'I Wish I'd Been There...' Pick a day in history — the day Lincoln was shot, the day Merriweather Lewis stood on the divide, any significant moment — and imagine you were there. That's what historians were asked to do in the new book, I Wish I'd Been There. What event would you like to have witnessed?
NPR logo

'I Wish I'd Been There...'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6225729/6225730" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'I Wish I'd Been There...'

'I Wish I'd Been There...'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6225729/6225730" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JOE PALCA, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Joe Palca, in Washington. Neal Conan is on assignment.

Imagine you were in Ford's Theatre watching Our American Cousin the night Abraham Lincoln was shot. Or perhaps you lived in Salem, Massachusetts, during the witch trials, or maybe sat on the jury during the John Scopes trial. What would it have been like?

That's the assignment - I'm sorry - Byron Hollinshead, head of American Historical Publications, gave to 20 prominent American historians. What scene or incident in American history would you like to have witnessed and why? We'll hear from Mr. Hollinshead and three writers who contributed to the book I Wish I'd Been There.

Carolyn Gilman tells us why she wanted to be with Meriwether Lewis during an encounter with the Shoshone Indians. Robert Dallek imagines several conversations between President John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy on the Vietnam War. And Clayborne Carson wishes he could go back to the 1960s and to 1963 in the March on Washington.

What about you? What event in American history would you like to have been part of and why? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Later in the hour, the science of detecting a nuclear explosion, but we now -sorry - and what we know about North Korea's claims and how we know it.

But first, I Wish I'd Been There. And joining us from our bureau in New York is Byron Hollinshead, the editor of this interesting new book. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Dr. BYRON HOLLINSHEAD (Editor, I Wish I'd Been There; President, American Historical Publications): Thank you.

PALCA: So what was the impetus for this book?

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Well, it's - of course, this is not a new idea. You know, there have been time machines that have gone backward and forward for many years. My first encounter with it was in 1985 when I was at American Heritage. I was president of American Heritage, and the editor-in-chief was another Byron, Byron Dobell, and we asked about 500 historians to write brief - 100 to 150 words - on what event they would liked to have witnessed in American history and why, and it was very, very interesting.

In the first place, we got a tremendous response, a much, much higher percentage response - we didn't pay anybody anything - much higher than we had anticipated. And the results were really interesting. C. Vann Woodward, one of the great historians of the last - of the 20th century, said that he would have liked to have been inside the mind of Robert E. Lee...


Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: ...when he was offered the generalship of the Union Armies.

PALCA: Yeah.

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: William Manchester said he would like to have been in Madison Square Garden in 1936 when Franklin Roosevelt gave his ringing speech denouncing businessmen. And he said at the end of that speech, they hate me...


Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: ...and I welcome their hatred.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: And another one - I just wanted to mention one more - John Kenneth Galbraith said that he would like to have been in the White House when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger knelt to pray.


(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: How did you decide who to invite to contribute to this book?

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Well, I tried to invite people whom I knew would be interesting and who were both historians and good writers. In fact, there are actually a couple of historical novelists in the group. But some of them were people I knew, had worked with before, but they're historians that have the capability to take this concept and use not only their broad historical knowledge but their imaginations. What would it have been like to be there?

PALCA: What I was wondering as I was reading through these - and I just want to put to you - is there an event that you were surprised was left out, that was so iconic in your mind that you couldn't believe someone didn't want to write about it?

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Well, of course, you know, there are lots and lots of events that were left out. I - we did not assign topics. We chose historians for their knowledge of certain periods, so and - but we didn't ask them to pick a particular topic. So we could - you could do 10 of these books, I think, and never run out of ideas.

The interesting thing in the American Heritage experience was that we in our office speculated about what would be the likely winner among the people who sent in responses. And most of us thought, well, maybe the Constitutional Convention, maybe Lincoln's Cabinet meetings, which were really interesting. The overwhelming winner - and this was before Steve Ambrose's Undaunted Courage book - the overwhelming winner was Lewis and Clark.

PALCA: Wow. Well...

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: And we were amazed. And so I'm delighted that Carolyn Gilman can be on today...

PALCA: Well...

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: ...because she's written a wonderful piece on the...

PALCA: I - yes, I was going to say you might have read my introduction that's sitting here in front of me, because as you were finishing your remark, I was going to say let's hear our first story. It's from Carolyn Gilman - or hear about our first story. She's special projects historian at the Missouri Historical Society, and her essay is called Meriwether Lewis on the Divide. Welcome.

Ms. CAROLYN GILMAN (Contributor, I Wish I'd Been There; Special Projects Historian at the Missouri Historical Society): Hello, Joe.

PALCA: Well, hello. So you imagine yourself in the company of Meriwether Lewis, who encounters the Shoshone Indians at a really crucial moment in this expedition. Tell us a little bit about that.

Ms. GILMAN: Yeah, it was kind of the climactic moment of this most iconic of all U.S. exploring expeditions. Lewis was desperately searching for the Shoshone, because the fact was he was lost. They were - they had reached the uttermost source of the Missouri River. They were on the continental divide.

When he crossed the divide, he saw there were mountains ahead of him instead of the Columbia River as he had expected, so he desperately needed information from the Shoshone. But the problem was he didn't speak Shoshone. He had to communicate with them even though they were very suspicious of his motives, didn't know who he was or why he was there. And so the challenge for Lewis was he had to enter into their world and communicate with them across great barriers.

To me, the interesting thing about this - even though many, many historians have chosen this as one of the pivotal events of American history, at least one of the most dramatic events - is that to me the divide that he was crossing was not so much a geographical barrier as a cultural barrier, and that took a kind of resourcefulness and intelligence and imagination that is very different from mere physical courage.

PALCA: Right, and I took that. I'm glad that you said that because that's what I took from the story, and it really had a tremendous impact. I mean, you describe him taking this sealskin headdress with him throughout the entire trip to bring it back. So it obviously had some large impact, this incident which lasted, what, a week or a four days or something like that?

Ms. GILMAN: Yeah, it was about five days altogether.

PALCA: Uh-huh. So how did he integrate that? Why was it such a shock it seems to his system to accept their assistance?

Ms. GILMAN: Well, he was an army captain. He had not come out into the West in order to, you know, understand the Indians, and yet he was completely immersed in their culture at this moment. He was completely at their mercy. If they didn't cooperate with him, his expedition was going to fail.

He wrote about being - having many emotions in this situation. He wrote about being grateful and fearful and disgusted and ultimately kind of unsure of his own identity. It obviously was a very challenging and draining experience for him.

PALCA: And just briefly, it seems to me I recall at the end of the section, you talk about your own having done something similar, jumping into a foreign culture - and I was curious which one.

Ms. GILMAN: Actually, I have gone into other cultures on several occasions.

PALCA: Uh-huh.

Ms. GILMAN: I have spent time on the Mandan-Hidatsa Reservation, the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, and on the Grand Portage Reservation. It's an Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota.

PALCA: So maybe that helped inform your appreciation for what Lewis was going through.

Ms. GILMAN: It was certainly one of the things that changed my attitude toward what he was going through. I experienced a great sense of recognition when I read his journal.

PALCA: Okay. Let's hear from one of our listeners now about the place and time he would have liked to have seen, and let's go to Ross in Boise, Idaho.

ROSS (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks a lot for having me on your program.

PALCA: Sure.

ROSS: The thing that - the point in history that's always interested me a great deal - I grew up on the plains out in western South Dakota, and I studied a lot regarding the Battle at Little Big Horn in Montana. And I think that's (unintelligible), and I'd always liked to have thought that I could have influenced better decisions with regards to that if I would have been traveling with, for instance, Reno, Captain Reno, who basically held back and then was very - subsequently very critical of Custer's decision to go on to the Big - go into the Big Horn, go into the Battle at Big - on the Big Horn River.

So I think that that's something that I've always really thought that would have been very interesting to have been involved in trying to persuade Custer to make a better decision that day.

PALCA: Interesting. Okay, Ross, thanks for that. Byron Hollinshead, did anybody propose that, or did anybody in the earlier round of 500 historians bring that up as one of the places to be?

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: I don't recall whether we got that one at American Heritage or not, but it's certainly something that many, many historians think about a lot, write about a lot, and a lot of amateur historians are fascinated with Custer's Last Stand, as it came to be known.

The man who called in would be very interested I think in one of the other pieces in the anthology, and that is Chief Joseph's surrender.

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Mark Stevens, who's a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote about that. He's actually an art critic, but his grandfather had a farm in Montana near where Chief Joseph finally surrendered. And Chief Joseph, as many people know, gave one of the great speeches in American history, included in practically every anthology. And he ends it, I will fight no more forever.

PALCA: All right, well, that's a good place to pause because we have to take a break. We're talking about the new book I Wish I'd Been There. When we come back, we'll return to some of the other events described in the book. You can call us at 800-989-TALK. I'm Joe Palca. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Joe Palca, in Washington.

We're talking with Byron Hollinshead about the new book he edited, I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America. Also still with us is Carolyn Gilman. She contributed the essay called Meriwether Lewis on the Divide.

And we want to hear from you. What event in American history would you like to have been part of and why? Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And Carolyn Gilman, I just - I have one other question for you, apropos of the last call. Did you have any desire to, in your mind's eye, to advise Meriwether Lewis about how to handle the situation that he was in? Or were you just happy - would have been happy to be a fly on the wall?

Ms. GILMAN: Oh, no. There is a constant temptation to want to reach out and influence the events that you're studying when you're a historian. It is, you know, one of the great temptations of being a historian.

PALCA: Uh-huh. Okay. Well, I'm sure it would be. And I guess someone who must feel that temptation frequently is with us now - presidential historian Robert Dallek. He's here in Studio 3A. He's written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy. His essay in this book is called JFK and RFK Meet About Vietnam. Thanks for being with us.

Dr. ROBERT DALLEK (Contributor, I Wish I'd Been There; Presidential Historian): My pleasure.

PALCA: So your essay is interesting because you imagine conversations that took place between John Kennedy and his brother. You also help illuminate why Robert Kennedy became the attorney general, which I found very interesting.

Dr. DALLEK: Mm-hmm.

PALCA: Why that particular event?

Dr. DALLEK: Well, because there's been so much speculation about what would have happened over Vietnam if John F. Kennedy had lived and Lyndon Johnson had not succeeded him. And of course we will never know exactly, but it was very inviting to speculate on this issue, and indeed I do it in the biography I wrote of Kennedy, Unfinished Life. And I am convinced that Kennedy would have followed a very different path from the one that Lyndon Johnson followed. Now Johnson, of course, repeatedly invoked the idea that he was simply doing what JFK...

PALCA: Right.

Dr. DALLEK: ...would have wanted him to do.

PALCA: Right.

Dr. DALLEK: But I don't think that's accurate, and I think there's some ample information to convince me, and I think convince others, that Kennedy would never have escalated that war to the extent that Lyndon Johnson did. He was very skeptical about getting into a land war in Vietnam or Asia generally, and I think he would have resisted. He was going to have a second term coming up, and he would have won, I think, a big landslide in 1964 the way Johnson did against Goldwater. So I think we would have a very different outcome.

PALCA: Yeah, and I noticed that it was one moment as you were describing these events - partly made up and partly real - that you were proposing that Kennedy was planning a speech for later in November where he would outline some of his reservations about pursuing the war, and of course...

Dr. DALLEK: Mm-hmm.

PALCA: ...he didn't live to make that speech.

Dr. DALLEK: Yeah.

PALCA: But when you hear - when - is this the role of the historian, then? Is it the role of the historian to capture what could have been said? Or is it more do you have to rely on original sources and say we can't speculate?

Dr. DALLEK: Yeah. Well, it's not that you can't speculate. You always do. But the first and primary goal of the historian is to reconstruct the past as accurately as you possibly can and to base that reconstruction on as full a record as you can study.

And so with Kennedy or with recent presidents, we have a mass of materials because you have these presidential libraries. And also we have for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon a huge body of oral materials -specifically tapes, tape recordings that Kennedy and then Johnson and Nixon made. And, of course these have become available to historians. Not all of them, but they're still working to open some of the Johnson tapes, and there's still something like 900 hours of Richard Nixon tapes that are yet to be opened. And there are 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes and still 900 to go. So we learn a great deal from being a fly on the wall there...

PALCA: Right.

Dr. DALLEK: ...because you can listen in on what they're saying. And we'll never have records like this again because my assumption or understanding is that after Nixon was caught out with Watergate, presidents - he himself stopped taping and presidents ever since have not taped.

PALCA: Actually, Carolyn Gilman, that brings us to a question I was intrigued by in your essay. There was an original set of notes that Meriwether Lewis made, and then there was a secondary one which he edited and I don't whether prettied up or what you would call it. But in that circumstance, how do you decide what to believe?

Ms. GILMAN: Well, yes, that was one of the reasons that I really wanted to be there at that moment, is that we have only Meriwether Lewis' version of what happened during those crucial five days. And I realized as I began to study the circumstances that I didn't entirely believe Lewis.


Ms. GILMAN: There were all sorts of signals he was sending out that made him a less reliable witness. So what do you do in that situation? If you don't believe the one witness that you have to a crucial event, what do you do?

PALCA: Yeah. Well, Carolyn Gilman, thanks very much for joining us.

Ms. GILMAN: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

PALCA: Carolyn Gilman is a special projects historian at the Missouri Historical Society and author of several books on Native American and Western history. Her essay in I Wish I'd Been There is called Meriwether Lewis on the Divide, and she joined us from the studios of member station KWMU in St. Louis.

And let's take a call now and see where some of our listeners might be heading for, and let's go to Jack in St. Louis, Missouri. Jack, welcome to the program.

JACK (Caller): Hi, ahoy there, matees.

PALCA: Hi. Ahoy.

JACK: Hi, you matees. You know, I think perhaps I would have liked to have lived in the time just before the War of 1812 in a little place just south of New Orleans, Louisiana, a place called Barataria. And my family was related to some of the employees of a man that ruled the island there. We called him the king of Barataria. His name was Jean Lafitte.

PALCA: Uh-huh.

JACK: And the Corsair, he was labeled as a pirate throughout history. And as it turns out, if it wouldn't have been for his help and the help of his crew, we probably would have lost the War of 1812, and this might not be America right here. So I think I would have liked to have lived then because I hear some wonderful stories about how beautiful it was and how their families lived in some very pretty lavish homes for living on a beautiful island like that and living in a much harder - well, you know, they were a rough and tough kind of people that helped - I'd say they had a lot of commerce that went in and out through the port there...

PALCA: Right.

JACK: ...in New Orleans, and I think without their help, there may - there might not have been so many goods and services and things that were available in those times.

PALCA: Well, Jack, that sounds like an interesting one. And, Byron Hollinshead, it seems to me there's a couple of essays in the book that talk about at least one of the people from that time - Andrew Jackson.

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Well, Andrew Jackson, yeah. That was a - the caller mentions that the War of 1812 would not have been won. I think that's not actually accurate, because the Battle of New Orleans, in fact, was fought after the war was over.

PALCA: Okay.

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: The war - the treaty had been signed, but the word hadn't gotten to New Orleans. However, there's no doubt that Andrew Jackson would not have become president had it not been his victory in the Battle of New Orleans. And the Battle of New Orleans - he's absolutely right - without the help of Jean Lafitte, who was indeed a pirate, the battle could have gone the other way.

PALCA: I see you smiling, Robert Dallek. Is there something about that event that amuses or appeals to you?

Dr. DALLEK: Well, I mean, the fact that you speculate - you know, the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once said that history is argument without end. And you can never exactly pin it down. It's not science in the sense that you can reconstruct the past in any complete or total way. And so that's why we keep writing about the same subjects. You know, all those biographies of Lincoln and FDR and every subject under the sun. And what it speaks to is the fact that each generation comes at history in a different way.

PALCA: Okay. Let's take another call now and go to Tom in Dayton, Tennessee. Tom, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TOM (CALLER): Well, I'm glad that I got through. Thank you very much.

PALCA: You're welcome. And now you're through, do you have a question?

TOM: Well, no, no, no. I wanted to talk about the Scopes Trial in 1925, and I would've liked to have been there to see that monumental battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.

PALCA: Well, actually there is in the book, Byron Hollinshead, an essay on that very topic. Maybe you can tell us how the essayist - whose name I can't recall right at the moment - but...

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Yes, the essayist...

TOM: Could it have been Richard Corny(ph), just by any chance?

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: No, the essayist is Jonathan Rabb. Jonathan Rabb is a novelist - very, very good writer. And I think he did a truly interesting piece. Again, when you get close to it, it's like a lot of other things. It certainly wasn't exactly the way it went in the movie Inherit the Wind. But - and there was another - there was a great speech that was given - not by either of the more famous contenders - but by a guy the name of Malone.

PALCA: Really?

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: And it was perhaps the key speech in the outcome of the trial. But it's absolutely fascinating, and the Scopes Trial resonates today. It's still significant and I think a great subject.

PALCA: I think there may be a movie someday about the recent trial in York, Pennsylvania. And certainly it was a decisive, I guess you'd say, victory for the evolution forces. But I'm curious, in this regard, how much do you think these historical movies shape - well, do they have any effect on historians? Clearly they have a big effect on the public and what the public thinks, but do historians also find themselves being persuaded that maybe things happened one way because that's how they happened in the movies?

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Well, I probably should defer to Bob Dallek or Clay Carson or Carolyn Gilman on that, but I think historians have a lot of fun debunking some of the stuff. For example, Mary Beth Norton has a piece on the Salem witch trials, and she points out all of the things that Arthur Miller got wrong in The Crucible.

And Paul Nagel's piece on the Amistad Trial does the same thing. The Steven Spielberg movie was nothing like really what happened. So, no. I think most historians I know really like movies, but inevitably find a lot of fault with them. Maybe Bob Dallek would speak to that.

PALCA: Yeah, go ahead.

Dr. DALLEK: Well, I think instantly of Oliver Stone's film JFK and all the controversy that stirred up, and historians are very skeptical of that. And, you know, my feeling is, it's well that in popular culture we reach out to the mass of the society and try and tell them something about the country's past and inform them, but it is frustrating when filmmakers or documentary makers get things woefully wrong or mislead the public in some way with some conspiracy theory or other. But I guess it's inevitable, and that goes with the territory, and perhaps better to have films that reconstruct the past than to ignore it.

PALCA: We're talking about the new book, I Wish I'd Been There with - it's a collection of essays by 20 historians and historical fiction writers about moments in history they would have liked to have seen. And we're taking your calls at 1-800-989-8255. And you can e-mail us at talk@npr.org. I'm Joe Palca -I'm sorry - I am Joe Palca, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You know, I was going to - okay, here's an e-mail from Stacy(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. And she writes: as a young woman who proudly calls herself a feminist, one point in American history I would like to witness would be the ratification of the 19th Amendment by Tennessee, or when the last to vote for suffrage received the message from his mother that he better vote for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: So, yeah, it's interesting that there weren't any amendments to the constitution that were mentioned by any of the authors in the book, but I suppose - well, I suppose there weren't a lot of things. Okay, let's take another call now. Chris in Alexandria, Kentucky. Chris, welcome to the program.



CHRIS: Hi, how are you? I'm a first time caller, but I listen all the time.

PALCA: Great.

CHRIS: My point in history that I'd like to be in - I couldn't exactly pinpoint one point, but what I would say would be a conversation between Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. Because as we learn in history class, the relationship was kind of strained, but, you know, what exactly did they say to each other? Did she have a large impact on his policy making? I would say just one conversation would basically be, you know, pretty extraordinary to listen to.

PALCA: Yeah, well maybe Robert Dallek has a thought about that since he's addressed, or at least addressed this area.

Dr. DALLEK: Sure. Well, she was a great advocate, of course, for all sorts of progressive ideas. And Franklin would listen respectfully to what she said, but he didn't always follow through. May I tell a little bit of a naughty anecdote?

PALCA: Oh, absolutely, but I have the button here that will cut you off if you say anything too naughty.

Dr. DALLEK: Okay. Well, it's not that naughty. The story is that Eleanor had gone for a physical and she came into the Oval Office and Franklin said to her, well, Eleanor, what did the doctor have to say about that big ass of yours? And Eleanor replied, oh Franklin, he had nothing at all to say about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: Well, I'm glad I didn't dump, because the end of the story was a safe one. That's great. That's great. Have their been - I guess, you know, we probably are familiar - certainly in recent years with first ladies who've had a major impact on the president. Does - Eleanor Roosevelt really the first one to be perceived as having such an enormous impact?

Dr. DALLEK: Without question. She's the standard by which other first ladies operate, so to speak. And there are plenty of memos of her almost hectoring FDR about a variety of issues. And I think it varies from first lady to first lady. I know Lady Bird Johnson had a keen interest in highway beautification. And Lyndon was very responsive to that.

But I think it's quite interesting to study the correspondence between - on policy matters between, you know, presidents and first ladies. And, of course, there are, inevitably, some conversations between, for example, Richard Nixon and people in his family - his daughters, his son-in-laws, and his wife -because you have all these tapes which were voice activated. So it's quite interesting to know what these conversations were like.

PALCA: Well, Robert Dallek thanks for joining us.

Dr. DALLEK: My pleasure.

PALCA: Robert Dallek is one of the authors in the new book, I Wish I'd Been There. And he's written a number of other books himself.

When we come back from a short break, we'll talk more with Byron Hollinshead about the other stories in the book I Wish I'd Been There and go back in history to the march on Washington. Plus, detecting nuclear explosions, what we know about North Korea and how we know it.

I'm Joe Palca. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

PALCA: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Joe Palca in Washington.

Right now we're wrapping up our conversation about the book I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America. The editor of the book is Byron Hollinshead. He's still with us. And now, I am going to bring in another one of the authors. The third contributor who's joining us today is history professor Clayborne Carson. He directs the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University and is the editor of Dr. King's papers. And Clayborne Carson joins us from studios on the Stanford campus in California. Welcome.

Professor CLAYBORNE CARSON (Contributor, I Wish I'd Been There; Director of Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University): Good to be with you.

PALCA: So, the interesting thing about your essay, I Wish I'd Been There, is you were there. So it's really a case of I wish I'd been there knowing what I know now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CARSON: I think that's it. I think that one of the things that comes through in my essay is that being there is not enough, that being in the past you have to have some knowledge. And I was there as a 19-year-old who didn't have a great deal of knowledge. So in some respects, I think my essay is a dialogue between the present and what I know now and what I wish I had known then but couldn't have known because I was so young and uninformed.

PALCA: And why - I mean, why is that? Why are the observations that you make as someone who's uninformed - I mean, sometimes, you know, knowing too much can color - you hear things that aren't there and you don't really hear what is there.

Prof. CARSON: Well, and that's interesting. In a way, I kind of wish I could go back to the way I felt, for example, the first time hearing the I Have a Dream speech, because I don't think I can every re-create that. I've heard it so many times since and I know so much more about Martin Luther King, I think that -sometimes I think that all your - all that you've learned later goes - colors what you've actually experienced.

PALCA: Yeah. Because you mention - at least if I read this properly - you mention that a lot of the elements of the speech, the most memorable elements, had been said in one form or another in prior speeches.

Prof. CARSON: Yes, that's right. One of the things I find is that to me the most interesting thing about the event in terms of his speech was that he didn't plan to give it. And he had prepared some remarks and everyone had been asked to prepare about seven minutes of remarks. And they were not supposed to go over that.

But earlier in the day he got a message, I think it was from Bayard Rustin, who was the organizer of the march, and said just - you know, you're going to be the last person on the program. Take as much time as you need.


Prof. CARSON: So he got to the end of his prepared remarks. But the remarks that we remember today that get played constantly and become kind of the Martin Luther King sound bite...

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CARSON: ...were extemporaneous. They were remarks that, in a way, he'd been preparing all of his life because he was so used to developing his speeches through these kind of spontaneous reactions to audiences. And the audience there I think inspired him to talk about his dream, which he had talked about in various forms so many times before.

PALCA: And you also mention - and I'm very sympathetic to this - that he was a much better speaker in terms of just, you know, his ability to judge a crowd and respond to it when he was speaking extemporaneously as opposed to reading from a script.

Prof. CARSON: Exactly. The crowd really didn't respond to him that well. I mean, they were applauding, of course, and he'd made a lot of great points. But it was only when he moved to his extemporaneous remarks that it became electric, that, you know, the crowd really took off - he took off.

And it's that call and response that is his strength. And he can feel the response of the crowd. And that moves him to begin to develop his ideas in public.

But to me, the amazing thing is as the person who sometimes in public, you know, here is the biggest event of his life. He's facing the largest audience that he'll ever face. And just to have the confidence to end his speech with something he had never said in public before, although he had developed some of the same ideas in other speeches.

PALCA: And just - and just finally what - I mean, you were 19 when you heard this speech. What do you take away from this speech today that, you know, that given your experience and studies that you think was substantially different than what you heard?

Prof. CARSON: Well, one thing that comes back, I went back there a few years ago when I was working with the designers of the King Memorial, which is going to be built on the mall. And the memorial was going to be built facing the Jefferson Memorial.

And it occurred to me that King was really in a dialogue with Jefferson. He was carrying on this conversation across the length of American history about what did Jefferson mean in the Declaration of Independence? When are we going to make those ideals real?

And that's an amazing kind of notion that here at the Lincoln Memorial, where King could look off to his right and perhaps even see the Jefferson Memorial. You have a dialogue kind of modeled on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but taking many of the ideas that were developed by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and beginning to question what does it mean for America of 1963, that we still haven't achieved these ideals? That this is still, as he put it in the speech, a check that was returned insufficient funds?

PALCA: Mm-hmm.

Prof. CARSON: And, you know, that was the prepared remarks. It was the insufficient funds check. And I guess if King had kept to the limits that had been placed on him, we wouldn't be talking about his speech today.

PALCA: Hm. Okay. Clayborne Carson, thanks very much.

Prof. CARSON: Thank you.

PALCA: Clayborne Carson is a history professor and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. His essay to I Wish I'd Been There is called Memory, History, and the March on Washington. He joined us from studios on Stanford's campus in California.

And Byron Hollinshead, I wanted to end with you because I felt that it would be at least appropriate to ask if you were given the assignment, what you would have written about.

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: That's a tough one. Somebody - I actually had a book signing on Saturday and somebody asked me that. And I think I would like to have been in one of Lincoln's cabinet meetings.

As Doris Goodwin has put so well in her latest book called Team of Rivals, Lincoln surrounded himself with people - very powerful people, Seward particularly. Seward thought he was going to be president, not Lincoln.

And he - but he really worked his cabinet meetings, very interestingly. There was the famous story about one issue that all of his cabinet members disagreed with him. And he said something like seven no's, one I. The I's have it. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PALCA: I think that's the dream of everyone who's ever run a meeting.


PALCA: But I'm afraid that's where we're going to have to leave things today. So thanks very much for joining us.

Dr. HOLLINSHEAD: Thank you.

PALCA: Byron Hollinshead is president of American Historical Publications and editor of I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.