A Penchant for Embellishment

Now comes word that this generation’s most beloved historian, Stephen Ambrose, made up stuff.

In the April 26, 2010, issue of The New Yorker,” writer Richard Rayner faults Ambrose for making claims that were not so and inventing conversations that never took place.

Evidently, if the sources Rayner quotes are accurate, he can back up what he says. Ambrose, who died in 2002, is not around to defend himself.

Those who love history, and I’m one, and those who love America, I’m among those also, tend to have numerous books on their shelves by Stephen Ambrose, fpr many years professor of history at the University of New Orleans. He directed the Eisenhower Center on the UNO campus. Out of that came the idea of the D-Day Museum which morphed into the National World War II Museum, rapidly becoming one of this area’s greatest draws for tourists.

The interstate between Slidell and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is the Stephen Ambrose Highway. He had a home at Diamondhead, MS.

Clearly, he was highly respected and well-loved around here.

I’ve heard Ambrose tell how he came to write the definitive biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower. He told the story again and again. Quoting from the New Yorker article:

“I was a Civil War historian, and in 1964 I got a telephone call from General Eisenhower, who asked if I would be interested in writing his biography.” That was taken from a 1994 C-Span interview. Later he said, “I thought I had flown to the moon.”

According to Ambrose’s account, Ike had read his biography of Lincoln’s chief of staff, Henry Wager Halleck, and decided he would do a good job on his story.

“I’d walk in to interview him, and his eyes would lock on mine and I would be there for three hours and they never left my eyes. I was teaching at Johns Hopkins and going up two days a week to Gettysburg to work with him in his office.”

The only trouble is it wasn’t that way at all.

According to Rayner, last November the deputy director of the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, moderated a panel celebrating Ambrose’s writings. This was the 25th anniversary of his highly respected two-volume biography of Ike. The deputy, Tim Rives, was looking for items to display when he stumbled across unpublished material contradicting Ambrose’s account of his time with the former president.

It turns out that prior to their first meeting, Ambrose wrote two letters to Ike asking him to read his books and telling hm of his plans to write about him. Eisenhower never initiated the meeting or invited Ambrose to write about him.

When Rayner contacted Rive about the discrepancy, the deputy director of the presidential library said, “And, I’m sorry to say, these weren’t the only problems.”

According to Rive, access to the former president was so tightly controlled that visitors would have to go through several assistants and would leave a paper trail in the form of notations on Ike’s daily schedule. The meticulous records of meetings and phone calls are part of the archives in Abilene. The records show that Ambrose and Ike met only three times for a grand total of five hours. And they were never alone together.

On the other hand, footnotes to the first volume of Ambrose’s book on Ike, “The Supreme Commander,” published in 1970, mention 9 interview dates. Seven of them conflict with the official records. Not only do the records not show Ambrose as seeing Eisenhower on those days, most of the times, Ike wasn’t even at Gettysburg. On December 7, 1965, date of one of the cited interviews, Ike was in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. The records are specific in who saw Ike that day and Ambrose is not among them.

On October 21, 1967, another such date, Ike was playing golf at Augusta National. Again, 6 days later, he was still there when Ambrose says they worked together at Gettysburg.

The question then becomes: Did Ambrose meet with Ike outside of business hours? Ike’s son, John Eisenhower, a historian of note himself, was emphatic that this never happened. “Oh, God, no. Never. Never. Never.”

Rayner says John Eisenhower liked Ambrose, but “he recalled, too, Ambrose’s fondness for embellishment and his tendency to sacrifice fact to narrative panache.”

Got that? Whether something happened or not was unimportant if telling it would strengthen his story.

That’s the charge and I’ve cited the sources Rayner gives. Obviously there is no way I can vouch for the authenticity of his reporting. But if he is correct, a lot of us are very disappointed.

Now, I’ve lived long enough to question such articles, but am such a pessimist regarding human nature (my own as well as others’) that I have no trouble believing these things could have happened. In 1998, my son Neil and I sat in a conference room at Le Pavilion Hotel in downtown New Orleans and heard Ambrose talk about the Spanish-American War. He had a gift, no question about it. He spoke and you drank in his every word.

The temptation to embellish would have been strong, and to resist it almost impossible for most of us.

History teachers embellish all the time. The good ones do. They dramatize scenes to keep the attention of their students and to get across the essence of the event.

Where to draw the line?

I’m a story-teller. The tales I pass along for entertainment value are my own, incidents from former churches or characters from earlier years. I know a little about embellishment, as every raconteur from Jerry Clower to Dennis Swanberg does.

But there is a difference between entertaining and teaching truth.

The high priest said to Jesus, “Tell us what you’ve been teaching these people in the marketplaces.”

Our Lord replied, “I taught out in the open, in synagogues and in the Temple. You may ask anyone who heard me. They know.”

For that comeback, He was slapped by an officer.

Jesus said, “If I said something wrong, tell me what it was. But if I spoke the truth, why did you hit me?” The man had no answer. (John 18)

Truth is a precious commodity. Churchill used to say that in wartime truth was so precious it had to be secured by a bodyguard of lies.

It is said that a lie can travel around the world while truth is still putting on its shoes.

When they accused Harry Truman of giving “hell” to his opponents, he said, “I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

In college, my history teacher made no bones about her unbelief concerning religion. And yet, she told the class of her high respect for the college chaplain, Dr. Gresham. “Preachers are notorious for getting their history wrong,” Mae Parrish said. “But I’ve never yet caught Dr. Gresham in an inaccuracy.”

I was 18 years old and that testimony has stuck in my mind all these years as the standard for a man of God.

Tell the truth. Verify your facts. When it comes to embellishing your stories, tread carefully; you’re on quicksand here.

3 thoughts on “A Penchant for Embellishment

  1. I appreciate this post and the warning. Preachers are, in a sense, storytellers. I know I’ve been guilty of using a story that I heard from another preacher who probably heard it from another, each time embellished to make a point. Afterward, I discover that my facts were wrong and, I fear, the integrity of the gospel hurt. I now try to verify anything I repeat when preaching, even if the point of the actual story no longer carries the same punch.

  2. Today, Wednesday, the Times-Picayune gets around to a front page story on the Stephen Ambrose/New Yorker thing. They also mention something I omitted, that when Dr. Ambrose was still living, he was found to be guilty of plagiarism. He admitted it, said it was not malicious but simply sloppy writing. Anyway….

  3. Then, today, May 5, Professor Ambrose’s colleague (and now prof of history at Rice) Douglas Brinkley takes a column on the op-ed page to speak to this issue. He does not deny any of the charges against his old professor, but insists he was such a good story-teller as though that makes it all right. He seems of two minds on this, as I expect we all are. Such a gifted and intelligent historian and raconteur who made history come alive–even if much of the history was from his own imagination.

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