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Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Heroes, Then And Now

British soldier, adventurer and author Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), known as Lawrence Of Arabia, joined the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I and was instrumental in the conquest of Palestine. The photo was taken in 1918.
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British soldier, adventurer and author Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), known as Lawrence Of Arabia, joined the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I and was instrumental in the conquest of Palestine. The photo was taken in 1918.

Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast (and soon of the magazine Newsweek), checks in again for the recommended-reading feature Morning Edition calls Word of Mouth. This time Brown points to a book and a pair of articles about people who embodied heroism in three eras: a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, a review of The King's Speech and an admiring profile of Elizabeth Edwards.

'Hero: The Life And Legend Of Lawrence Of Arabia'

Michael Korda's new book "is just the most gorgeous biography of Lawrence of Arabia," Brown says, citing the author's "accessible style" and his "fabulous eye for the gossip and the detail." And then, of course, there's the voice of Lawrence himself.

"So it's a really juicy read — I did love this book," Brown says.

T.E. Lawrence was a British military officer at the time of World War I. He'd go out virtually alone — sometimes absolutely alone — into the Arab desert, recruiting restive Bedouins to instigate a revolt against the Turks, who controlled the territory.

What was incredible about Lawrence, says Brown, was how "he sort of understood, mastered and initiated this whole notion of counterinsurgency all those years ago. I mean, he understood how to penetrate, how to woo, how to be swift, brutal and surprising — and he did all this stuff while being this intellectual thinker [and] incredible writer."

He was also famous, eventually, for being famous.

"He looks giant on the screen [in the famous film starring Peter O'Toole] but [the real Lawrence] was 5-foot-5, with piercing blue eyes," Brown says. "And one of his great gifts was his ability to kind of make himself invisible. I mean, although he became one of the greatest celebrities of his era — kind of a male Princess Diana as far as the public were concerned — he had this incredible gift also of being able to just make himself a watcher and a listener so they didn't really see that he was there — until he would suddenly kind of emerge from his own anonymity to dominate a room with this extraordinary gift he had for both eloquence and personal charisma."

Korda's biography includes many excerpts from Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom; he quotes vast passages, but then backs away to examine the context, ask what really happened and suggest what Lawrence may have left out.

"What I love about the Korda book is that he understands when the writer's own words, when the subject's own words, are more interesting," says Brown. She points to a passage in which Lawrence has to win the trust of King Faisal I:

In a soft voice, speaking Arabic, Faisal asked Lawrence, "And do you like our place here in Safra?"

To which, after a pause, Lawrence replied, "Well; but it is far from Damascus."

To quote Lawrence, his words fell "like a sword into their midst," and all those in the room held their breath for a silent moment. Then Faisal smiled, and said, "Praise be to God, there are Turks nearer us than that."

When Lawrence says it is "far from Damascus," he's basically suggesting to these desert nomads that they stir themselves and capture Damascus, one of the great Arab cities.

"It's a beautiful moment, and marvelously told by Lawrence, but also wonderfully recaptured by Korda," says Brown.

'Command Performances'

Brown's next choice reveals a slightly different brand of heroism. It's an article from The New Yorker called "Command Performances."

"This is an absolutely delicious piece by the movie critic Anthony Lane," Brown says, about the film The King's Speech — "which is a new movie, directed by Tom Hooper, starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, about the relationship between the British King George VI and his speech coach Lionel Logue."

As Lane notes, a stuttering king that most Americans today have never heard of isn't the most obvious of movie subjects, but there's something that resonates about the unlikely friendship at its heart.

"It's a wonderful dynamic," says Brown. "The shy reluctant king, and his struggle to overcome his shyness ... these two evolve this relationship which, in the end, helps to make this hesitant, shy man — with the support of his wife, who became of course the famous Queen Mother — [he] gets to talk to the British nation."

The Final Days Of Elizabeth Edwards

Finally, Brown finds heroism in a contemporary figure: Elizabeth Edwards, who died Tuesday after a six-year battle with cancer. Brown points to a Daily Beast article by writer Margaret Carlson; Brown calls it "a terrific ... tribute to her courage."

"We all have a terminal illness," Carson notes, "except those who get hit by a bus, but few have suffered more in the public eye than Elizabeth Edwards."

The article describes how, when it was revealed that Edwards' cancer had returned, the press corps expected to hear that her husband — then-presidential candidate John Edwards — was dropping out of the campaign.

"Not at all," Carlson writes. "Edwards would be staying in with Elizabeth's full-throated support, saying how important it was for the country. That day she acted as if nothing had changed, in the desperate hope that nothing had."

"We now know how much this woman was suffering," says Brown. "Not only had she got cancer, but of course her husband was carrying on this affair and was possibly the father of this child, which he would never admit but in fact kept tormenting her about. "

For Brown, Elizabeth Edwards' heroism emerges in the way she ultimately maintained her dignity.

"I was critical of Elizabeth at the time," admits Brown, "saying, you know, she shouldn't have supported him this way. You know, she colluded, and indeed she did kind of drink the Kool-Aid and become ... tainted by his narcissism into wanting that goal as much, or more perhaps, as he did."

Despite such doubts, Brown believes Elizabeth Edwards' courage and character are worthy of note.

"I think we also have to say that she suffered such a tremendous amount. ... She did show enormous character in terms of her children at the end, trying to make something out of this desperate mess that she'd been handed. It all went wrong, and in that sense I think we really have to salute her courage at the end."

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