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A Good American Family

The Red Scare and My Father

David Maraniss is one of our most accomplished reporters, earning just about every journalism prize out there. He's also written major biographies of the likes of President Barack Obama, President Bill Clinton, iconic NFL coach Vince Lombardi, and legendary baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente. His trilogy on the 1960s - They Marched Into Sunlight, Rome 1960, and Once in a Great City - captures America, and the world, as it experiences seismic changes. His latest, A Good American Family, is a very personal story. 

A Conversation with David Maraniss

History in Five: This examination of the Red Scare is also a personal story for you. When did you know this story was a book? 


David Maraniss: The idea for the book had been slowly building for years, but I knew that I would not write it while my parents were alive. I finally realized the scope of the book when I was at the National Archives and saw for the first time the original copy of the HUAC subpoena of my father and of the statement he wrote to the committee that he was not allowed to give unless he repented and named names.


H5: Your father was a newspaperman, and you followed in his footsteps as a journalist. What’s his legacy to you and your family? 


DM: In a sense, this book made me realize, finally, in my sixties, all that I owed my father. He emerged from the most trying period of his life without cynicism or bitterness, but taught me instead to be open to the world in all its contradictions and to search for the truth wherever it took me. He learned and grew from his experiences and passed the lessons along to me.


H5: Publishers Weekly says, “Maraniss explores his family history…to show how politics molded individual lives.” Is there something larger to be said about the American story here?


DM: This is very much a larger story than just a family memoir. There are many other major characters in the book, whose own experiences helped make the mosaic of what it means to be American, a question that sits at the heart of the book. 


H5: There are parallels to the 1950s to today’s political climate: we have a President and some press that uses fear, sensationalism, and distortion as political weapons. Americans are being questioned about their status, similar to the accusations your father received as “un-American.” What can we learn from this episode in history? How should we as a nation try to move forward now? 


DM: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it seems to rhyme. When my book on Vietnam came out, the U.S. was waging war in Iraq, and there were echoes of many of the old issues and problems still unresolved. Here again, there are echoes. I started this book before the rise of Trump, but the issues of spreading fear as a means of political control, of demonizing others, of riding roughshod over civil liberties and freedom of speech, are once again all too relevant.


H5: Tell us about how you approach writing a new book. 


DM: If I’m going to write a book, I have to be obsessed with the topic. I’m not going to just write a book about a famous person. So I’m always looking for two things — a dramatic story, and themes that illuminate the sociology and history of America.


H5: How do you research? 


DM: I talk about the four legs of the table that I use for writing. The first leg is to go there, wherever “there” is for my book. In 1996, I turned to my wife and uttered those immortal loving words, “How would you like to move to Green Bay for the winter?”, to which she responded, “Brr.” But I realized that to do the book on Lombardi, I had to move to Green Bay. I had to experience what it was like in this company town where everything was Packers.


The second leg is to interview as many people as I can find who experienced whatever the person I’m writing about did. I went to Hope, Arkansas, where Bill Clinton spent his earliest years and camped out in the only motel in town– the Motel 8. The night clerk asked me what I was doing there, and I said, “Well, I’m starting a biography of Bill Clinton.” She said, “Oh, well, Billy, I’m his great aunt.” It turns out that half the people in Hope said they were related to Bill Clinton. The other half probably really were.


The third leg is, get the documents. Going back to the Motel-8, it was springtime, and I just have terrible allergies. One night, the clerk said, “Well, come over to my house tonight, and I’ve got a potion for you that will help your allergies.” She gave me this potion–and it made me sicker, actually–but while we were talking, she said, “By the way, up in my attic, I have a box full of Billy Clinton’s mamaw’s stuff.” So she brought down this box, and I saw she had a stack of Bill Clinton’s letters to his grandmother from when he was a student at Georgetown. So there, I was able to both get the interview and the documents at the same time.


The fourth leg is a little metaphysical. It’s looking for what’s not there, trying to break through the mythology of a story to find the truth and not just accept what other people have said or the mythology that’s built up around a story. So that’s how I approach a book before I even start writing it.


H5: Who are some writers that have inspired you?

DM: I’ve had a few writers who I’ve learned from and followed and admired. The first was my father, who was a lifelong writer and editor. He had a way of writing in an engaging style that never wrote down to people, was very intelligent, but incredibly clear. I’ve always tried to do that.


The essays that have meant the most to me were those by George Orwell. He came into his writing with a political ideology, but it never blinded him, he was looking for the truth wherever it took him. I’ve always used his essays when I’m teaching young writers how to write. There’s one essay called “A Hanging.” It describes when he was a young policeman in Burma, watching a young Burmese man being led to the gallows. There’s a puddle in front of the person who’s about to get executed and he naturally steps aside so his bare feet don’t go in the puddle. Orwell uses that moment as the most powerful argument against capital punishment that I’ve ever read, showing the human impulse of this man right before he’s about to be killed by the state. I’ve always looked for detail like that that illuminates something larger. Orwell taught me how to do that.

A Good American Family

The Red Scare and My Father

More from David Maraniss