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August's Book
Short of the Glory
by Tracy Campbell
Bill:
Tracy Campbell, why Ed Prichard?

Tracy:
Hmmm ... good question. I grew up hearing the stories of Ed Prichard. And when I went off to graduate school, I was doing the first book on the tobacco wars, and I came across this senior thesis written by Ed Prichard in 1935 at Princeton. Most senior theses written by undergraduates are, say, 40 to 50 pages. And if they are over ten years old, they are usually not worth much. Prichard's was 255 pages. And even though it was written in 1935, it was scintillating. It was a thrill to read. He had done a great deal of original research that really preceded a lot of the historical writings that would occur a generation or two later. And this was all from a 20-year-old college student. So I was thinking about his life as I was finishing up the first book, but I didn't just want to do a biography of somebody. I think good biographies relate to much larger themes. What I have always been interested in is how politics really works: Once you strip away all the veneer, how do the nuts and bolts of politics work? And I was thinking about a life that would allow me to see that kind of infrastructure, if you will.

But still I had my doubts, until one day I had read Robert Penn Warren's obituary. It was over breakfast, and I remember reading so distinctly the fact -- it was on page 2 -- that one of the projects that he was thinking about was a fictional biography of Ed Prichard. All of my instincts about what made Prichard a unique story, not just a Kentucky story but to me a unique American story, were validated in an instant by that one sentence. And so from that point on I started thinking about a larger study. My problem was [that] Ed Prichard left no papers, which for a historian is usually the death knell of any kind of, at least modern, history. I also knew a lot of his friends and his family didn't want to talk about him. So if there is anything in somebody's attic, I couldn't get at it.

To me Ed Prichard is America of the 20th century: the best and the brightest, a man of just sheer brilliance who also was capable of great flaws. And there is an element of tragedy in there that makes it, to me, a singular American story. I thought there was enough there to maybe warrant an article. I didn't know if there would be anything more. And my worry was, I might get a little bit here about his early life, I might get a little bit there about maybe the New Deal years, but would there be enough connective tissue in between? And so once I started asking the questions, his life opened up to me in ways that were shocking. And it was literally like, to answer your question, putting your foot in the stream to see how cold it is, and the next thing I know I'm swept along with it, in a lot of ways.

Bill:
This statement takes this interview in a different direction. But I do want to ask, going back to Robert Penn Warren, because somebody had mentioned this: Oftentimes when we are reading for the bookclub, we say, "Gosh, what a great movie this would be," and I have thought this about what a great Hollywood figure Ed Prichard still could be. When Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King's Men, do you think he was modeling some of the personalities and characters and scenarios, maybe, out of something that he eventually wanted to do with Ed Prichard?

Tracy:
I don't think so. I don't know. I haven't read it that carefully again. I think that he was wrapped up in the Louisiana world at the time. But to answer your question, there is a screenwriter who is working on this. I think the odds are probably one in a hundred that it will ever see the light of day. But there are some other folks who agree with you that Prichard is a Hollywood figure in a lot of ways. I wish Orson Welles were still around. I think he would have loved to have played him and have seen that part of his life. So we'll see if that ever gets me to Hollywood or not. But I doubt it.

Bill:
We often ask authors about the whole process. You said that, at least at the very beginning, family and friends were a little reluctant to ... Talk a little bit about the whole gathering of the information. What an arduous task that must have been!

Tracy:
Well, it was, but it was also thrilling, because it was like being a detective. And that is what historians really are -- detectives. Sometimes we have a lot of evidence to work on; sometimes we just have fibers, and we have to make some sense of it. But as I was cursed in one direction, I was blessed in another.

Let me just give you the first day of research. I made a deal with myself that if there was not enough there after doing a week's worth of research in Washington, I was going to quit, because I thought, well, if he left any tracks behind him, it would have to be in the New Deal. If I can't find him in the New Deal, I'm not going to find him in Kentucky. So I went to Washington; I went to the Library of Congress; I was there. I got there late in the afternoon, and I asked for the papers of Robert Jackson, the attorney general who later went on to the Supreme Court. And I thought, let's just go in chronological order. He was the first boss Prichard had after leaving the Supreme Court.

And so they bring me a big file that's just marked "P" -- any reference, any memos regarding anybody by the last name "P" -- and I have got about an hour left in the day, and all I want to do for my own morale is find his name mentioned in just one memo anywhere. It doesn't take me long before I find a five-page, single-spaced memo from J. Edgar Hoover to Robert Jackson, "personal and confidential," about this new employee named Edward F. Prichard Jr. It was from that moment on [that] I knew that this was much bigger than I had ever anticipated.

I also went to the FBI building not long after that, where they brought me about 700 pages of wiretaps. And so there I was one week wondering if I'd ever understand the personal Prichard, and here I was the next week reading his phone conversations from the White House to people like Felix Frankfurter and Lyndon Johnson and Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran and everybody who was somebody in Washington. I got to see Prichard in his element, in his prime from the White House. I was invading his space probably, and his privacy, but these were public documents. In one respect I guess I was blessed that J. Edgar Hoover had this obsession with him and had wiretapped him.

So that was just the first week of doing this, and the rest of it just opened itself up in ways I never expected. That's the wonderful thing about doing a book like this.

Bill:
What about the portions in Kentucky?

Tracy:
Well, for the first part I had to go to Paris. He is from Paris. And I wanted to get a sense of the kind of world he grew up in. I wanted to see what the schools look like, and what did the courthouse feel like on a hot August day -- not much different now than it did back in 1915, I guess. There I was able to do a lot of interviewing. Oral history is what has allowed me to do that part, to re-create those memories.

Still, Prichard left a lot of written sources behind him in other ways. You know, when he is 16 he nominates Ruby Laffoon to be governor. Or he actually nominated William Ardery, but then once the nomination went to Ruby Laffoon, there he is in the Courier-Journal taking the nomination as a page to the new governor. When I did the parts on Princeton and Harvard, I felt as I was going into that, I'd like to get a page of material out of this. That would be lucky. I mean, what kinds of records do any of us leave behind in college? Maybe a few remembrances by old professors -- and yet each one of those had to be its own chapter.

When I went to the Princeton newspaper, for example, Prichard was everywhere, had his own column. It's hard to find a week in which Ed Prichard wasn't a newspaper story. [At] Harvard he becomes this legendary figure as a student, and he is in Time magazine and The New York Times for his exploits there. So because he cut this really larger-than-life swath, he allowed me to see him in ways that I think some other political figures wouldn't have, by doing those kinds of things.

Bill:
Let me ask you a little bit about yourself: your background and that sort of thing. You wrote this while you were at Mars Hill?

Tracy:
Uh huh.

Bill:
And you had finished your doctorate at Duke.

Tracy:
Uh huh.

Bill:
And now you are at the University of Kentucky.

Tracy:
Right.

Bill:
Tell me about the first book you wrote, just very briefly -- The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars.

Tracy:
Well, I had studied with the populist historian Lawrence Goodwin at Duke, and I wanted to see what had happened to those farmers after populism. After they, after the populist movement died about 1896, what did the farmers do? And the biggest reaction to me of the former populists occurred here in Kentucky. And so I started looking -- going back to another Robert Penn Warren theme! His first novel was Night Rider, and so I started investigating the Black Patch War. And there again, I wasn't expecting to spend much time in Central Kentucky, but I found this strike of agricultural workers. Here in Central Kentucky, 35,000 farmers not growing any tobacco in 1908. And it -- there is another story. Not thinking I would find much about these farmers, who don't leave much behind them, but there the story took on a life of its own as well. In the course of that, I had to read Prichard's thesis. And it was a question in my mind whether to continue to do another book in this field that I knew a lot about -- rural history, America around the turn of the century -- or to just chunk that and start afresh with someone else. His life was so compelling to me that I had no other choice. I had to do it, which is the obsession part of doing biography.

Bill:
Hmmm.

Tracy:
Really, in a lot of ways ...

Bill:
And tell us about your current work.

Tracy:
Well, that is also a byproduct of Prichard. One of the questions I asked to myself was, what is the scale and scope of vote fraud in Kentucky? I expected to find a lot of material on it because it's everywhere, and people know about it. But I couldn't find anything written about it except a few passing, maybe footnotes in an article, and as someone who is interested in how political power works, I have just embarked on this study called Stealing Democracy. I have the title already; I just need to get the book now! It is a look at vote fraud in all of its myriad ways, from registration to stuffing ballots to violence at the polls, to any way that power can manipulate the vote totals to get candidate X in instead of candidate Y. And all of these really kind of have a thread to them, whether it's tobacco or Ed Prichard or that book, and that is trying to show how power really works. And second -- this is probably more important for me -- they are all real research challenges. That's what makes it really vivid and dynamic for me: How do you find these things? How do you find someone who doesn't leave any papers? How do you find something that is in itself an illegal act? And to me that is what makes history really dynamic and interesting in my mind.

Bill:
I would imagine [that] a lot of the facts and figures that you are probably going to end up with weren't easy to find. People weren't recording their thoughts on vote fraud, unless they were doing it after the fact some years down the road.

Tracy:
Well, oddly enough, people like to talk about it.

Bill:
Hmmm. No, that's not odd.

Tracy:
It's because -- it's to describe to you the game as it's played, because they feel like they have to. It's always, well, my opponents did XY to me in the last election. So I was forced to do this game, and so here is what we did in the next election. And so nobody stuffs ballots because they want to be known as crooks or thieves, but because they know that -- they are at least going to produce the rationale that -- their opponents are doing it, so they have to do it. Court records are there, newspaper stories are everywhere, particularly the Courier-Journal. So the problem was not, at least in this case, getting enough sources. It's what do I do with all of this voluminous material that's coming either from the government or from court records? For example, I am going through about several thousand pages' worth of depositions right now just in Louisville in 1905 alone. The material is there. I think the historian's task is to ask the right questions for that material to open itself up.

Bill:
Returning to Prichard for the final question: Trying to place him in the modern era -- of course, he did participate in the last half of this century, so it's not like he was totally removed from the political process nationally and in Kentucky. But where would he fit today? Let's say in the last couple of decades, if he was again a younger man, a 35- or 40-year-old, how active would he be? Is there a mirror image of Ed Prichard on the national scene today?

Tracy:
The only one I can think of is Bill Clinton. I was doing this book while the investigations and the impeachment played themselves out. The two have had remarkably similar backgrounds. They both were political animals as young boys. They both ate up school like it didn't exist. You know, I hear that Clinton has, if not a photographic memory, close to it. They both could be incredibly charming and win people over. They also have incredibly huge flaws. They both have people who are drawn to them and are loyal and love them, and they also have created enemies who live to try and bring them down. And with all of that going on, they both did something that their friends had to ask, how could he do something so stupid? It's a paradox.

I think Clinton and Prichard had a lot in common. They both were idealists in certain ways; they both could be very pragmatic, if not machiavellian, in other ways. Looking at this election, we've got two candidates who, if it hadn't been for one candidate's father and another candidate being put on a ticket, we wouldn't have heard of them. You did hear of Bill Clinton from his own savvy and his own ambition, and you would have heard of Ed Prichard probably in other ways as well.

There are differences, though. Clinton was willing to put himself on the line to get elected. And Prichard was much more insecure. I only found one instance where he was willing to submit himself to an election, and that was at Princeton. And there were rumors of stuffed ballots in that particular election. That would be the only answer I could give you to that one.

Bill:
Well, that's a good one. That is what I was thinking of, also. Tracy Campbell, thanks for talking with us.

Tracy:
Thank you for having me.

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