Robert E. Lee Revisited, 150 Years After Civil War The Confederate general looms large in Southern history — and that history will get special attention in 2011, as the nation marks 150 years since the Civil War began.
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Robert E. Lee Revisited, 150 Years After Civil War

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Robert E. Lee Revisited, 150 Years After Civil War

Robert E. Lee Revisited, 150 Years After Civil War

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In January, 1861, 150 years ago, South Carolina, then six other Southern states, seceded from the Union. Over the next months, five more would follow suit. In April, rebel guns opened fire on Fort Sumter, the transition from bitter political dispute to civil war.

Over the next four years, we will make the sesquicentennial of that bloody conflict, which continues to resonate in culture and politics to this day, as we continue to debate the legacy of slavery, states' rights and the extent of federal authority.

How will you mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War where you live? Call us, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, lessons learned from Detroit's painful restructuring, but first a significant anniversary of the most critical period of U.S. history. And we turn to Civil War historian Noah Andre Trudeau. His most recent book is "Robert E. Lee: Lessons In Leadership." And he joins us here in Studio 3A on, as it happens, Robert E. Lee's birthday. And Andy, thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. NOAH ANDRE TRUDEAU (Author, "Robert E. Lee: Lessons In Leadership"): It's a pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And it's - whether he wanted the role or not, General Lee was anointed as a kind of secular saint after the war, the embodiment of what became known as the Lost Cause.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Southern leaders had an interesting problem. They had led the South into a very destructive war. After the war, were they going to be repudiated? Well, they came up with the Lost Cause, an explanation that we Southerners had the high moral ground for all of this and the great people. The North just had greater numbers and beat us.

So they needed that iconic figure at the top of the heap, and Lee was the one that they chose.

CONAN: Was he comfortable in that role?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, most of this would have happened after his death. I mean, that was very careful about that. In his lifetime, no one was pushing him up there. It was really right after his death that the stories began to be told and history began to be rewritten.

CONAN: It's interesting. Lee, of course, we remember, offered command of the Northern armies and declined. He said: I cannot fight against my state. That is not the same, however, as then going back to his state and leading the Southern armies.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Right after the war, in the Northern newspapers, there was a strong current of we need to do something about this traitor. They used the T-word quite freely.

Lee, in his own mind, felt that he had followed the rules, had formally resigned, and at that point was a free agent to do whatever he wanted to do. So no treason was involved.

So in his own mind, he was clear, but certainly in the North, immediately after the war, there was a feeling - in fact, President Johnson referred to him as an arch-traitor.

CONAN: Well, he also gave him a pardon after the war, too. So this is...

Mr. TRUDEAU: Actually, Lee was never pardoned.

CONAN: Lee was never pardoned.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Lee does not become an American citizen again until 1975.

CONAN: Interesting. So he never went to the White House and asked for forgiveness?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, according to the record as I have been able to do it, it was a paperwork issue. You had to submit two pieces of paper. One is a formal request that you want to be a citizen, and the other is an oath of allegiance. He submitted them at different times. The oath came to, I think, Secretary Stanton, who filed it away separate from the other. They never combined the two. Therefore, his paperwork was never complete.

They found it - Gerald Ford. Congress passed the bill, Gerald Ford signed it, Robert E. Lee became a citizen in 1975, I believe.

CONAN: And it is, of course, the great general of the South, but one of the questions was: What was his true attitude towards slavery? And there's a famous letter that was cited to say, well, Robert E. Lee was more progressive than you might have thought.

Mr. TRUDEAU: In the retelling of history afterwards, Lee, he called it a moral and political evil in any country in one letter, written in 1856, to his wife. But if you really pull out all the strands, you're going to find that Lee was a typical Southerner who really, I think, had a very complex approach, understanding of slavery.

On the one hand, they could tell you to your face it's a terrible thing. On the other hand, they couldn't really think of any alternative. That is, it was the way of life, it was the way of law, therefore we just have to learn to live with it.

There was always this, eventually the South will find a way out of this quagmire, but right now, we're in it, we need to make the best of it we can.

CONAN: That letter, though, I think expanded upon after the war and after Lee's death to provide justification for the argument that, oh, the war, it was about states' rights and our liberties and not about slavery.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, and that certainly would have been the major dialogue you would have heard if you were talking to soldiers in 1861 and early 1862. But in a way, slavery is the foundation. It's way down there. It's the bedrock. Ultimately, the war ground its way down to that bedrock, and they had to admit that this was a driving factor.

In fact, look at the ordinances of secession issued by the various states. You're going to find that slavery is in every one of them, saying this is why we're going to protect this institution.

CONAN: And that gets back to the makeup of the Confederate Army. Most of the soldiers, of course, were not slaveholders.

Mr. TRUDEAU: That is correct. Most of them were not. They were fighting for a Southern way of life. But a Southern way of life in 1861 was a very strict ladder of value, if you will, and at the bottom rung were the African-Americans, and that's where they wanted them to stay.

CONAN: And it is going to be interesting to see how this 150th anniversary is marked in various places around the country, and marked differently, I think, in the South than it will be in the North.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, of course. In the North, we're celebrating a great adventure to restore the Union.

CONAN: A war of liberation.

Mr. TRUDEAU: For some soldiers. I mean, clearly - I mean, the number of campaigns - for instance, I've spent a lot of times with the soldiers who marched with Sherman to the sea.

CONAN: With their letters, not specifically with them.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, but you curl up with them. You get to know these guys after a while. And some of them were - felt this wonderful sense of empowerment by seeing what they were doing. Others were just afraid of loosing this population on the country.

CONAN: And it will be interesting, the march to the sea and Sherman's, well, the places that he marched through, it'll be interesting to see how that is marked. And, well, it's going to be an interesting four years, don't you think?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, I found in Georgia, for instance, psychologically they've handled it. There is this whole subculture of folk stories in Georgia that begin: Here's how my great-great-grandfather fooled Sherman. You know, he burned everything in town, but he didn't burn grandpa's house because grandpa did this.

And psychologically, that at least, gives them a leg up on the great Sherman.

CONAN: How is the Civil War going to be celebrated where you live? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And Cher(ph) is on the line, Cher calling from central Washington.

CHER (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

CHER: I will be rereading the family genealogy that my dad's identical, mirror(ph) twin had compiled before his death. I had a family member, I had members on both the North and the South. I'm from Kentucky originally, and I had a family member who died of self-inflicted wounds, by bayoneting himself scaling a fence the day before Vicksburg surrendered.

I have documentation of surviving spouses. I have military documentation of money that would have been awarded them upon the death of their husbands.

My father was in the Airborne, 82nd Airborne Division for 28 years and was stationed at Fort Monroe, which during the Civil War was known as Fortress Monroe. And in front of my house, there was a bunker, when my dad was stationed there, where Jefferson Davis was held for over a year after the Civil War had come to an end, so...

CONAN: Fortress Monroe, the one part of Virginia, I guess, that never was in rebel hands.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Right.

CONAN: Thanks very much, for the call, Cher. It sounds like it's going to be an interesting time.

CHER: Yeah, I'll also be watching Ken Burns' 11-hour documentary on the Civil War, which is a great, great documentary.

CONAN: I agree with you, and I think it's going to be a wonderful opportunity to do that again, appreciate it.

CHER: Thank you.

CONAN: Mary Hadar joins us now. She's the projects editor at the Washington Post, and one of her latest projects has been to tweet the events leading up to South Carolina's secession from the Union 150 years ago. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. MARY HADAR (Projects Editor, Washington Post): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And are you a Civil War buff?

Ms. HADAR: I was not before this.

CONAN: So how did this project come about?

Ms. HADAR: It grew out of a special section the Washington Post was doing. We're doing a whole series of them for the war. And the question of how to webify(ph) these sections always comes up. This one arose, and I insisted firmly that we could not be making up the language that would come out of historical figures' mouths. So it landed in my lap.

CONAN: And so you're retelling the history of the Civil War 140 characters at a time, day by day?

Ms. HADAR: All, yes, day by day and all from original documents, from official military records, from memoirs and letters and state archives.

CONAN: You're now in week six. What surprised you?

Ms. HADAR: I was most struck by the emotional pull this stuff had on me, realizing the - particularly in the South, Fort Sumter. The commander of Fort Sumter, Major Anderson, was a Southerner who was from Kentucky, married to a Georgian woman. And what a heroic figure he was, torn in this way.

And that happened throughout the South as - after Fort Sumter became the major issue, other Southern states starting seizing other forts and arsenals in the South, and mostly they were manned by Southern United States soldiers. Right.

CONAN: Your tweet today, this is SC to Anderson: The gov has directed an officer of the state 2 carry each day 2 Sumter such fresh meat and vegetables as u may indicate. Well, u is the small letter u, and two, of course, is the numeral 2, but other than that, that's word for word?

Ms. HADAR: Word for word, yes.

CONAN: And you're going to be continuing this for the next four years?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HADAR: That remains to be seen. It's going to get a lot heavier after April 12.

CONAN: And there are going to be a lot of days when it's going to be really hard to boil it down to 140 characters.

Ms. HADAR: I need some help.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay, well, Andy Trudeau is sitting right here. So you may want to consult, if you can. Good luck with the project.

Ms. HADAR: Thank you.

CONAN: Mary Hadar, projects editor at the Washington Post. And how do you subscribe to this?

Ms. HADAR: The best way is to go to washingtonpost.com/civilwar.

CONAN: And she's tweeting the events leading up to South Carolina's secession from the Union 150 years ago. And again, you can find a link to that page on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Thanks very much for joining us here in Studio 3A.

So how will you mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

A century and a half after our bloody Civil War, the conflict is still a bruise on our collective consciousness. Earlier this week, we spoke at length with historian Annette Gordon-Reed about the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. You can hear that conversation about her new biography of our 17th president, Andrew Johnson, in a link at our website. That's at npr.org.

Right now, we're talking with historian Noah Andre Trudeau. It is the 204th birthday of Robert E. Lee. You can also read an excerpt from his most recent book, called "Robert E. Lee," at our website, and find out more about the two days in Lee's life that marked a dramatic turning point for America: the day he became a general and the met with U.S. Grant to surrender at Appomattox.

And we want to hear from you: How will you mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War you live? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can go next to TC, TC with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

TC (Caller): Hey, Neal. Hello.

CONAN: Hello. How are you today?

TC: I'm doing well. And I plan to mark the anniversary by going to the great Fort Fisher that at Kure Beach, just south of Wilmington. What an amazing place. But I will tell you that I am a Yankee traitor and spent most of my life in Pennsylvania, and I loved going to Gettysburg. So seeing it from a Southern perspective has definitely been very interesting for me.

When you go, you see mostly the rebel flags, which (unintelligible) a knee-jerk, but it's very interesting how they celebrate down here and how they honor that tradition. There's a lot of bumper stickers in this region, too, that simply state: Hatred - heritage, not hate, which is very interesting.

CONAN: And they've got the stars and bars on the bumper sticker?

TC: They fly all over the place, here. And like I said, coming from Pennsylvania, that's not something you see all the time.

CONAN: And Andy, remind us, Fort Fisher, of course, has some history, too.

Mr. TRUDEAU: It guarded the last open seaport that the Confederacy had, and was taken by assault in 1865. Black troops took part in that action.

CONAN: And did that - the climactic scene of the film "Glory" take place there?

Mr. TRUDEAU: No, no, no. You're off at Charleston.

CONAN: I'm - OK. I apologize. All right. No, I thought I was going for that. TC, thanks very much for the call.

TC: Thank you.

CONAN: Joseph Riley joins us now. He's been the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, since 1870 - 1975.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'm getting my centuries confused. He joins us by phone from here in Washington, where he's attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

And Mayor Riley, thanks very much for your time today.

Mayor JOSEPH RILEY (Charleston, South Carolina): Well, thank you, Neal. And I say this not for any well wishes or anything, but just a coincidence, that I -today is my birthday and my - which is Robert E. Lee's birthday. And my grandmother was always so proud to have a grandchild who shared a birthday with Robert E. Lee.

CONAN: Well, we've been marking the, I think, 204th birthday of Robert E. Lee.

Mayor RILEY: Well, I've heard that mentioned. That's why I pointed it out.

CONAN: And I should point out there's going to be a lot of places where significant events happened in the Civil War that are going to have a chance to figure out how they're going to mark the 150th anniversary. You go first.

Mayor RILEY: We do, and - as we should. And the observance will be an evening concert on the banks of the Ashley River in Charleston Harbor, where we will, among other things, play Aaron Copland's very moving "Lincoln's Portrait," and that will be narrated.

We have put together a wonderful, biracial group of citizens that have spent two years planning how we in Charleston best observe the Civil War and recognize all the different peoples who were involved in it and, of course, the great tragedy that it was and the suffering that it caused.

And so - but we begin April the 11th and April the 12th, when the first shot was fired from Fort Johnson to Fort Sumter. And we believe that this will be, for our community, as it should be for our country, a four-and-one-half-year learning experience, where we study this tragic and cataclysmic event in our country's history and learn from it.

CONAN: It sounds like you have been very careful in the past two years, because you also recognize this could be a political, well, hot potato.

Mayor RILEY: Well, we have. We've worked very hard. We have a great group of people working on it. And it's - you know, it's something we should all learn from. Obviously, we know. We know better now that the Civil War was caused because of the South's dependence on the horrible institution of slavery.

And, you know, we start from there and recognize that, and the tragedy that that practice existed in our country and that it - the fear that the election of President Lincoln would begin a process of changing that institution was really - you read the document that was published two days after the Ordinance of Secession was signed, the statement of the immediate causes, and slavery is mentioned 31 times.

So we - it's very important that in this sesquicentennial, that we make sure that we help fully present history and that we give everyone - from whatever point of view they come or ancestry - an opportunity to fully understand the tragedies that were involved and what it meant to our country.

And, of course, after the 620,000 deaths and a million casualties, it was a rebirth of our country, and it ended up being the strong, 20th-century nation that saved the free world.

CONAN: There was an event already in Charleston, and that was the Secession Ball. Some citizens of your city went in period costume, and a great deal has been made of it. Have we made too much of it?

Mayor RILEY: I think so. You know, this is a free country. It was a private event. It was not, in any way, sanctioned or organized by those who have been working on this and the planning for the observance.

And so I think probably, yes, too much was made of it. You know, we welcome freedom of assembly in our country. So that's what some people wanted to do, and some very fine people.

That's - I - that day, we unveiled a marker, and I made a point - it was a public event of the day - to talk about the history of the causes of the Civil War and the great tragedies that it represented, and pointed out that 150 years after the Civil War began in Charleston - 148 years after - the city, a majority of the citizens of Charleston voted for Barack Obama as president of the United States.

So we, you know, we have a diverse population, of course, and many different points of view, but a majority of our citizens voted for an African-American to be president. So almost 150 years after the Civil War began in Charleston, a wonderful statement of how far we've come.

CONAN: Mayor Riley, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mayor RILEY: You're welcome, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: And have a good time at the Conference of Mayors.

Mayor RILEY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina since 1975, Joseph Riley joined us on the phone from here in Washington.

Here are some emails, from Donna in East Lansing: My immediate colleague educator friends and I are working on a documentary about Michigan's role and contribution to the Civil War effort. The documentary will be a companion piece to an online learning classroom, providing Michigan historical content, resources for the K-through-12 teachers to incorporate into their Civil War curriculum at no cost. So, again, a teachable moment.

This is from Jim in Birmingham: I'll celebrate my ancestors in north Alabama who joined the First Alabama Cavalry USA and fought the slaveholders in Alabama and served with Sherman on the march to the sea.

And Andy Trudeau, that reminds us: This is not a simple conflict.

Mr. TRUDEAU: No. There are so many complex threads involved here. You cannot say something never happened. And right now, I'm a little concerned that there's a polarization and that there's groups that claim it was only about states' rights.

There's another group that's saying that it's absurd to think that a Southern African-American would even consider doing anything to support the Confederacy. And they just block any effort to make mention of that, when, in fact, I don't think you can deny that some of that happened.

We're talking small numbers, but clearly, this is a very complex community. There are bonds of intertwining trust and friendship between black and white that carry forward into the war. And it's not unusual, I think, especially in some small units, to find African-Americans serving with their white - I guess you'd have to call them their masters. But it happened - not a lot, but it happened.

CONAN: Let's go next to James, James with us from Cherryville, North Carolina.

JAMES (Caller): Oh, hi. Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi.

JAMES: I just walked in to work here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAMES: Yes, I had two ancestors from the Confederate Army - actually three. One was facing that war picture and the other one captured and sent to camp (unintelligible) in Chicago, where they tortured the Confederate prisoners.

CONAN: And how will you remember them?

JAMES: I will definitely put flowers on their grave, flags on their graves. They fought for what they believed in and just like everybody else did at the time. You have to honor them.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Which flag?

JAMES: Oh, yes, I have a - Confederate flag. They were Confederate soldiers.

CONAN: And you were going to say something else, James.

JAMES: One more soldier. He was at the Battle of Bentonville. He was on (unintelligible), the German side of my family.

CONAN: All right, James. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JAMES: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: It's interesting he mentions flags and flowers on the graves. The Southern tradition of Declaration Day became - much later - the later federal holiday, Memorial Day.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Right. There is some - I think there was a common impulse on both sides to do something about honoring the dead after the war. And there were Southern movements, there were Northern movements. It is still a little cloudy which one actually came first and how they coalesced into Memorial Day. But its origins definitely had to do with remembering the service of Civil War soldiers who fell.

CONAN: And it's interesting some of the words we're using - honoring, marking, celebrating. How do you celebrate something that is so tragic, the deaths of so many hundreds of thousands of men and women, and the injury of so many more?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, even today, we honor their service. These were people who had to face, for the soldiers at least, some of the worst kind of combat you can imagine. These were common people who found it within themselves, for whatever purpose, to rise above the, I think, the natural feelings we would have to run the opposite direction...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TRUDEAU: ...and to march into these things for something each side believed in. We can comment and observe today whether one side or the other might have been, you know, on the wrong side of the issue.

CONAN: And who held the moral high ground.

Mr. TRUDEAU: And who had right, exactly. But there were acts of courage, dedication, sacrifice. I think these are the elements that we can celebrate with - that people who do these things are ascribing to some of the higher characters of humanity.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Scott in Sacramento. I have no plans, actually. Living in California, we seem separated from this big part of our history. And that would be true of, well, quite a bit of the country.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, yeah, although these veterans after the war certainly spread out. You'll find Union veterans in the Wyoming Historical Society. The California Huntington Library has a major collection of material relating to the Civil War.

CONAN: And there were battles in Nevada.

Mr. TRUDEAU: That's right. New Mexico.

CONAN: We're talking with Noah Andy - Andre Trudeau. We called him Andy Trudeau when he worked here for a long time, a Civil War historian and his most recent book is "Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to - this is Mandy(ph) and Mandy is with us from DeFuniak Springs in Florida. Am I getting that anywhere close to right?

MANDY (Caller): Very close. DeFuniak Springs, Florida, yes, sir.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MANDY: My husband and I had to take our now 7-month-old child to Appomattox, Virginia, where his great-great-great-grandfather fought with Robert E. Lee and surrendered with Robert E. Lee and walked home from Appomattox, Virginia, to DeFuniak Springs, Florida. So he carried his - his name Duncan C. Ray and my son carries his - the Duncan as his middle name. So that's how we hope to show him where his history is.

CONAN: And is this is the first time you will have been to Appomattox?

MANDY: It is. Other family members have gone and told us about it, but this was - will be the first time that we have to take a nephew and his three children and wife with us and show them their history.

CONAN: Mandy, thanks very much for the call. Have a great trip.

MANDY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Email from Max in Hickman, Kentucky. I'll reread my great-grandfather, Captain William Shuck's diary, which I transcribed in 1984. He was captured with General John Hunt Morgan in July 1863, near Salineville, Ohio, on the great raid and spent the rest of the war at the prison camp on Johnson's Island in Lake Erie, off Sandusky, Ohio. He was released in June 1865, swore the oath and returned to Kentucky. He was lucky to survive it.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Yes. That was - prisoner of war camps were awful on both sides.

CONAN: Not just Andersonville.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Not just Andersonville.

CONAN: And as we look at this history and it looks - and we look at the remembrances that we're going to be experiencing over the next four years, Andy, the one big difference from a hundred years ago, even 125 years ago, has been the number of places that have been restored and put back in the condition that they were approximately 150 years ago.

Mr. TRUDEAU: I think this is one of the great stories of the last 10 or 15 years has really been this push on both national and regional levels to preserve some of the key sites involved in the Civil War - battles, certainly, but other aspects of these camps, armed camps. Right here in Virginia, they're working on saving basically an armed camp.

But I have to say, as someone who's written about some of these battles, to read the accounts and then to stand there, it's - there's a veneer of time that sort of goes away and you're really sitting there and saying, my god, what did these people go through here? I mean, it's a communication and a connection that is powerful. And when it happens, it's a - it's just an unspeakable feeling.

CONAN: And is there anything that you would recommend more than to spend some time before you go to one of these places, read a little bit about what went on there, some of the movements, some of the key places and, of course, the National Park Service provides just outstanding aides as well.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Yeah. I would say, if you really are willing to burrow a little bit, find a diary of a soldier who was there and take it with you. Try to find out where that unit performed or fought and stand there and look - read that diary. Stand in that spot. It's a communication that it's just hard to describe. It's so powerful.

CONAN: I was, in another life, wrote recorded museum tours, including the battlefield tours at Antietam and Chickamauga, but...

Mr. TRUDEAU: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...especially interested to read through the records of the New York 69th as they marched down the hill and what happened to them as they approached the Confederates at the Battle of Antietam and were...

Mr. TRUDEAU: Oh, yes.

CONAN: ...utterly slaughtered.

Mr. TRUDEAU: Oh, yes.

CONAN: And it is a moving experience to realize that your relatives and some of the people they knew were part of that battle.

Mr. TRUDEAU: And that's the connection. I - when I talk, inevitably, I'm going to hear from somebody in the audience whose great-great-grandfather was there.

CONAN: Andy Trudeau, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it. Noah Andy - Andre - Noah Andre Trudeau. His most recent book is "Robert E. Lee: Lessons in Leadership," and he was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.

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