On The White House Watch
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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.
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.
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."
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
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."