"WINGS OF DREAMS"
MAY 28, 1997
With the help of a $4.5 million grant, veteran pilot Linda Finch made a replica of Amelia Earhart's plane, then flew it around the globe to finish the mission Earhart began 60 years ago. A background report is followed by analysis by the NewsHour's regular panel of historians.
JIM LEHRER: Now to NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson, plus tonight Susan Ware, a historian affiliated with Radcliffe College, author of "Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism." Haynes, why do we remain so fascinated by Amelia Earhart?
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
May 28, 1997:
A background report on the Earhart legacy.
World Flight, the official homepage of Linda Finch's flight around the world
A online look at the life of Amelia Earhart
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: It's a great story. It's a timeless story. Here you have a person in an age, particularly when it's cynical, we have no heroes, and you look back at this young woman who could do better than any man at the time, almost better, and she took off and with great courage and she was going to fly around the world.
She was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, the first to fly across the ocean with other people, set altitude records, was a person who was in medical school at one point. She served for disabled in World War I, helping them, and she was just a wonderfully contemporary figure. I'm surprised how contemporary she is, and then there's a mystery: We don't know what happened to her--still. Susan will tell us what happened to her, I'm sure.
JIM LEHRER: Susan Ware, how important is the mystery to all of this, with all of those neat things about her that Haynes just laid out, if it wasn't the mystery too, would we still be as fascinated?
SUSAN WARE, Radcliffe College: Well, as a historian, I would hope we would still be as fascinated, but I have to admit that the unsolved disappearance adds a lot to the mystique, and I certainly think that one reason now 60 years after the flight and 100 years after her birth that we're still concerned about her has to do with what is truly one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time.
I'm still much more interested in Amelia Earhart, the person, and what she meant to 1930's America, what it was like to see her on the newsreels, what it must have been like to follow her exploits in the air. She really was a pioneer, and she was a pioneer for women, and I think that's one reason why we're still so interested in her today.
JIM LEHRER: But just for the record, solve the mystery for us. What happened to her?
SUSAN WARE: I can't solve that, and I don't think we ever will know, but my personal opinion is that she ran out of gas and ditched her plane somewhere near Howland Island, but, again, I'm not sure that we ever--we ever will know.
JIM LEHRER: And, Michael, there will be people will never believe that, right?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think that's right. The most awful rumor was that she wound up as the love slave of Emperor Hirohito during World War II. So this is how extreme this has all gotten. And she's a figure--sort of a folk figure in American history, and it's linked to what happened to her.
For instance, you think that figures like James Dean and Elvis, and you wonder what would have happened then had they lived, would this have been someone who have remained a national hero, or even doing county fairs later on. In American history, oftentimes our heroes do not remain that way. The other thing that's fascinating about her--
JIM LEHRER: And this--in Amelia Earhart's case she died before anybody was able to tear her down, is that what you're saying?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's exactly--she died at the age of 39. She might not have been able to maintain that celebrity, which we now know came at enormous cost. She had a husband who tried to keep her publicized. She was very impelled to keep on trying to top herself. In a way that kind of ambition led to her death. The other thing that's interesting to me is the role of aviation in the 30's.
JIM LEHRER: Ambition meaning--meaning it led to her death because that's what caused her to go on this trip?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. She in a way bit off more than she could chew. She was flying on five hours a night at times, and if she had done this perhaps more carefully, she might have remained to finish this trip around the world. The other thing is that she's in the middle of a movement in the 1930's which was aviation, which was very much like the frontiers of the Wild West of the 19th century and space in the 1960's. And you look back on someone who did this all by herself. That's very unusual in the 1990's.
JIM LEHRER: What does Amelia Earhart mean to you, Doris?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think she's a romantic figure, especially for a woman. She burst onto the national consciousness at a time when women, themselves, were emerging after World War I. There was the new woman in the 1920's who promised never to darn a sock and who said she'd stay out of the kitchen, and here comes this unconventional woman who extracts a promise from her husband that she'll be free to go and come as she pleases if she agrees to marry him, who has no children, who wears man-tailored shirts and slacks at a time when women aren't supposed to be doing these things, with her tosseled hair and her lanky frame.
There's a liberation about her. And somehow those first impressions always remain. I mean, I remember even when I was a kid, a teenager, and was terrified to go on the Cyclone at Coney Island, I kept thinking, God, she can run around the world in this airplane that's unpressurized, and I can't even go up this Coney Island Cyclone. So there was a sense of daring and adventure in the male world that she was able to bridge that gives her an heroic quality.
I agree also that the fact that we don't know what happened to her keeps her forever young so that first impression stays with us, somewhat like Evita, somewhat like Jackie Kennedy also. There was a mystery to her. She knew how to talk to that camera. There was an inner self that somehow got projected, and she never quite gave us who she was. So that lets us project ourselves into her. I can imagine myself with that scarf in a plane, even though I don't think I'll ever be there.
JIM LEHRER: But Haynes, what about the additional point that Michael makes that if you really want to be a lasting hero in this country you'd better die young?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It does help. I mean, the fact is particularly in today's world we--we shatter idols, we crash them down, we tear them down, and it always may be better to die young. Lincoln died young; Roosevelt died in office; I mean, Kennedy is forever young, Jack Kennedy. I do think there's something that may seem cruel and all that, and here's the case of this young woman who is so contemporary not only then but now in today's--I can see why, listening to Doris and Susan, that today's--she is a model--should be a model for today's generation of women, not only as a pioneer of aviation but in everything else she did.
JIM LEHRER: Susan Ware, do you have--have your projections gone beyond what might have happened had she not died young?
SUSAN WARE: Well, one of the things I tried to think about was what might have happened if she had come back from the last flight. We're so used to thinking of the--her life ending on this flight that I think we forget that she was only 39 years old. Her family is very long lived. She might have lived until she was in her 90's. And I can see her coming back and getting involved in feminist causes, maybe being a head of a women's college.
Maybe she would have been involved in commercial aviation. This is a woman who had tried so many things in her life; she was so curious; and she was so restless, I think she would have tried many more things, and it is really with great sadness that I think we were robbed of what could have been three or four more decades of a very interesting life; whether she would have remained the celebrity, the aviation celebrity, I'm not so sure she could have pulled that off.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think probably not, because it really did depend on keeping on doing one feat after another, and you looked at a case like Lindbergh, Lindbergh, the great hero of the 1920's, was able to cross the Atlantic; he blotted his copy book. He came out almost on behalf of the Nazis, it was thought in the late 1930's and early 1940's. Oftentimes, heroes do things that end up shooting themselves in the foot, and if she had lived for thirty or forty years, who knows what she might have done that might have lowered her in public esteem.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what do you think of the Linda Finch move, the thing to retrace her trip?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think what Linda's trying to do--and it's proved in a certain sense by our discussion--is to re-remember Amelia Earhart, and by doing it in an unpressurized cabin, with some daring and adventure involved in it, she can't, I gather, go over 12,000 feet or else she--she won't have oxygen--I think it just reminds people of the days when flying an airplane was romance.
I mean, when you get in one of those big-bodied planes today you hardly feel you're in the air, but somehow, even thinking about Amelia Earhart, when I looked out the plane last night, it happened to be a really clear night, and I could see the lights on the ground, I suddenly started thinking, my God, this is incredible that we're in the air. It used to be that airplanes were beautiful; they were curvaceous; people would gather at airports to look at a plane taking off. Somehow she may have reminded us of how much of a wonder it is to be in an airplane.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I hope so, but I'm not sure, because I'm afraid we are so jaded by stunts and that people take off and replicating the past and all that--if it makes us think about the Amelia Earhart we're talking about, the qualities that she exemplified as a human being, not just as a woman, then that's great, but to stunt the idea and then something else--not only the mystery of her death but the fact is she has all of the protections that didn't take place during Amelia Earhart's flight around the world--that is to say, there are planes following her; she has radar; she has other things--no matter what is in the plane, itself--it--the mystery, the danger is missing in this flight.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What do you think of the flight, Susan Ware?
SUSAN WARE: I think--I'm very excited about it, and I was trying to think how Amelia Earhart might have felt about it. When she set off on her last flight, one of the things she wanted to do was to have fun. She just loved to fly, and for her, it was around the world vacation. I mean, she was working very hard, and what I would hope is that Linda Finch is having some of that sense too, and I support it for that, and I also think its educational aspects are important with schoolchildren being able to follow the course and learn more about Amelia Earhart. I did try and imagine what Amelia would have thought about the Linda Finch home page on the world wide web--(laughter)--just couldn't quite do it.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, a stunt, or what do you think about Linda Finch?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think you always try to ascribe good motives, and I think she in a way wants to sort of close the circle of the Amelia Earhart tragedy with some healing. If she is able to come around the world and actually land in a way it puts a very nice cap on the story, and you also have to assume that since she is an enormous admirer of Amelia Earhart, this is going to cause a lot of small schoolchildren who might not have heard of her to look back on this life and perhaps take some inspiration.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, look, Susan Ware, thank you for joining us, and regulars all, thank you all.