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Steve Inskeep On His Bestseller "Imperfect Union" And Hosting Morning Edition During A Pandemic

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Mike Morgan NPR
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Most Idahoans may have only limited knowledge of John C. Fremont, namesake of eastern Idaho's Fremont County. But a 19th century journalist once heralded Fremont as "the Columbus of our central wilderness," and a magazine in 1850 went as far as to list "Columbus, Washington and Fremont as the world's most important historical figures since Jesus Christ."

Yet, Fremont is usually only a supporting character in scores of famous stories about other celebrated Americans.  That is until "Imperfect Union," was penned by Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep. The bestseller chronicles how Fremont and his wife Jessie "mapped the West, invented celebrity, and helped cause the Civil War."

Idaho's own Morning Edition host George Prentice visited with Inskeep to talk about Fremont, his charismatic spouse, their indelible imapct on America, and what it's like to be hosting Morning Edition in these historic times.

“If it is vital for journalists to paint a true picture of the country as it is, then it is equally vital for historians to paint a true picture of the country as it was."

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice, and… well, I'm here with Steve Inskeep. Steve, good morning.

STEVE INSKEEP: Good morning, glad to be here.

PRENTICE: Steve is the author of a must read, it's titled "Imperfect Union." The subtitle is "How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War."

The legacy of John Fremont is considerable. Here in Idaho, we have Fremont County, bordering both Montana and Wyoming, as John Fremont spent some time here in 1843.

Steve, John Fremont appears in so many other stories of American history, but talk to us a bit about your endeavor to chronicle his and Jessie's story, and how John and Jessie Fremont are at the centerpiece of this book.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Their involvement in so many other stories of the 19th Century is how I discovered them. As a kid, really, because I read about the Old West, and John C. Fremont is described as an explorer, and his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, was involved somehow in his endeavors. That is when John passed through what is now Idaho, on the Oregon Trail, and was on a mapping expedition. He was, essentially, promoting American settlement of what was then called the Oregon Country, which included Idaho.

That's one story that he was involved in, but he was also involved as a General in the Civil War. He and his wife, Jessie, had a famous argument with Abraham Lincoln, and lost the argument. And nobody who argues with Lincoln comes off very well in history, they come off very poorly in that endeavor. But, he was also a predecessor of Abraham Lincoln as a presidential candidate, making 56 the first candidate ever of the Republican party, this anti-slavery party that had just been formed a couple of years before.

So he came up again and again, and when I was exploring, not as a reader now, but as a writer, the 19th Century and the expansion of America, both John and Jessie, who worked together as partners, were great characters for me to try to learn their story directly.

PRENTICE: I want to get this right. In the book, a contemporary journalist called John Fremont, in his time, quoting here, "the Columbus of our central wilderness."

INSKEEP: Yes!

PRENTICE: And a magazine in 1850 listed “Columbus, Washington, and Fremont as the world's most important historical figures since Jesus Christ.”

INSKEEP: Yes. Yes, a little bit of hyperbole there, maybe we would say unbelievable hyperbole now, but I think it accurately reflects how famous, and how admired John C. Fremont was, once upon a time.

PRENTICE: And he was not 40 years old before, well, mountains, and cities, and landmarks were named after him.

INSKEEP: Exploring the West, which is how he became famous, you could think of it as a young man's game because it was so physically arduous to get out there. And he was out there in his 20s, he was commanding expeditions in his 20s, and by his 30s he had done multiple expeditions. And in his 30s, even took part in the United States conquest of Mexican controlled California, as well as playing that role and promoting settlement of the Oregon Country.

PRENTICE: Can we talk a bit about the partnership of John and Jessie?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

PRENTICE: I couldn't help but think of other American historical partners, where the spouse didn't necessarily compliment the other as much as accelerated their spouse. I think of Abigail and John Adams, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, and even to some degree, Nancy and Ronald Regan.

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Credit Penguin Random House
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INSKEEP: Yeah, I think that that is a great set of analogies, there. There have been a lot of spouses like that through history, and of course because, until recent times, men were the only people allowed to run for political office, the wife would be the person in the background. Usually far in the background, a lot of political wives, their influence has been more private than public. I'm talking about past times, of course.

Jessie was a little different. In fact, very different for her time, in the pre-Civil War era, in that she was famous herself. She was the daughter of a Senator, she was widely admired for her education. Her father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had educated her much like a boy. She got involved as a publicist for her explorer husband, she would help him write these reports of his adventures which would become, in effect, bestselling books, and also be excerpted in newspapers. She would receive his letters from far off places, if he found some way to get a letter home, and she would make sure that the letter appeared in the newspaper, publicizing his exploits. She would talk with and build relationships with newspaper editors, she was constantly building him up.

But while doing that, she would also sometimes write letters to the newspapers, defending him. So her name would appear in the paper, and she was gradually becoming famous herself. Until, by the 1850s, she was considered a political force in her own right.

PRENTICE: I'm going to put you on the spot. Do you have a copy of your book, by any chance, nearby?

INSKEEP: As a matter of fact, I do. It's right here in my hand.

PRENTICE: I have a favor. In your sources and acknowledgements, near the end of your book on page 360. The light truly went off as I read this, so I'm going to ask you to read it aloud. The passage that begins with the phrase "Occasionally, I asked myself ..." Could you read that for us?

INSKEEP: Yes, absolutely. I'll set it up by saying that I signed a contract to do this book in 2016, which was an election year of course, and a very divisive election year, a lot of people were upset wherever you were on the political spectrum. Then, the election was decided and everyone was still upset, and many things were uncertain. I'll read here.

"Occasionally, I asked myself how I could find time to finish this book, and why I should even bother. Hell, a Pennsylvania voter told me in 2017, "If we're still alive next year at this time, I'd be surprised." But the next year, we were still alive, and I had time to recall that the history I was writing and the news I was covering were part of the same story. The debates that perplex us build on our shared and living past, human patterns of thought and action persist, though we change the names of our obsessions. Modern leaders copy the political techniques of our forebears, and justify their actions by citing bits of American history, real or imagined. If it is vital for journalists to paint a true picture of the country as it is, then it is equally vital for historians to paint a true picture of the country as it was."

PRENTICE: Can we talk a little shop for a couple minutes?

INSKEEP: Absolutely.

PRENTICE: I have to assume that the challenge of hosting Morning Edition is daunting, certainly technically. But, can I also assume that there have been moments of being caught emotional, in listening to stories of people who are doing their best, just to survive?

INSKEEP: That's been true, really, the whole time I've been a reporter. And maybe, especially a program host where you get to listen to people's stories at length. And I'm moved again, and again, and again by the suffering of people, and by the endurance of people, and by the struggles of people.

It may be an interview that I'm doing that chokes me up, about someone whose lost a loved one from COVID-19, just to give an example. It may be an interview that we're doing about someone who has died in war. It may simply be one of our story core segments, which get me almost every time.

I have to try not to listen, so that I'm not crying every single time, during the back announces we say, the few words that I say at the end of that, because they're so human, and so real. I mean, I feel like it's the thing that we at NPR do best, is convey someone's true story. And when you get the true story of a fellow human being, you may agree with them or disagree with them, the choices they made, the politics they have, the things that they did, but you feel a connection with another human being.

Lately, I've been trying to make those connections while sitting in my basement. That's where I'm sitting while talking to you, it's the place that I've been doing Morning Edition from. My co-hosts and I, in fact all of the NPR show hosts, decamped to their homes many weeks ago, in the fairly early days of social distancing, in order to make the NPR headquarters safer. We broadcast from home, into the NPR headquarters, which is relatively simple from our end. There's just a little device here that I you se, that I press one or two buttons per morning, and it just keeps me connected to the studio all day.

But, it is an extraordinary technical challenge for our technical staff, our engineers, our technical directors. And also, some producers, and editors, and other people who still come into the office, there's a handful of people who are there in the morning for Morning Edition. They take in my voice, they take in my co-hosts' voice, and of course there are four of us, and at least two of us on any given morning. They take in reporters from around the world, or interview guests in different places, and mesh it all together so that you hear one, hopefully seamless product.

There are actually some benefits for me, because I'm close to my family, I can popup and deal with my kids if I need to. Every once in a while there's a five year old who wanders in and just watches me doing an interview, she hasn't spoken up much yet. But, some of my colleagues kids' around the world have spoken up on the air, from time to time. There are benefits for me.

But, I think it's really heroic what our technical staff has done, to make it sound right, and to make it sound normal. Which is another service, I feel, that we have provided in these extremely abnormal times, is to provide some consistency. We're going to tell the truth, all the time, about abnormal events, and unprecedented events, but we want to be steady in the way that we do that, and we want to show up for you every day.

PRENTICE: Well, as your partner in Idaho, we're honored to be technically alongside you each morning. All the best to your family, friends, and colleagues. Stay safe, stay well.

INSKEEP: Thank you, and thank you for what you're doing in Idaho. We're aware, every day, that we wouldn't be anything without NPR stations. I know it's a hard time for a lot of NPR stations, it's a hard time for everybody, but we're sticking together and continuing to go. Thanks for what you do.

PRENTICE: Safe journey to you, my friend.

INSKEEP: You too. Bye bye.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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