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Festival of Books: Biographers create a vivid portrait of the 20th century

April 21, 2012 |  4:02 pm

Click to view photos from the Festival of Books

For those who didn't go to hear Rodney King's conversation with Patt Morrison (and wait some time for King to show), the best bet for the same 12:30 p.m. time slot Saturday was an L.A. TImes Festival of Books panel discussion titled "Biography: The American Century."

Moderated by A. Scott Berg, the author of considerable biographies of Max Perkins and Charles A. Lindbergh, panelists included Richard Reeves; Jim Newton, the L.A. Times editor-at-large; and John A. Farrell, author of "Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned," which was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography on Friday night.

Panelists spoke about what inspired them to write biographies. Reeves, who has penned bestselling biographies of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, talked about his most recent book,  "Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin Airlift" on the American efforts to be get humanitarian relief to the beleaguered city in 1947. He got a laugh when he noted that he took on the assignment because Newton and another biographer had cornered the market on Eisenhower before he could get to that president.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

More seriously, Reeves said he took on the airlift as a response to the negative publicity U.S. servicemen received for the horrific photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. "I wanted to do something that showed America as I saw it," Reeves said. He thought readers should be reminded that when Berlin was surrounded by more than half a million Soviet troops, American servicemen were mobilized quickstep and flew tons of supplies to the city.

Newton's book on Eisenhower came after a call from an editor who pitched the project to him. He had touched on Eisenhower while writing an earlier book on Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and thought he would be writing quite a different book than the one he ended up with.

And Farrell became interested in Darrow as a boy when someone gave him a copy of Irving Stone's considerable biography of the attorney. And although much had been written on Darrow, he took on the book project when the family made available a trove of fresh material in Darrow's letters.

FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

Much of the discussion centered on the 20th century as the American Century, and Eisenhower -- who seemed to be the connective tissue in this discussion -- was praised by Newton and Reeves as an icon of the century. Reeves also said Eisenhower and Reagan had one thing in common: Both were extremely famous men before they entered the White House. They also were older when they were sworn into office and had the patience to commit to their shared vision,  that American values would eventually triumph over the Soviet Union.

Newton said Eisenhower was extremely conservative in deploying U.S. troops during his two terms in the White House in the 1950s despite events that would these days seemingly lead to U.S. deployments. Those events -- the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Suez Crisis, political upheaval in Iran, as well as a crisis in Guatemala -- were seen as diplomatic challenges not requiring American military involvement. 

Other than the Korean War, which ended some months after Eisenhower took office, only one American soldier was killed during Eisenhower's two terms in office. Newton and Farrell noted that in this century, the military option gets first consideration under two terms with George W. Bush and continues in Washington with talk of a military option against Iran if it continues its exploration of nuclear arms.

Turning to Darrow, Farrell said his turning point as a lawyer came when he took on the defense of the socialist leader Eugene Debs, walking away from the opportunity and resulting wealth in corporate law (how many lawyers would do that today?). The great irony, unspoken by Farrell today but noted at the book prizes Friday night, was Darrow's defense of the McNamara brothers, who were convicted of bombing festival sponsor Los Angeles Times decades ago.

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--Jon Thurber, Los Angeles Times Book Editor

Photo: Children in West Berlin circa 1948 watch the planes bring supplies as part of the Berlin Airlift. Credit: Associated Press

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