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Gary May

Gary May

Gary May is a professor of history at the University of Delaware. The author of three books, including the critically acclaimed The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo, he lives in Newark, Delaware.

Q & A

Where are you from?
I was born in Los Angeles, California, and reared in a family of composers and writers. My grandfather, M. K. Jerome, was a Warner Brothers’ songwriter whose credits included Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and other classic films. His songs "Some Sunday Morning" (from San Antonio) and "Sweet Dreams, Sweetheart" (from Hollywood Canteen) were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Song. My uncle, Stuart Jerome, was a veteran television writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Fugitive. This background had a profound effect on how I write history. I’m a storyteller who approaches great historical events cinematically, reconstructing through a dramatic narrative, the lives of Americans forever changed by historical events.

Who are your favorite writers?
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Roosevelt and A Thousand Days and Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August and Stilwell and the American Experience in China first showed me that history was exciting and that, after doing thorough research, a historian’s most important responsibility was to give his or her audience a readable, dramatic narrative. History, as I always tell my students, is never dull. It’s the historians who are dull.

Which teacher had the biggest impact on your life?
Without question, it was Robert Dallek, famed presidential historian and author of Harry Truman. I first met him in 1964 at UCLA, when, as a confused undergraduate, I was groping to find my life’s work and accidentally took his course on American diplomatic history. He was a superb lecturer who, for me, exemplified everything a historian should be—smart, eloquent, and amusing. I took all his classes, then decided to pursue graduate work with him as my Ph.D. advisor. He changed my life. I’m thrilled that we both have books in the American Presidents series.

What are your hobbies and outside interests?
Bunging jumping, travel to remote and exotic places, mountain climbing—I suppose some historians actually engage in these activities but, in truth, I don’t. Reading and going to the movies are my favorite hobbies, but these days I most enjoy the time spent with my first grandchild—Jacob May, age seven months. I can’t wait for him to start reading and going to the movies.

What is your favorite quote?
Speaking to Yale’s graduating class in June 1962, President John F. Kennedy said:

"As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our own time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

"For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."

JFK’s statement, which I quote to my students every year, is now almost half a century old. But like the best wisdom, it is timeless and true.

What is the question most commonly asked by your readers?
"You’ve written four books about very different men," I was once asked. "A career foreign service officer, a government economist, an FBI informant, and the tenth president of the United States. What links them together?"

My first two books dealt with how America’s secret government, embodied by Harry S. Truman’s Federal Employee Loyalty Program and the license it gave to the FBI and unscrupulous politicians and prosecutors, ruined the lives of career diplomat John Carter Vincent (China Scapegoat) and government economist William Remington (Un-American Activities). The Informant, shed light on the violent activities of Gary Thomas Rowe, the FBI’s top informant inside the 1960s Alabama Ku Klux Klan. The FBI’s secret informant system, used widely against the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960s, continues almost unchanged today and threatens both our civil liberties and our national security.

Working on John Tyler, I discovered, to my surprise, that a forgotten nineteenth-century U.S. president also used secret government agents to further his policies—and broke the law. Mild-mannered John Tyler planted the seeds which later grew into the Imperial Presidency, ruining the lives of my twentieth century subjects. The use and abuse of illegal presidential power became the subject of my life’s work.

Who is your favorite president?
A tough question. Like most historians, I admire Lincoln, TR, and FDR, but my favorite is John F. Kennedy. Although he served only a thousand days as president, he had an extraordinary impact on my life. His actions, both positive and negative, awakened me politically and my interest in presidential politics has remained strong my entire life. His finest hour, in my view, occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he rejected the demands of both military and civilian advisors to respond immediately by bombing the missile sites and invading Cuba. This would have been catastrophic. By choosing instead a naval quarantine, public pressure, and secretly reassuring the Russians that the Turkish missiles would be removed, he gave Nikita Khrushchev time to reconsider his reckless course. This crisis brought out the best in him, and may well have prevented a full-scale nuclear war.

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BOOKS BY THE AUTHOR

John Tyler

The American Presidents

Gary May; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz, General Editors

The first “accidental president,” whose secret maneuverings brought Texas into the Union and set secession in motionWhen William Henry Harrison died in April 1841,...

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