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On The White House Watch

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Fall 1996

On The White House Watch
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The story of how Dallek came to study history is almost comical. On the advice of his family's dentist, who had attended the University of Illinois, Dallek enrolled there. He assumed he'd go into dentistry himself; it seemed a fine profession for a lower-middle-class Jewish boy from Brooklyn. But a course taught by the famous historian Frank Freidel set him straight. Dallek switched to German history with an emphasis in diplomacy. In 1955, he moved on to Columbia University to continue his graduate work; he earned his Ph.D. in 1964.

Columbia proved a pivotal choice. There, in addition to such stellar faculty members as Henry Steele Commager and David Donald, Dallek met the prominent American historian Richard Hofstadter, who would become his mentor. Under Hofstadter, Dallek wrote his dissertation on William Dodd, the American ambassador to Nazi Germany. In 1968, it was published as his first book.

Dallek cites Hofstadter as having inspired his massive biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt and speaks of the deep sense of personal loss he experienced when the noted historian died in 1974. "I was enchanted with his writing," he explains. "He taught me that style and the accessibility of your language are very important, that history is a story you need to tell well if you are going to engage an audience."

In 1964, Dallek was recruited by UCLA. When he arrived in Los Angeles for his interview, he had never seen California. Dallek had five job offers, but it didn't take him long to make up his mind in favor of UCLA. "It seemed to me a dynamic and growing institution," he recalls. "What was fun was how new and fresh it all was. They were just opening the research library. Having spent years at Columbia, where the infrastructure is so dilapidated, there was the sense you had of a commitment to build a real state university. That was very appealing."

Dallek quickly became known as one of the campus's most popular teachers. He was friendly and lively and had a gift for turning dry, dull facts into compelling stories. "He didn't just stand up in front of a lectern and read from notes," recalls Rica Rodman, who credits Dallek with spurring her interest in history and politics. "He was a captivating speaker. He really brought the presidents to life."

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