Skip to main content

2008 National Humanities Medal Winners

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens' engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans' access to important resources in the humanities. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year. A list of all National Humanities Medal winners is available here.
The following individuals and groups received a 2008 National Humanities Medal:


Gabor S. Boritt

With the approach of the 2009 Lincoln bicentennial, Americans’ interest in Abraham Lincoln has surged, with dozens of new books appearing on the president. But it wasn’t always that way, recalls Gabor Boritt, director and founder of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and the Robert Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies. Lincoln and the Civil War were far less popular in the 1970s than they are today. People “were sick of war, tired of war,” Boritt believes. For a while, he says, Lincoln “seemed to disappear.” Boritt’s first book, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, which appeared in 1978, was one of only a handful of Lincoln books published that decade.

A tireless advocate for the study of Lincoln and the Civil War, Boritt brings a passion for the subject that began during his early years as a Hungarian immigrant to the United States. Born in Budapest in 1940, he endured harsh conditions during the war, only to encounter new hardships under the Soviet regime that followed. His mother died, his father and brother went to prison, and he was sent to an orphanage. After joining the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he fled the country in the wake of its failure.

As a teenage refugee with little or no English, “I came to New York. But it was a huge place, difficult for me,” he says. Someone advised him to “go west,” and he did—moving all the way to South Dakota. Somewhere along the way, he picked up a booklet of Abraham Lincoln’s writings to practice reading English. “I was just amazed by all these things he was saying,” Boritt recalls. “There was something about him that pulled you deeply, meaningfully.” A lifelong fascination had begun.

“I didn’t quite know what to do with myself,” he remembers, but he had always liked history, and he decided to pursue his education. In 1962, he graduated from Yankton College with a degree in history. A master’s degree, also earned in South Dakota, was followed by a doctorate at Boston University. Boritt soon went to Vietnam to teach history (including Civil War history) to U.S. troops.

Boritt’s first book pushed the field of Lincoln studies in a new direction. Instead of focusing on military or political affairs, he looked at economics. Tracing Lincoln’s economic beliefs from the Illinois state legislature, where he championed waterway and railroad improvements, to the White House, Boritt found that Lincoln emphasized the individual’s “right to rise,” to use Boritt’s own phrase. Lincoln, he said, saw the freedom of upward economic mobility (at first, primarily for whites) as an American ideal, as well as a force that could propel economic growth. Boritt has since written, cowritten, or edited sixteen books on the Civil War and Lincoln, including The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon, The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, and Jefferson Davis’s Generals.

After teaching at several universities, Boritt joined the faculty at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. In 1983, he founded the college’s Civil War Institute. Among its other activities, the institute may be best known for its annual summer conference, which brings scholars and participants from the United States and around the world together for a one-week immersion in the Civil War. The 2009 topic is “The Assassination” and will include notable authors such as Catherine Clinton and Edward Steers Jr.

Boritt is also chairman of the board of the annual $50,000 Lincoln Prize, first awarded in 1991, for the best nonfiction historical book on Lincoln or the Civil War era; there is now a $10,000 Lincoln Prize for electronic works. He is a member of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and a member of the board of the Gettysburg Foundation. His life has also been the subject of a new documentary, Budapest to Gettysburg, by his son, filmmaker Jake Boritt. “At first I hated” the idea, admits the elder Boritt, who prefers not to dwell on his difficult years in Europe. But pride in his son’s accomplishment has outweighed his reluctance, and he is now quick to note the recognition the film has received.

Boritt’s most recent book, The Gettysburg Gospel, looks at the circumstances and history of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln began to write the speech just two days ahead of delivering it, Boritt says, incorporating ideas and phrases that he had used before, but “in a new way, one of a kind.” The speech and its stirring call for “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” received little attention at the time, he notes. Lincoln was not the main speaker at Gettysburg, and in that era, great speeches were expected to be much longer. “It took years, about a generation, before it became a central moment,” says Boritt. “It is an idea that keeps growing and growing.”

—Esther Ferington


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.”

—Meredith Hindley


Harold Holzer

Harold Holzer’s new book, Lincoln President-Elect, is the thirty-first he has authored, coauthored, or edited on the subject of our sixteenth president. Yet, even after decades of research, writing, and lecturing, Holzer’s appreciation for Lincoln hasn’t flagged. “Lincoln remains a unique touchstone not only because every president in recent memory identifies with him, and draws strength from him, but also because so many ordinary Americans regard him as the symbol of the American dream.”

Though widely known as a Lincoln expert, Holzer is not a professional historian. His career has been in public relations—working on political campaigns in New York and for many years in the administration of former Governor Mario Cuomo and as public affairs director for New York’s large PBS station, WNET. In 1992, he joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he remains today as the senior vice president for external affairs.

Despite the pressures of such work, Holzer has long kept after Lincoln on the side. He points to an early 1970s issue of Life magazine as the catalyst. It had a photograph of Richard Nixon sitting in his study with a print of the Lincoln family on the wall behind him. Holzer knew the print, but Lincoln’s face was markedly different. It sparked his curiosity about lithography and etching and nineteenth-century political image-making. “Lincoln had spent a lot of time cultivating his image as the great emancipator, posing for artists and photographers.” Out of this research came Holzer’s first book in 1984, The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print.

Holzer is quick to thank those he’s worked for: “I’ve been blessed to work for great administrators who love scholarship: the late John Jay Iselin at Channel 13, Governor Mario Cuomo, Philippe de Montebello and Emily Rafferty at the Met. Philippe and Emily love to tease me, rib me, about my extracurriculars but they are wonderfully supportive.” Holzer has made the most of their support by sticking to a rigorous schedule of writing and lecturing. “For years, I wrote on the train from Rye into the city. Now, weekends are devoted to writing, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Vacations are research trips. I’m not sure my wife and children always loved Lincoln, but they’ve been wonderful. My daughter Remy, who was born on February 11, spent many of her early birthdays in Springfield and Gettysburg. My daughter Meg, who was born on June 3—Jefferson Davis’s birthday—got roped into the Confederate trips.”

Holzer also credits the supportive community of Lincoln scholars. He traces his interest in Lincoln back to the fifth grade when he had to do a report on Lincoln and discovered Richard Current’s The Lincoln Nobody Knows in the library of P.S. 67 in Little Neck, Queens. Current, whose presentation of enduring controversies surrounding Lincoln fascinated the nine-year-old Holzer, later became a mentor to the young historian: “He’s a friend and still going at ninety-six.” So, too, did Stefan Lorant, whose 1941 Lincoln: His Life in Photographs Holzer cites as another major influence. The innovative Hungarian photojournalist had been imprisoned by Hitler in 1933 and fled Germany, beginning his life again first in England, and then in the United States. “He befriended me as a kid, and that book of his that so captured a bar mitzvah boy’s eye and heart remains wonderful. It was certainly the most influential Lincoln book for me. He was showing how you could not only orchestrate pictures and words, but speak volumes in a paragraph—he is still the most concise of all Lincoln writers, an example I wish I could emulate.”

Asked to name his favorite among his own books, he demurs: “The newest is always your favorite. I’m a PR professional, after all. Lincoln President-Elect is certainly the most newsworthy book I’ve done—timed for Election Day 2008—and also the most detailed.” It’s obvious, though, that the 2004 Lincoln at Cooper Union holds a special place in its author’s heart. “I’d always wanted to make the case that New York made Lincoln. As a New Yorker, I got a special thrill out of seeing that book in print. Now I’m serving as guest historian for a 2009 New-York Historical Society exhibit that will carry the story forward: ‘Lincoln and New York.’ ”

To Holzer, Lincoln remains the indispensable American. “One has only to look at the most recent presidential election to appreciate that a gifted person can still rise from humble origins and become president—an extraordinary fulfillment of what Lincoln believed, and lived. What made it even sweeter is that Mr. Obama quoted Lincoln in his own victory speech—closing the circle, and reminding the country that we’ve taken another step to completing what Lincoln called America’s ‘unfinished work.’”

—Robert Messenger


Myron Magnet

In 1968, when Myron Magnet returned to Columbia University after two years of studying English literature at Cambridge, “they were sweeping up the debris of the student riots.” He was not, to say the least, hip to this groove, and he soon found himself out of step with academic fashion. His dissertation on the social thought of Charles Dickens, literature’s most famous friend of the lower orders, reported the discovery of a Burkean conservatism beneath Dickens’s liberal reformism. The author of The Pickwick Papers was prone to playing the unfashionable busybody, as when he dragged a young woman to a police station and demanded she be arrested for cursing in public. Magnet’s exploration of Dickens’s strong views on law and order (which he later expanded into Dickens and the Social Order), he says, “sank my academic career like a stone.”

In 1980, the literature professor joined the staff of Fortune magazine. The position afforded him many opportunities to interview prominent executives and learn about their work. Magnet then extended his journalistic efforts to matters of social policy, writing about American family, race, poverty, and, rather memorably, homelessness.

“A critical part of my education,” he says, “was going around the country and talking to homeless people and directors of homeless shelters.” The homeless, he concluded, were not hapless victims of a cruel marketplace, as often described in the media. Many indeed were victims, the mentally ill in particular, but of the policy of deinstitutionalization. Many others, Magnet found, were suffering as a result of habits and predilections that no longer bore the heavy price of social disapproval.

The turning point for his career came when, at Fortune, he had an article marking the two hundredth anniversary of the Constitution spiked just prior to publication. Magnet complained to a sympathetic friend, William Hammett, then-president of the New York City think tank, the Manhattan Institute. He felt like he had so much more to say, Magnet said, not just about the Constitution, but about American society as a whole. Hammett asked if he had enough material to fill a book. Magnet thought he did. On the spot Hammett offered to pay him his magazine salary to become a fellow at the Manhattan Institute while he completed such a book. In 1993 The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass was published.

Magnet, having been on leave from Fortune, went back for a year, but found his heart wasn’t in writing corporate profiles anymore. Meanwhile, the Manhattan Institute had a struggling policy journal that had gone through five editors in four years. In late 1994, Hammett offered Magnet the job of trying to run this magazine about urban policy and New York City. The onetime Dickens scholar’s first move as editor was to hire a British writer, Theodore Dalrymple, which is the pen name for Anthony Daniels, a physician who has worked in British prisons and written narrative exposés about underclass pathology. Magnet went on to assemble a formidable team of unsentimental writers who would make very big names for themselves and the magazine.

Although City Journal would become known as a “neo-conservative” publication, it used journalism rather than social science as its preferred method of reporting and understanding social phenomena. And it sought to achieve a high rhetorical style. “We are journalists,” Magnet would say, “but we are aspiring to write literature.”

While stories ranged from out-of-wedlock births to racial profiling to urban architecture to private philanthropy, an underlying concern was how majority or elite opinion failed the American underclass by blaming others for its problems and in some cases sanctioning its most self-destructive behaviors. Another great theme of the journal has been reviving and preserving New York as the Opportunity City. When reached for this interview, Magnet was writing an essay about the great New Yorker (and economic optimist) Alexander Hamilton.

A glossy, perfect-bound book with a fondness for old-fashioned black-and-white photography and illustration, the journal became famously associated with the policy triumphs of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration. After Giuliani was reelected, City Journal published a package of articles suggesting a new set of goals for his second term. At a press conference on his new agenda, Giuliani held up the issue and said, “This is my agenda for a second term.”

Magnet inspired another prominent politician when Karl Rove recommended The Dream and the Nightmare to Texas Governor George W. Bush. Magnet remembers visiting Texas to meet with the governor’s cabinet, who were all sitting in a conference room with a copy of his book in front of them when he came inside and took a seat. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence he realized these high officers of the Lone Star State were waiting for him to begin. Totally unprepared, he launched into a ninety-minute private seminar on the lessons of his book. Magnet’s work, along with that of Marvin Olasky, came to be credited with the ideas behind compassionate conservatism, the philosophy that animated the social policy agenda of President George W. Bush. In 2006, Magnet became editor-at-large of City Journal, for which, along with other national publications, he still writes regularly.

—David Skinner


Albert Marrin

“Kids are very bright. I’m not going to write down. If anything, I’ll have them read up to me.” With that, Albert Marrin, who at last count has published some three dozen nonfiction books for young readers, sums up the essence of his writing style, one that has gained admirers not only from his intended audience, but also among school librarians, booksellers, and parents. Marrin’s “excellent eye . . . for arrangement and selection of material,” as Deborah Stevenson, editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books put it, brings “freshness to well-trodden literary ground.” Old Hickory: Andrew Jackson and the American People, for which Marrin received the James Madison Book Award in 2005, is a case in point, a work telling the story of Jackson in relation to his times in such a way that young and old alike find it a compelling read.

“I’m interested in different kinds of leadership—accountable leadership—accounting to some overarching moral principal,” says Marrin. In that same vein are an armful of other biographies, including George Washington and the Founding of a Nation, Commander in Chief: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America. He has also revitalized interest in several subjects that have been lying dormant among young readers for a generation or more: exploration and discovery, pirates, the Civil War, and cowboys and Indians. His biography of Sitting Bull garnered the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for nonfiction, and he also has penned biographies of Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler.

Once Marrin had become a tenured professor of history with a number of scholarly titles to his credit, he realized he missed telling history stories, as he had often done in some rather rough classroom settings when he had been a social studies teacher in South Bronx secondary schools. He started writing for young readers in the late seventies, when he started work on Overlord: D‑Day and the Invasion of Europe, which was published in 1982. When he began writing books and getting fan letters from kids, he says, “I saw they were interested in what I had to say.”

The storyteller part of him was largely the result of listening to his father recall his difficult youth in Russia. Conscripted as a boy soldier into the Red Army during the Russian Revolution, the elder Marrin would recount his experiences to young Albert. Having survived harsh times in the old country and then experiencing hard times in the U.S. during the Depression, he impressed upon Albert “how chancy things are.”

A carpenter, his father built him a bookcase, in response to Albert’s early interest in reading. “My father understood what America was about,” says Marrin. In fact, the promise of America was later realized by the son, the only member of his family to attend college. At Columbia University, while working on his Ph.D. in British history, the concept of liberty under law became the lodestar for his academic work, and later guided him in writing many of his historical books. His mentor at Columbia was noted historian R. K. Webb. “My dad gave me the curiosity. Professor Webb helped me find out about myself,” remembers Marrin.

Able to weave personal perspective and historical material, his work is peppered with fascinating details, as seen in his magisterial Empires Lost and Won: The Spanish Heritage in the Southwest. In describing the Pueblo Indians, he explains that their name, “Anasazi,” means “the ancients,” and that they arrived in the Southwest three thousand years ago or more and hunted mastodons and bison “twice the size of their modern descendants.” About the Mexican War, a “small” affair, he points out 11,300 American lives were lost, 1,500 as a result of enemy action, while the rest died of disease. And he evokes the strong pull of Texas fever on men in frontier towns who dropped everything and headed for the promised land: “Streams teemed with fish and bullfrogs big as a man’s head. Along the river bottoms lay rich black soil and stands of fine timber. The soil grew pumpkins that only a strong man could lift and sweet potatoes large enough to serve an entire family.”

Introspection and thoughtful consideration of sometimes unpleasant or controversial subjects have marked much of his writing career. His close encounter with a rat when he was a kid playing at a construction site led to his highly acclaimed book for younger readers, Oh, Rats!, which, he says, was his way of “doing a case of self-analysis” and treating his rat phobia. Marrin the historian still finds plenty to gnaw on while writing science, relating, for example, in Oh, Rats! how President Kennedy once clobbered a furry unwelcome guest at the White House with a shoe. The antiwar sentiment, campus agitation, and general turmoil he saw at Columbia University in the sixties and seventies led to publication in 1992 of the very well-regarded history for young adults America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger.

“I research as if I was researching for the adult general reader,” he says. The professor emeritus, who retired as head of the history department at Yeshiva University in 2001, wishes at times that he had the power of somehow creating and distributing a kind of, what he calls, collective mass forgetfulness. “Sure, history can be a tool for understanding,” he says, “but it can also be used as a weapon. Historical memory fosters grudges. History continues to draw blood.”

—Steve Moyer


Norman Rockwell Museum

When Laurie Norton Moffatt was a college docent at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, thirty-one years ago, she witnessed people waiting in lines for hours for the chance to visit the then-tiny historical society that housed the largest collection of Rockwell’s paintings. “I was struck by this public affection, and at the same time, I was in traditional art history classes with professors, who, if they even put Rockwell up on the screen with one slide, did so with a certain amount of derision and scorn. This juxtaposition just didn’t equate,” says Norton Moffatt.

Norton Moffatt, now director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum, has overseen the museum during a period of significant growth. The museum has recently moved into a new building, designed by Robert A.M. Stern. It has acquired Rockwell’s letters, photographs, much ephemera, additional art, his archive, and finally the artist’s complete studio. It has become a center for the scholarship of illustration arts and a venue for showcasing new illustrators. Every year dozens of its exhibitions travel throughout the country, while the museum itself hosts more than 150,000 visitors.

“One of the hallmarks of our galleries is that they are really really noisy,” notes Norton Moffatt. “People talk. They laugh. They stand in front of the paintings, point and gesture. And we love that because people are really engaged with the artwork.”

Rockwell’s illustrations, which graced the covers of the ubiquitous Saturday Evening Post for nearly fifty years, had been out of fashion with art critics, who regarded them as cliché and overly sweet when juxtaposed against the abstract modernist movement. Rockwell was unable to cross the hard cultural line from illustration to fine art. That started to change in the 1990s when critics began to reevaluate what for decades millions of fans already knew—that images such as Freedom of Speech, The Problem We All Live With, or The Runaway combined insights into human nature with the precision of a classically trained artist. They had become icons of American culture. “One of his best pictures is Freedom from Fear,” commented illustrator Brad Holland. “It is simple and unrhetorical. It is like Vermeer: a genre painting that rises to the level of philosophy.”

Norman Rockwell had in fact studied Old Master paintings when he was training at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York City. By age eighteen he was working as an illustrator and art editor, following in the steps of great style-setting illustrators, such as Howard Chandler Christy and J.C. Leyendecker. In 1916 at twenty-two, his first Saturday Evening Post cover, Boy with Baby Carriage was published. It was through this publication that Rockwell would become a household name across America, his covers reflecting the nation’s history as it went to war or struggled through the civil rights movement. “Rockwell found hidden fragments of beauty in the chaos of life and helped us recognize the moments of common grace,” says Norton Moffatt.

Rockwell’s grace was especially appreciated following 9/11. The museum had launched its first major traveling exhibition in 1999, and it was back at its home in Stockbridge. It was scheduled to appear that winter at the Guggenheim. After the attack, “New York came to a standstill,” says Norton Moffatt. “There were no flights in or out, and the Guggenheim couldn’t get its next exhibition in from Brazil. They asked if they could have the Rockwell exhibition a month earlier than scheduled.” The Rockwell museum staff dropped everything, took the paintings off the walls, and hustled them to New York for a November 3 opening: the Guggenheim then recorded its largest attendance for any art exhibition, even without international tourism. “I think it was very healing for the city at that time,” recalls Norton Moffatt.

“These emotional snapshots will always be potent to a large audience,” comments Peter de Sève, an illustrator who serves on the museum’s board and whose own work can be found on covers of the New Yorker and in animated films such as Finding Nemo and Ice Age. “Rockwell is an adjective for things that are quintessentially American, and for things that we want to be,” he says. De Sève points out that the generation that actually experienced the history shown in Rockwell’s painting is shrinking. Yet Rockwell’s images continue to touch new audiences.

Even before Freedom of Speech was chosen to be a part of NEH’s Picturing America program, the Norman Rockwell Museum has been using Rockwell’s art to teach American history to schoolchildren and provide an introduction to art appreciation. A telling incident came during the last week of school last spring, when Norton Moffatt took The Problem We All Live With (a painting of first-grader Ruby Bridges being escorted to school in desegregated New Orleans) along with Ruby Bridges’s book to a community reading. “There was one child in the front row who just couldn’t put his arm down, he was so eager to talk about the painting,” says Norton Moffatt. “Afterwards, the teacher said to me, ‘There isn’t any way you would know this, but that child didn’t speak all year.’” Norton Moffatt says, “He has a very difficult home life and a very difficult time in school, and this painting was a breakthrough for him. I was so humbled by that.”

—Amy Lifson


Milt Rosenberg

Five nights a week, for the last thirty-six years, except when preempted by baseball or hockey, Milt Rosenberg has been hosting a radio show where people talk about the most amazing things: books. Broadcast on WGN, the station of the Tribune Company, “Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg,” is the leading program among adult listeners in its time slot. And its audience is growing. Through the Internet, new shows and a vast archive of old shows are being heard nationwide and around the world.

It is the kind of talk radio educated people often assume doesn’t exist anymore. The range of issues is high-minded and endless; the guests, whether little known or certifiably famous, are of very high quality; and Rosenberg himself is more or less unstoppable. “He is the Lou Gehrig of intellectual talk radio,” says Joseph Epstein, the well-known essayist and occasional guest on the show.

“During a single week,” Epstein says, “he can do shows about financial markets, American musical theater, the state of contemporary academic life, nuclear warfare, and the modern novel—it’s amazing really.”

For nonfiction authors promoting their latest work, “Extension 720” is the major stop in Chicago, says Rosenberg, and then adds, “except for Oprah.” But even the queen of talk would surely have a respectful nod for the list of famous authors, journalists, politicians, show business performers, and less easily categorized personalities who have submitted to thorough yet gentle questioning from Milt: Bill Murray, Margaret Thatcher, Jack Welch, John Updike, George Will, Betty Friedan, David McCullough, Colin Powell, Carl Sagan, Saul Bellow, Sir Martin Gilbert, and so on, one great name after another.

Rosenberg got his start in radio as a young faculty member at the University of Chicago, by moderating recorded conversations between faculty members and visitors to campus. When Friedrich Hayek visited, he moderated a conversation between the Austrian economist and Milton Friedman. Tapes of these conversations, about a half hour long, were mailed out to 150 radio stations across the country, to be used free of charge.

Back then, Rosenberg was a frequent guest on “Extension 720,” the show he’d one day host. He was then hired by the program manager as one of several rotating hosts covering different subject areas. In 1973 he became the one and only host of the program. “I thought I’d do it for a year or two—to buy a new car.”

Meanwhile Rosenberg’s academic career was in full swing, and yet it too was leading him straight into public debate. A professor of social psychology, which he defines as the study of the causes and consequences of social interaction, Rosenberg specialized in the areas of attitude acquisition and attitude change. The study of attitudes involves also the examination of influencing factors such as rhetoric or propaganda.

An opponent of the Vietnam War, Rosenberg and two colleagues tried to develop in 1970 a respectable and more effective alternative to the usual forms of public protest. In Vietnam and the Silent Majority (foreword by George McGovern), Rosenberg offered “detailed and concrete advice” on how people who opposed the war “might best attempt to bring other Americans to comparable levels of active concern.” Rosenberg’s interest in foreign affairs led him to edit another volume, on the Cold War, written from a similar perspective.

Another part of his academic work led Rosenberg to investigate hidden dynamics of public opinion, exploring whether people are honest to interviewers. His research into “evaluation apprehension”—people’s reluctance to give answers they think questioners may not like—has bearing on the validity of polling methods and results, as well as implications for the structure of interview questions and even interviewer behavior.

Asked how he avoids using leading questions and tipping off guests to his own biases on “Extension 720,” Milt Rosenberg the radio host says he doesn’t even try. In fact, through guest selection, question selection, and even his own nonverbal cues, he says, you can tell a lot about his own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes.

Indeed, his curiosity is boundless (science, cosmology, religion), his patience for nuance is well above average, and his manners gentlemanly and, like his show, somewhat old-fashioned. An unapologetic highbrow, Rosenberg uses his education and background to serve the middlebrow market for general knowledge. This means letting no potentially obscure reference pass without explanation. For listeners who might not know, he asked a recent guest, “what were the basic issues of the Boer War?”

Modest about his interviewing technique, Rosenberg says he merely tries to keep the pace up while allowing room for an appropriate amount of storytelling. Others are not so modest on his behalf. The comedian Steven Allen once said, “All interviewers should be forced to attend a class in that particular art, conducted by Milt Rosenberg.”

Seven years ago, Rosenberg retired from the University of Chicago, where for many years he ran the doctoral program in social psychology. His work on the radio, however, shows no sign of letting up.

—David Skinner


Thomas A. Saunders III and Jordan Horner Saunders

Philanthropist Thomas A. Saunders III has delivered two speeches in the past year. Though quite different—one was about genetics, the other about the financial crisis—they both ended with Saunders talking about the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. An important battle of the Pacific theater, it is also a battle in which Mary Jordan Saunders’s father, Maj. General Matthew C. Horner, participated as a corporal with the Fourth Marines. But the reason Tom Saunders keeps returning to Iwo Jima is that he was awestruck by a speech he heard Hershel “Woody” Williams of the Third Marines give in March of 2007 at a dinner honoring recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Outlined on a hotel notepad, Williams’s speech about Iwo Jima made a refrain of all that the United States did not know prior to invasion: that it would take 75,000 Marines to gain control of the island; that the Japanese had recourse to miles of underground tunnels and would fight to the last; that the battle would take not days but weeks.

In bullet points Williams’s brief account concludes with things he himself could not have foreseen: “I didn’t know that two Marines would give their lives protecting mine. I didn’t know my life would be changed forever because my commanding officer and four Marines thought I was worthy of the Medal of Honor. I am the caretaker of it.”

After hearing the speech Tom Saunders told Williams he’d found it riveting. Williams gave him the notepad on which it was drafted, a gift Tom cherishes because this modest object and the bare-bones story it tells capture how the Saunderses feel about the sacrifices of earlier generations and what the present owes to the past. “To know who we are,” explains Tom, “we have to know who we were.”

Caretaking is serious business in the Saunders household. In addition to contributing tens of millions of dollars to institutions of culture and higher education, they have donated great quantities of time, leadership, and panache to their adopted causes.

Tom Saunders, a former partner at Morgan Stanley, who among other feats did the underwriting for Margaret Thatcher’s telecom privatization, has given the University of Virginia some $17 million over the past twenty-five years. As a board member, he led the Darden School of Business at UVA to forgo public funding in return for greater autonomy and established matching challenges for the university’s schools of education, nursing, and architecture to help these less-well-funded programs get in the practice of attracting major donations. At the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, he has helped fund the digitization of Jefferson’s retirement papers and called on the nonprofit to use the Internet to export Jefferson’s wisdom all over the world.

Dan Jordan, president emeritus of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, says Tom’s philanthropy “springs largely from patriotism and loyalty.” He is, says Mr. Jordan, “a proud and grateful American.”

Jordan Horner Saunders has been saluted with military revues and an F-16 flyover for her commitments to the Marine Corps University (where the Saunderses have endowed the Matthew C. Horner chair in military theory) and the Virginia Military Institute. Jordan has also been credited with the staging of several major fundraising events. Attendees still recall the 1995 Dinner on the Lawn at UVA, which Tom and Jordan chaired, to kick off a billion-dollar capital campaign: the dramatic sight of elegant white tents on Mister Jefferson’s lawn, the music selected for the event (students singing “Shenandoah,” now used routinely in campus ceremonies), the democratic seating chart, and the great sense of occasion.

In 2007 the Saunders hosted the annual gala for the New-York Historical Society and raised three times as much money as the previously most successful gala. The event took place at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Uptown Manhattan. Beforehand, Tom wondered if they shouldn’t hang a flag over a wall that had been damaged in a fire. Jordan arranged for a thirty-foot by sixty-foot stars and stripes to be draped vertically, and luminously, over the gala as a great visual symbol.

Asked how she and her husband came to be such active champions of American education and history, Jordan says their Southern upbringing instilled in them a reverence for the past, as did their ancestral connections in Virginia, which, in both cases, date back to the seventeenth century. Living in New York City, as the Saunders have since the 1960s, has also provided them with examples of how private individuals can take a stand for the public good. Jordan is an admirer of the privately run Central Park Conservancy, which was founded in 1980 to reverse the moral and physical decay that had taken over the park during the financially strapped seventies. “It became clear to me that if you didn’t participate in preserving something you cared about, it could go away. Can you imagine New York without Central Park?”

It’s a bracing and fitting thought for those in a position to become caretakers, which is to say everyone. As the Saunderses are always quick to emphasize, it is not just with the contents of their wallets that people can contribute to the greater good, but with their energy, their ideas, and their determination.

—David Skinner


Robert H. Smith

James Madison’s family plantation of Montpelier in Orange, Virginia. Benjamin Franklin’s London townhouse. Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, just south of the capital city that bears his name. Abraham Lincoln’s cottage, his summer retreat in Washington, D.C.

These places share the common bond of hosting and providing sanctuary to the great men of American history, but they are also bound together by Robert H. Smith’s dedication to making them accessible to the public. Smith has supported significant projects at each one of these, from the obscure to the world famous. For the most part, his emphasis is on education and outreach, whether through visitor centers, scholarly resources, or professional development for teachers. These historic homes, as he sees it, offer a unique opportunity to pass on the heritage of the United States. “As a grateful American,” he says, “I want people to know where we came from, how we got there, what were their ideas.”

A Virginia-based developer and builder, Smith is best known for founding a distinctly different kind of urban setting—the futuristic Crystal City, a mixed-use complex in Arlington, Virginia, linked by underground corridors. For decades, full-time business duties kept him occupied, but “I was always interested in giving back,” says Smith. “My father was a big advocate of that.”

In the last dozen years, he has been able to do more, finding “tremendous satisfaction and pleasure” in wide-ranging philanthropy. A former president of the National Gallery of Art, he has also provided major gifts to the Mayo Clinic for Alzheimer’s disease research, to Johns Hopkins to research the prevention of blindness, and to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for an initiative to end world hunger. Smith, a graduate of the University of Maryland, funded the renewal and reinvigoration of the university’s business school, now the Robert H. Smith School of Business, and established the university’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, honoring his wife’s dedication to the arts.

Smith had always enjoyed reading biographies of the Founders; he has said that “they created a country that has given people more opportunity and hope in the past 230 years than any other type of government in the history of man.” His work on presidential sites began in the 1990s when friends approached him about a project at Montpelier, the home of James Madison, framer of the Constitution and the fourth president. Smith helped to fund an archaeological survey of the house, and later aided in a successful plan to preserve the estate’s two hundred-acre old-growth forest. Considering Madison’s role in drafting the Constitution led Smith to fund the Constitutional Village, a residential mini-campus on the Montpelier property consisting of renovated early twentieth-century farmhouses. Educators, among others, stay at the village as they participate in workshops and seminars on methods of teaching the Constitution. The village recently hosted an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop.

At Mount Vernon, Smith’s many projects have included the building of the two-hundred-seat Robert H. and Clarice Smith Auditorium. At Monticello, he permanently endowed the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. First established a decade earlier, the center is a residence and conference site for Jefferson scholars and teachers.

Smith has also supported sites that are historically important, but not as well known. Few Americans realize that from 1757 to 1775 (with the exception of a brief interval between 1762 and 1764) Benjamin Franklin lived in London, representing the Pennsylvania Assembly in what some have called the “first de facto American embassy.” Reopened in 2006, the townhouse is the only remaining Franklin home in the world. On the fourth floor, the Robert H. Smith Scholarship Centre offers programs for scholars and the public.

In early 2008, President Lincoln’s cottage, located on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D.C., also reopened to the public. The cottage, where Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency, was the summer residence of the Lincoln family. Over time, it had been limited to the public and largely forgotten. Visitors to the restored cottage now begin their tour at the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center, located in a 1905 Beaux Arts building beside the cottage. In addition to exhibitions, a reception area, and an orientation theater, the center offers an award-winning interactive gallery, “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions,” which explores key turning points of his presidency. The two buildings stand “side by side in perfect harmony,” Smith comments. “The past and present live together.”

Smith, whose latest project involves renovations at the New-York Historical Society, thrives on the challenges and interest of each new initiative. “The tragedy does not lie in failing to reach your goals, but in having no goals to reach,” he says. “It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”

—Esther Ferington


John Templeton Foundation

Two decades after its creation, the John Templeton Foundation continues to manifest the character of its founder, Sir John Templeton, who died in July. He began his rise on Wall Street in 1937 and proved himself to be a contrarian thinker. His acumen at picking investments no one else would touch was legendary—so much so that Money magazine once called him the “the greatest global stock picker of the century.”

“When I was a youngster, my father’s overriding curiosity was what might be called the science of determining value. He was fascinated and, therefore, pursued with great persistence and ardor what it meant to have a disciplined, consistent approach to analyzing value, particularly on the prospect of promising investments,” says his son John M. Templeton Jr., who has presided over the foundation since he retired from his work as a pediatric surgeon in 1995.

“In time, my father’s passion for value began to broaden to fields like theology and philanthropy,” says Templeton. A devout Presbyterian, the senior Templeton wanted to contribute to progress in spiritual understanding, and he thought the best way to do this was with open-minded research. The foundation’s motto became “How little we know, how eager to learn,” says Templeton.

The foundation is best known for the Templeton Prize, which honors people whose works “affirm life’s spiritual dimensions” with an award of over one million dollars. Past winners include Mother Teresa, physicist Freeman Dyson, and Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and Polish cosmologist and Catholic priest Michael Heller are the most recent recipients. But the foundation’s main work is the distribution of nearly $70 million in grants annually to people who investigate “big questions” about natural and social sciences, philosophy, freedom and free enterprise, gifted education, or world religions. Its expansive online exchange among some of the world’s best thinkers has covered difficult questions: Does the free market corrode moral character? Does science make belief in God obsolete? Will money solve Africa’s development problems? Does the universe have a purpose?

In particular, the foundation has encouraged civil discourse between the fields of science and religion and has supported work in positive psychology, the brainchild of Martin Seligman. This relatively new field focuses on people’s inner strengths rather than on pathologies, an approach that dovetails with the foundation’s core themes, which include creativity, curiosity, gratitude, purpose, and wisdom.

In considering a proposal, the foundation does its calculus by asking its Theory of Change questions: How will things be different as a result of this grant, and what is the prospect for this proposal to have an enduring impact? The bar is high—only a third of applications make the cut.

Templeton believes grantees have done work of lasting value. James Tooley, president of the Education Fund for Orient Global, addressed one of the foundation’s key interests, whether free enterprise alleviates poverty. He looked at independent for-profit schools that enrolled poor children in India’s slums and throughout Africa and found that children who participated in these schools produced test scores that were 25 to 30 percent higher than students in government schools, says Templeton. He attributes the higher scores to greater accountability of teachers in a for-profit setting. “Even the poorest of the poor know what their children need,” he says. “This taught us that we need to pay much more attention to the natural genius and optimistic attitudes of people who may be very poor, but who have a strong entrepreneurial commitment to succeed.”

In Tooley’s commentary on the question whether money would solve Africa’s development problems, he noted that a common response in dealing with education in poor nations is to “call for billions more in aid for public education.” Instead, he sees investments in “local educational entrepreneurs,” the people who start the private schools, as the way to go.

In 1997, the foundation put out a request for proposals on forgiveness, and expected “a couple of dozen applicants,” says Templeton. There were ten times as many applications as expected, approximately 250. So many were of a high caliber that the foundation raised the level of funding to $4 million and then created a nonprofit corporation called a Campaign for Forgiveness Research to raise money to fund additional work. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a leader in the study of forgiveness, particularly in marriage, directed the campaign. “I was privileged to watch talented researchers make different impacts,” says Worthington. “By providing money to fund research in ten different labs, I felt that I was contributing to ten times the amount of research that I alone could have done in my one lab.”

Ultimately, the project produced studies covering forgiveness within marriage, in cases of sexual abuse, and at the national level in South Africa. Since the foundation started this research, “there has been further interest in forgiveness, particularly studying dramatically promising examples in the ongoing national restoration movement in Rwanda, a process which is very much involved with the deep and very difficult challenges of forgiveness,” says Templeton.

Which virtues are up next for the foundation’s consideration? “We are just about to launch a multimillion dollar research project in regard to generosity—its genesis, its various manifestations, and its impact,” says Templeton, the author of Thrift and Generosity: The Joy of Giving. “One of Sir John’s ongoing interests was how to optimize responsible and effective generosity. He felt that one of the hardest disciplines is to find ways to be generous that result in the elevation, strengthening, and eventual sustainability of those who benefit from generosity.”

—Anna Maria Gillis