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Awards & Honors: 2008 National Humanities Medalist

Richard Brookhiser

“If you had one phone call, and it has to be to one of the Founding Fathers,” says journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser, “and you’re in one of the four following situations—you’ve just been thrown into jail, you’ve just been taken to the emergency room, you’re suddenly broke, or someone cancelled on you for a dinner party and you need a replacement—the Founder you would call would be Gouverneur Morris.”

Brookhiser rescued Morris, a cohort of Washington and Hamilton, from history limbo after falling for the charming rogue while delving into the lives of the founding fathers.  “Every time he appeared, he seemed to be saying something intelligent or funny or both,” says Brookhiser. In Gentleman Revolutionary, Brookhiser chronicled Morris’s role in financing the Continental Army, polishing the Constitution, and serving as ambassador to France, as well as his profligate libertine ways.The ability to spot a good story and bring it to life is the hallmark of Brookhiser’s career. In 1970, at age fifteen, he became journalism’s wunderkind when his article about the antiwar protests at his high school became a National Review cover story. After graduating from Yale, Brookhiser went to work full-time for the magazine and has been writing for it ever since. “That’s my home and first love,” he says.

Brookhsier wrote a column for the New York Observer from 1987 to 2006. His journalism has also appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, Atlantic Monthly, Time, and Vanity Fair.

In the mid-1980s, Brookhiser branched out into book writing. His first book in 1986, The Outside Story: How Democrats and Republicans Re-elected Reagan, eschewed the campaign back room in favor of examining how the campaign was received by voters. The Way of the WASP: How It Made America and How It Can Save It offered a frequently mischievous account of characteristics of and contributions made by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Brookhiser turned his attention to the Founding Fathers, producing a series of books that took the venerable icons off their pedestals and reveled in their complexities. Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington tackled a man that Brookhiser had been intrigued with since his days at Yale when he took a seminar taught by Garry Wills. “He had a lot of interesting things to say about Jefferson, but he would also talk about Washington, sometimes using him as a stick to beat Jefferson with gently. He clearly loved George Washington and that’s what first opened my eyes—what first told me there was a powerful story.”

Next came Alexander Hamilton, American, followed by America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735–1918. “The Adamses are impossible people to like,” he says. “They are loveable people, but you want to wring their necks half the time.” For What Would the Founders Do?, Brookhiser extrapolated the opinions and writings of Washington, Jefferson, et al. and applied them to contemporary debates over stem cell research, the war on drugs, and nation building.  In his most recent book, published in 2008, George Washington on Leadership, he returned to his favorite Founder, analyzing key decisions and actions to glean practical advice.

“Journalism helped a lot in being a historian,” he says. “Because I’ve been writing about dead politicians, I know what a stab in the back looks like, so when I see Jefferson doing it to Hamilton, I recognize that maneuver.  The Founders played the game the way it has always been played.  It’s not always pretty.”

Brookhiser has also lent his narrative talents to the small screen, writing and presenting a documentary about George Washington, which aired on PBS in 2002. He’s currently in the midst of filming one about Alexander Hamilton.

With his next book, he’s taken a step back from the Founders, penning a memoir about his almost four-decade relationship with William F. Buckley Jr., conservative commentator and founder of the National Review. Brookhiser calls writing about the recently deceased Buckley, who was an important figure in his life, intense. “He was a vital and lively person to be in the presence of—not unlike Gouverneur Morris. They both loved to provoke and they were very good at it.”

By Meredith Hindley