‘A Is for Abigail’
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JIM LEHRER: Mrs. Cheney, welcome.
LYNNE CHENEY: Pleasure to be here.
JIM LEHRER: “A Is for Abigail,” Abigail as in Abigail Adams. Why did you choose her to begin with?
LYNNE CHENEY: Because she really starts the story of the country as well as the story of the amazing transformation that women’s lives have undergone during our history. When Abigail was alive, women couldn’t vote. They couldn’t own property in their own names. They couldn’t go to college. They certainly weren’t expected to have careers. Indeed, it was even thought girls shouldn’t be educated, and women weren’t supposed to complain about any of these things. They weren’t supposed to speak in public.
Now, Abigail accomplished amazing things under these circumstances. She really made John’s life possible, by keeping the family farm going, deciding when to plant and when to bring in the crops. She acquired property in his name. She educated her children, including her daughter, and she also spoke out, which is a pretty good way to start. She said, “Remember the ladies.”
JIM LEHRER: But she was a pretty good writer, particularly of letters to her husband when he was president. He was the second president of the United States, et cetera.
LYNNE CHENEY: The letters are such a source of historical knowledge, the letters from Abigail, and John’s letters back to her, too. It’s really wonderful reading.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you start with her. How many amazing women are in the book altogether? I didn’t count them all.
LYNNE CHENEY: I didn’t count them either.
JIM LEHRER: There are at least two or three hundred by the time you count all the names, are there not?
LYNNE CHENEY: Or even more perhaps, but they’re gathered together in themes so that altogether I think it does tell, not only the story of the amazing progress women have made — and it’s really one of our great national narratives, a very positive story — but it also talks about the accomplishments of women even in days when their rights weren’t fully recognized.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. How did you go about selecting the women? What was the process?
LYNNE CHENEY: Well, you know, we read a lot. I read a lot. There’s a wonderful resource called “Notable American Women” that was gathered together maybe a decade … no, it’s been 25 years now since it was gathered together. In the early years of the feminist movement this compilation was put together.
It’s many volumes, and so I spent many a night reading through there, but of course some of the names I’ve known forever. One of the first stories I ever wrote was about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor. So “B Is for Elizabeth Blackwell and Others Who Wanted to Heal.” I wrote that story when my kids were little, and it appeared in one of their fifth-grade volumes, and they were so impressed.
JIM LEHRER: What would … what do you want young people who read this book to take away from it? Is there a message in these stories of these women?
LYNNE CHENEY: Well, it’s one of my goals, to tell the story of our nation in as positive a way as I think it deserves to be told, and so I want to show this progress — you know, women who had none of their rights recognized to today, when I am so lucky to have little granddaughters who can look forward to being moms or they might want to be president or they might want to be dentists or veterinarian seems to be pretty universal when they’re the age they are right now. But it’s just such a remarkable story of what’s happened in this country. So that positive tale is what I’m interested in — also, the story of these women who truly were heroic in overcoming challenges and in expressing themselves and their talents even in long ago days when it was not thought quite right they should.
JIM LEHRER: Before you became the second lady of the land, and you were very active in politics and your own writing as an adult, you were not known as somebody who would be considered a “feminist” or somebody who was considered “politically correct.” In fact, you spoke out against that in some ways, and yet your book is full of what you would call feminist attitudes, in a way, and it’s also full of people from all walks of life, all minorities, et cetera. What happened?
LYNNE CHENEY: Well, I’m not sure that I’ve changed. I do think that something happened to the feminist movement somewhere along the line so that, you know, there’s a certain political correctness about it. If you want to be a feminist, you’re not supposed to be a Republican, for example. Well, I am a Republican. I happen very much to believe in telling the story of women’s achievements and encouraging little girls to do everything they can to achieve the kind of greatness that the women in this book have.
JIM LEHRER: This is your second children’s book, correct?
LYNNE CHENEY: It is.
JIM LEHRER: And why are you writing children’s books? You’ve written several adult books, novels as well as nonfiction. Why children’s books now?
LYNNE CHENEY: You know, I wrote for children when my own children were small. That’s when I first wrote the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, and I wrote for children’s publications. When you have little kids around to talk to, it just seems a natural thing to talk to them through stories, and now I have grandchildren, and so it just seems the most natural thing in the world to tell them the story of this amazing country of ours.
JIM LEHRER: Did the fact that you are now in the spotlight as the wife of the vice president have anything to do with your not writing an adult book now?
LYNNE CHENEY: I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to do the children’s books if I had just gone on the course I was on. I’m at the American Enterprise Institute, where typically scholars aren’t writing children’s books.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
LYNNE CHENEY: But when we were traveling around the country during the 2000 campaign, one of the things that struck me is just what an astonishing diversity of landscape and people, and this is such an amazing country, and I wanted to tell that story to little kids. We also had our grandchildren on the plane much of the time, on the campaign plane with us. This may be regarded as cruel and unusual punishment, but they seemed to like it, and I wanted them to know that story better.
JIM LEHRER: Now, you’re a professional, you consider yourself a professional writer, do you not?
LYNNE CHENEY: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. So you’re always going to write from this point on. Are you ever going to ever write, do you think, about your life as the wife of the vice president of the United States?
LYNNE CHENEY: I might. You know, sometime. I’m also interested in talking about what it was like writing about, someday maybe, what it was like to grow up in a small town. I think …
JIM LEHRER: In Wyoming?
LYNNE CHENEY: Yes, yes. I’ve been, you know, going back and visiting old sites and talking with friends, and growing up in a small town in the 1940s and ’50s was, I think, a remarkably privileged experience.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. When did the writing bug get you? How long have you been writing? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
LYNNE CHENEY: Well, I started out to be an academic, and so I wrote a doctoral dissertation that is unreadable.
JIM LEHRER: What was the subject?
LYNNE CHENEY: Let’s see. It was “Matthew Arnold’s Possible Perfection: A Kantian Analysis of His Poetry.” Do you like it?
JIM LEHRER: I think you have to work on the title, if nothing else.
LYNNE CHENEY: Well, you know, you know, I then couldn’t get a job. I got my Ph.D. in the height of the Ph.D. glut, so I couldn’t get a job, and I had to figure out something else to do. Having gotten a Ph.D. in English, I had some misconception that I could write. As you know I’d been doing academic writing. It’s not the same thing. So I spent a lot of time figuring out how it is you write for a larger audience, a general audience, and I’m so glad that happened because I think writing is … well, it’s frustrating. You know, it’s hard, but at the end of the day, when you’ve created something, when you’ve made something orderly out of what were sort of chaotic thoughts in the beginning, it is true satisfaction.
JIM LEHRER: And how do you feel about this book?
LYNNE CHENEY: I love it. I just think that Robin and I have created a …
JIM LEHRER: Robin is the illustrator.
LYNNE CHENEY: Robin is the illustrator.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
LYNNE CHENEY: And grandchildren happen to approve of it very much, and I think that not only telling what these women have done, but talking about how important their parents were, and in the introduction I do that. Mothers were important. One of the tales I tell is in Zora Neale Hurston, who was a writer in the Harlem Renaissance, and she told her children to “jump at the sun.” Isn’t that wonderful? You know, aspire mightily.
But then I also tell the story of Maria Mitchell’s father. She was a famed astronomer, and she would never have become that had her father not taken her to look at the moon. So isn’t that wonderful? You know, jump for the sun, look at the moon. Moms and dads have so much to do with whether children have lives of fulfillment and achievement.
JIM LEHRER: Are you going to do more of these?
LYNNE CHENEY: Robin and I have at least one more in mind. I think trilogies — that sort of has a nice ring to it, a trilogy.
JIM LEHRER: For the record, the net proceeds of these books go to charity, is that correct?
LYNNE CHENEY: That’s correct.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. All right. Well, thank you, and good luck on “A Is for Abigail” and all others to come.
LYNNE CHENEY: Thank you very much.