and Henry Kissinger over protection
of historical records, and testified in the
U.S. Senate against U.S. Supreme Court
nominee Robert Bork. But foremost was
his devotion to the events and lessons of
the past — author of some of the most
highly regarded books on the American
presidency, and with his survey of the
20th-century presidents now on bookstore
shelves, he has several more in various stages
of completion. He’d worked a whole career
as an activist historian before he came to
Chapel Hill in 1983 to teach and write.
At 94, he has yet to figure out how to
His long collaboration with
documentarian Ken Burns continues, on a
new film about — of all things — country
music. Leuchtenburg advised Burns on
his landmark Civil War series and his
documentaries on the Roosevelts, the
national parks and baseball, among others.
(Burns wanted his Civil War archives to
reside in the South, and he gave them to
Their work together began with the
1986 documentary about Louisiana governor and U.S. Sen. Huey Long. Leuchtenburg had given Burns a copy of his lecture
on Long, and thus began a long friendship
and working relationship that has thrived,
with the elder historian writing memos
about odd facts of history and sometimes
appearing in the documentaries themselves.
Burns told the Boothbay Register last
summer: “We learned a long time ago never
to leave home without Bill. If this was a
baseball player, Bill would be Willie Mays.
He has been an extraordinary addition to
That’s an image that surely warms the
heart of Leuchtenburg, a longtime fan
not of Mays’ Giants but of the Brooklyn
Dodgers. Still, Mays’ reputation as a player
who could do it all with grace and excel-
lence reflects a widely held opinion about
Leuchtenburg’s reputation as one of the
best ever at what he does.
“For millennia, people have found history indispensable to comprehending who
they are,” Leuchtenburg has written. He
frequently cites a saying of the Lakota tribe:
“A people without history is like the wind
upon the buffalo grass.”
Statesmen and scalawags
Leuchtenburg’s most recent book, The
American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to
‘We learned a long time ago
never to leave home without Bill.
If this was a baseball player,
Bill would be Willie Mays.
He has been an extraordinary
addition to our team.’
Leuchtenburg in Kansas City, Mo., in 1948
as he was managing Richard Bolling’s first
campaign for Congress during a hiatus from
academics. He also spent part of this time
working on the field staff of a civil rights
organization in Maine.
Leuchtenburg advised documentary historian
Ken Burns, opposite page, on Burns’ 1994
series on baseball. The two have worked
together on several films, and much of Burns’
archive now resides in Wilson Library.