Louis L’Amour

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, March 22, 2017. One anomaly of our current politics is that the occupant of the Oval Office does not read books. This aversion came to light last summer as Donald J. Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, and it came from the candidate himself.

He has no time to read, Trump told Marc Fisher of The Washington Post. “I never have,” he added. “I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”

As president, the pressures on Trump’s time are undoubtedly even greater than they were last July. But almost all presidents have found time for reading, not only to ground them historically in the great issues they face, but for pleasure and relaxation.

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Louis Dearborn L’Amour (March 22, 1908 – June 10, 1988), American author

Dwight Eisenhower would give western novels by Louis L’Amour to his Secret Service agents after reading them; Jimmy Carter was immersed in the famous L’Amour saga “The Lonesome Gods” when the author succumbed to cancer in 1988.

I’m thinking of Louis L’Amour this morning because today is his birthday: One of the most prolific and best-selling authors in history was born in Jamestown, North Dakota on this date in 1908.

Ronald Reagan, who read L’Amour’s “Jubal Sackett” while recovering from cancer surgery as president, honored the author with two awards, a Congressional Gold Medal in 1983 and a Presidential Medal of Freedom the following year.

The first of these ceremonies took place on the South Lawn of the White House during a barbeque for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. The congressional medal was an honor so rare for a writer that only Robert Frost had previously received it.

“The men and women of the Old West may not have been as slick as they were sometimes portrayed by Hollywood,” said Reagan, an old Hollywood actor himself, “but there was a certain integrity of character that shines through as we look back at them from the vantage place of history.”

Reagan lauded L’Amour as a prolific storyteller whose 87 books, most of them set in the West, had sold some 140 million copies (that total is much higher today) and been adapted for movies and television shows. “He brought the West to the people of the East and to people everywhere,” the president said.

But Reagan couldn’t see where L’Amour was sitting and when he asked the author to come forward, the president turned in the wrong direction. When he spotted L’Amour behind him, Reagan ad-libbed, “You sneaked up on me, just like Bowdrie.” This was a reference to Chick Bowdrie, a Texas Ranger who sprung from L’Amour’s ample imagination.

Editor’s Notes: The characters which emanated from Louis L’Amour’s rich life were a great deal like himself. He quit school at 15 — but never quit reading — and took to the railroads, ships, and byways of this country, working variously as a ranch hand, longshoreman, lumberjack, elephant handler, fruit picker, seaman, and prizefighter. As a U.S. Army lieutenant in World War II, he commanded a platoon of trucks supplying gasoline to planes and tanks in France and Germany, work even more perilous than the challenges faced by the lawmen in white hats he brought to life in his novels. Like his characters he was a man’s man.

Throughout it all, L’Amour always planned to become a writer; and, as the New York Times noted in its respectful obituary, he was confident of his literary abilities. “I could sit in the middle of Sunset Boulevard,” he once quipped, “and write with my typewriter on my knees.”

He’d sold a few short stories before the war, mostly mysteries and adventure tales. Afterwards, he picked up his pace and turned to westerns, hitting it big with a short story called “The Gift of Cochise.”

Published by Collier’s magazine in the summer of 1952, “Cochise” was read and loved by John Wayne, who bought the screen rights to it. The screenwriters fleshed out the story, and renamed it “Hondo.” L’Amour was encouraged to write a novel-length book by the same name. Its publication was timed with the movie’s release the following year, and a franchise had been launched.

The speed with which the author produced books baffled his publishers, who strained to keep up with him, and even piqued curiosity inside his own family. One day, L’Amour recalled, as he was “speeding along at the typewriter” his daughter Angelique, then a little girl, asked, “Daddy, why are you writing so fast?”

“Because,” he responded, “I want to see how the story turns out!”

Good fiction depends on such a quality among the readers — call it willful suspension of disbelief — but here was the author himself acknowledging that his story lines and characters had minds of their own. Despite his vast success (or, perhaps in part because of it), Louis L’Amour was underrated as a wordsmith. This perception was brought home in the summer of 2012 when vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said in his speech at the Republican convention that the Obama administration was “like a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.”

To Louis L’Amour aficionados, this sounded familiar, and it was. Ryan’s staff freely acknowledged that the line was inspired by the observation of an imaginary 12th-century pirate named Red Mark, who in L’Amour’s telling observes: “A ship does not sail with yesterday’s wind.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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