’re very close friends. And we’ve only – I’ve only made two suggestions to Larry McMurtry in the course of more books than I can count, one of which he rejected and one of which he accepted, and we both now agree was a mistake, which was to change the title of his big novel, his big rodeo novel, as we call it, the Moby Dick of rodeo, which was called ”Country of the Horn.”
And when our sales department said they didn’t think they could sell that title, I persuaded Larry to change it to ”Moving On,” which he was reluctant to accept, but eventually did, and I was quite enthusiastic about. And the book was not anything like as big a success as ”Lonesome Dove,” and was considerably longer than ”Lonesome Dove,” which was also a daunting prospect for our sales department.
And in retrospect, both of us now wish we’d continued to call the book, ”Country of the Horn,” which is actually a great title. I have no idea how we managed to sit down and decide it wasn’t, but we did.
But there’s a relationship which has gone on for three decades with countless books, because Larry writes at least a book a year, in which I’ve only made two suggestions, and wish I hadn’t had one of them accepted.
LAMB: Did you find a character in your research for Eisenhower, or writing your book of General Eisenhower, that you want to write a book about? Is there a next book for Michael Korda?
KORDA: Well, not only is there a next book for Michael Korda, but I’ve already partially completed a next book, which is about the Battle of Britain, from June of 1940 to October of 1940 – a subject about which I’ve always wanted to write a book, because I served in the Royal Air Force. Hence, the little badge.
And I’ve always wanted to tell the story of the Battle of Britain, which I have never felt has been told correctly, completely, or the way that I wanted it to be told. So, that’s – I’ve already taken that step.
As to a character in ”Ike” about whom I would like to write a whole book, yes, of course. I would love to write a book about Winston Churchill, but I feel that there are so many books about Winston Churchill – many of them written by my very good friend, Sir Martin Gilbert – that I’m not sure I could squeeze one in by myself of what would make it different from everybody else’s.
But reading ”Ike,” and the relationship between Ike and Winston Churchill, one is constantly amazed and amused and awed by the breadth of Churchill’s mind and by his immense imagination and energy, and by his puckish and strange sense of humor and personality.
He clearly captivated Ike, and clearly Ike captivated him. And there are moments – there’s a wonderful moment when Churchill returns from the Teheran meeting with a bad case of pneumonia, which Dr. Lord Moran calls the ”old man’s friend.” And when Churchill asks why, Moran says, ”Because it carries them off without fuss or pain.”
And Churchill is put to bed in Ike’s villa in Algiers with pneumonia, and has nothing to do but have his daughter, Sarah, read aloud to him from ”Pride and Prejudice,” which strangely enough, Churchill had never read before.
And at the end of having had ”Pride and Prejudice” read to him, Churchill says, with no regrets, ”What quiet lives these people led.”
With no desire for a quiet life at all, but it’s wonderful (ph).
And ”Ike” – my book on Ike – is full of these moments with Churchill and Ike together.
And they’re the moments, I think, that made me happiest, among the few moments that made me laugh outright during writing ”Ike.”
I love to see and to communicate in a book what people are really like, rather than the historical figures that are presented at school, to the extent that they are presented at all.
And indeed, that’s one of the reasons for writing ”Ike,” is because, how much are people taught about Eisenhower in school today? Almost nothing.
How much are they taught about the Second World War? Are they aware how near we came to losing it, or what the world would be like had we lost it? Are they aware of what people risked and suffered and sacrificed, or what the world would have been like today, had we not?
No, they are not.
And so, it’s not just Ike that I want to bring alive in this book. It’s that whole period from the First World War through the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War, and how it was that we came to win it, and the great role that was played in that entire period of history by a poor boy from Kansas, who had a special kind of military Horatio Alger story in the person of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
LAMB: Michael Korda, author of ”Ike,” we’re out of time. Thank you very much.
KORDA: Thank you for having me.