We have had the pleasure through several decades as a member of the Capitol Press Corps of working with two or three (at least) generations of outstanding reporters. And that tradition continues with a corps of dedicated professionals who often spend more hours at the Capitol than our elected representatives in the House and Senate do (somebody has to stick around after they go home and write the stories that tell you what they did with, for, and to us).
It is often said that reporters record the first draft of history. And it’s true. We don’t often ponder that issue because the daily reporting of news becomes so consuming that there is little time to think of the value of our writings ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now. But that’s as it should be. We write of contemporary issues and actions for contemporary consumers. The aggregate of what we write constitutes a historical narrative of our times, a record to which future scholars can apply context that is often not visible as events unfold.
Sometimes members of the press corps write later drafts of history. Lew Larkin, who had reported for several years for the Kansas City Star when I came to the Capitol, wrote several books. Jerena East Giffen, who became the press corps’ first woman bureau chief when she headed the UPI bureau in the 50s, has written about First Ladies of Missouri and Jefferson City schools. Terry Ganey, who headed the AP bureau before a long career as bureau chief for the the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has written of Anheuser-Busch and of a well-known murder case. The PD’s Tim O’Neil has written of St.Louis mobs and crimes since leaving the Capitol press corps. Daryl Levings, who was a Capitol reporter before he became an editor at the Star, brought out a Civil War novel a year or so ago. Former Missourinet reporter James Morris has penned several books including a ground-breaking biography of Joseph Pulitzer (once a Missouri state representative as he was becoming a controversial newspaper owner in St. Louis). Now, Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune is about to bring out his first book.
A century and a half ago journalists were writing about the Civil War, a terrible time for the badly divided state of Missouri. We were an occupied state run by an interim government that had seized control when the Confederate-leaning elected Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and several other officers and legislators fled Jefferson City before the oncoming Union troops could capture them as they captured the Capital City.
Rudi has been mining the microfilmed newspapers at the State Historical Society of Missouri for the first-hand accounts compiled by our ancestor-reporters as well as personal accounts left behind in books, diaries, letters, and other records at the society, the Missouri State Archives, and other sources, to write daily columns for the Tribune about the intrusion of the war into the lives of people in mid-Missouri. He’s digging out the human stories of people caught in that conflict, some of which he shares with me as we sit together at the Senate press table.
One of the joys of researching and writing history is the discovery of these forgotten accounts, these first drafts, and bringing them to new generations who will gain greater understanding of the humanity of the past and the way those times remain part of our culture. The passage of time sucks real life out of historical periods and leaves us only with cold accounts of movements and trends, presidents and conflicts.
But Rudi’s book, “Life During Wartime: 1861: The War Comes to Missouri,” pumps real life into the accounts that too often focus on the strategies of that war. It is a compilation of his articles with additional material there wasn’t space for in the newspaper. He hopes to have additional volumes for succeeding years.
Although his book will focus on mid-Missouri counties, it will record the fears and anxieties, the hopes and ideals, the triumphs and the sorrows, justices and injustices, compassion and barbarism that were common to people throughout Missouri.
Jim Spainhower, who was a state Representative and later Missouri Treasurer, wrote a book in the 1970s about how he, a Christian Church (Disciiples of Christ) minister, could reconcile pulpit and politics. He once told me when my first book came out that authorship of a book is a form of immortality, a capturing of your words in a form that will exist long after the author departs. There’s a certain satisfaction for authors in that, I suppose and it is driven home if the author has a chance to go the Library of Congress and give a librarian a call slip for one of your books. A short time later, an attendant brings it to your desk. And you sit there and you think to yourself that as long as the Library of Congress exists, you will exist, too. And then you think of the company you will keep through all those decades to come, centuries, in fact.
Writing history compounds that distinction because in writing of human beings whose lives have been long buried in the columns of old newspapers, and other records, the author provides some of that same immortality for them.
The ancient Egyptians had a saying, “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.” The reporter writing the first draft of history captures those names in contemporary times. The historian in rediscovering their actions, thoughts, and words makes them live again. We’ve ordered some copies of Rudi’s book (advance orders are being taken through the Tribune). We look forward to those Civil War Missourians living again, telling of their lives during those terrible times that remain part of who we are.
There’s another lofty reward that comes to those whose published works appear between the covers of books. Jim Spainhower mentioned it to me almost three decades ago. And as a minister, he should know. “You can begin your prayers now,” he said, “by starting out, ‘O Thou who also has written a book…'”
And that’s being in VERY special company.