Taylor Made

Historian Taylor Branch’s take on leadership, the Founding Fathers and writing really big books.


By Vickie Chachere

USF.edu News Manager


TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 7, 2010) – Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch is known worldwide for his trilogy on the civil rights movement (Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63; Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65; and At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-1968) and his behind-the-scenes take on the Clinton presidency in The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President.


But now the scribe of exhaustively detailed historical accounts is turning his attention to the Founding Fathers, perhaps to shed some light on today’s modern political landscape.


Branch will kick-off the fall lineup for the Phi Beta Kappa Faculty Lecture Series at 7 p.m. on Sept. 14 at the Jaeb Theater at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. The free event is sponsored by USF’s College of Arts and Sciences, the USF Phi Beta Kappa Faculty Alumni, the USF Office of the Provost, and the Mayor of Tampa.


But before Branch puts his pen to paper again, we caught up with him by telephone from his home in Maryland for a quick conversation on what is past, what is prologue and what an author who routinely churns out 1,000-page books thinks about the 140-character world of Twitter and socializing on Facebook.



Q: Your lecture is titled "Leadership Lessons from King and Clinton” and it happens to come in the midst of a very hotly contested election season: What do you think is the current state of political and social leadership in America today? 


A: Poor. I think we have an atrophied sense of hope and a dumbed-down public dialogue.  Certainly it’s not new to have a lot of acrimony in public politics, that goes back to American Revolution, nor is it new to have a lot of arguments about the role of government in life - but what is new is how paralyzing that debate has become in that not many ideas are flowing back and forth. You basically have two sides acting as if the world would be perfect if the other side would just drop dead. Neither side thinks much, or takes risks to bridge the political divide. That’s unhealthy.


Q: We’re a full generation beyond the Civil Rights Movement and yet we still seem to have a hard time moving forward in terms of race and politics. Why is that?


A: The Vietnam War. The Vietnam War came right hard upon the climax of the Civil Rights Movement. It really was a cruel blow.  We had no time to digest the implications of the Freedom Movement that would spread from race relations and into gender and beyond.  We were pitched straight into Vietnam arguments about violence and democracy.  In many senses, we’re still stuck there without much progress.



Q: Your new project on the Founders and the early U.S. Republic, what led you there?


A: I kept discovering in the Civil Rights Movement that when people wrestled with questions, the best of them were really well-versed in their predecessors. I had to go back to what they were bringing to bear to understand them. I followed Martin Luther King to the Founding Fathers. I was surprised to see him take so much hope from the Founders when they held slaves. Historians often go backwards in time.


We’re in an era now where the Tea Party says they want to go back to fundamentals; how to create a democracy when people didn’t think it was possible. I think they (the Tea Party) has about everything wrong on how to create a democracy, but I agree with them that we need to apply fundamental lessons to fundamental problems.


Q: I noticed you have a blog – that must be fun for an author who spends years researching and writing on a single topic to have a forum to share a quick thought now and then?


A: It’s a new world for me, but I think that I am excited to try it out because I have spent 30 years absorbed in the fundamentals of politics and race relations and religion. I am at a stage where I hope to spark some elevated debate on the issues. The books I write are deliberately non-argumentative.


Q: I see you are on Facebook and Twitter, what’s that like for you?


A: It’s pretty hard to Twitter history, but what you can do is prime the pump by showing the questions that are paramount and crucial today have antecedents.


Q: What do you read for fun?


A: I read all 20 of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels.  When I go on vacation, I get an Elmore Leonard novel. An Elmore Leonard novel is like an airboat ride across a Florida swamp.

Q: Do you have a Kindle?

A: No. I still like real paper and real binding. Although, I have been approached by people who complain of shoulder pains from carrying my fat books around. So maybe Kindle will help!

To read more about Taylor Branch and his work, visit his website. Archived lectures can be found here. 

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.