I had taken a long turn away from reading American history when I first became acquainted with David McCullough. From my senior year in college onwards, I have spent most of my reading time immersed in the immense literature of Judaism. I had to scramble for many years to gain a secure toehold and I accepted the hard choices that the discipline I chose imposes.
It was at a point where that discipline intersected with David McCullough’s own labors that I first became acquainted with him and his work. He was playing only a minor role, as the narrator who introduced a PBS program titled America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference. I remembered much of the program, which I watched several more times, for it laid out the case against FDR’s inaction and indifference in the face of the immense crime of the Holocaust. This failure resulted in the immense expenditure of American blood and treasure in World War II having only the smallest effect in ameliorating the genocide.
McCullough was in this program as the host of the American Experience series, of which this program was a part. He did not spearhead this particular show, but he was notable for his easy authority and his effortless way of conveying directly that this mattered.
The best teachers are able to transmit their love of the heart of what they teach. Each detail of their teaching is infused with that love, just as the heart pumps blood to every part of the body. In the teacher’s palpable love and deep respect for what they present, they teach with balanced energy and care.
McCullough was such a teacher of the history of the America he loved. I could see his love right from the start. I was primed to turn towards him when our paths would intersect again.
A memorable place where they did was with his book John Adams.
In my grade school reading of the American presidents, Adams stood out only for being the first vice-president and the second president. Later reading didn’t add much to his luster. Histories portrayed him as being thin-skinned and easily lampooned. He was president when the Alien and Sedition Act came into play, a ghastly law that betrayed that most fundamental liberty, free political speech. He was the first one-term president, a mediocrity between two giants, Washington and Jefferson.
And then I read McCullough’s John Adams and before I turned past the opening page, a new John Adams took shape, a man whose intellect, courage, and dedication to America inspire me to this day.
Like many of McCullough’s books, John Adams is long. I wished it never would end. When I finished it, it did not take long before I read it again, and I continued to return to the book over the many years since I first picked it up. The best books require rereading, for in their magic, the coming together of the reader and the book is an act of love, always yielding something new, valuable, and usually thoroughly delightful.
McCullough sees character, the choices a great person makes in the light of the driving purpose of a life of conscious freedom. He showed the honed steel of Adam’s devotion to principle and his choice to define his life by his fidelity to those principles rather than measure it by power achieved or wealth amassed. He valued America’s welfare over the welfare of his own political party and over his own chances to be reelected president. He valued the ideas he shared with Jefferson about America over the hurt he felt as the victim of Jefferson’s covert campaign of smear and slander, and so spurred a unique, decade-long correspondence between these two Founders that revealed so much about both men and the American founding.
None of this portrait was drawn by overlooking Adams’ many and all-too-human foibles. McCullough never indulged in hagiography. The icons such efforts produce reveal little humanity and less inspiration. Their result is unavoidably unattractive. McCullough’s Adams is so inspiring because those very flaws show the greatness of Adams’ own resolve not to be defined by them, but rather by his conscious and principled choices. In an age of cartoon-character politics, where character is dismissed as irrelevant and humorless, wounding caricature takes the place of discourse and dialogue, McCullough concentrated serenely on what really matters to the human soul.
McCullough emphasized the story in history. It’s the story that puts us inside the people and the time, allowing us to participate in what greatness feels like.
In a 2013 appearance on 60 Minutes, McCullough related a story about his father that he meant to exemplify the sense of American politics as he saw it. He recalled he fell asleep on election night before the winner of the 1948 Dewey-Truman contest was known. When he got up in the morning, he raced to his dad to ask him who won. “Truman,” his father groused, making it clear he felt that the country was going to perdition as a result.
McCullough then related how many years later, his father took up the well-worn theme of the country and the world going to hell, and then interjected; “Too bad old Harry isn’t still in the White House!”
That’s us, McCullough told his interviewer. We Americans are always optimistic and yet always convinced that we are in decline. Every once in a while, we get a great political leader who is able to grasp the nettle, do the right thing even if it is unpopular, and resolve that underlying contradiction by principled action.
McCullough emphasized the story in history. It’s the story that puts us inside the people and the time, allowing us to participate in what greatness feels like. It’s the story that awakens in us the emotions that have to be faced and that does not shrink from the fearsomeness of genuine moral challenge where the integrity of who we are is at stake. No chronology can take the place of that story. It is that primordial element of our culture that has shaped us since before human memory. No critical theory, no abstraction can do this, no empty political religion can get us to face the responsibilities we must embrace to live with each other in peace.
Wendell Berry, the farmer from around my neck of the woods, has written eloquently on how the health and peace of any community of people can be gauged from hearing the stories people tell. When we talk to our family or friends and look for the right thread that brings out how we can work together for the good, now and well into the future, we talk about what matters most and communicates best. The abstractions only work in the context of the stories we tell. They can never substitute for the stories.
McCullough exemplified that ancient truth, showing it still holds for our day. Like Berry, he did his writing in a small outbuilding dedicated for that purpose alone. Like Berry, he did his work on an ancient manual typewriter, despite living decades into the age of Microsoft Word. Like Berry, his stories reveal the character that makes shared life possible.
The story McCullough tells is always vivid because he has gone always to the telling particulars. Instead of making his work dated, it makes it thrillingly relevant. By getting to the heart of what is human, he touches the heart and makes possible a commonality through all our differences, political or otherwise. In a fractured age, we have a desperate need for this — and McCullough delivered.
Take for instance one quote he chose to insert in his 1,000-page biography of Harry Truman. It was taken from the record of the testimony before a Senate committee of a Truman appointee, David Lilienthal, who was being portrayed by a senator as likely being communistic because, among other things, his parents had come from Czechoslovakia. The senator asked him for his views on communism.
McCollough quoted Lilienthal’s reply at length, though I will abbreviate it here:
I believe and I conceive the Constitution of the United States to rest, as does religion, upon the fundamental proposition of the integrity of the individual, and that all Government and all private institutions must be designed to promote and protect and defend the integrity and the dignity of the individual.
Any form of government, therefore, and any other institutions, which exalt that state or any other institutions above the importance of men as a fundamental tenet of government, are contrary to this conception, and therefore I am deeply opposed to them…The fundamental tenet of communism is that the state is an end in itself, and that therefore the powers which the state exercises over the individual are without any ethical standards to limit them. That I deeply disbelieve.
Had I not let the cat out of the bag, you, dear reader, might easily have thought this came from a speech by Ronald Reagan. But Lilienthal was, basically, a New Deal liberal. But you could not have a clearer, more moving, and timeless profession of American values than this. And the sense of something whole and sound that all find living inspiration from rings out clearly and silences, if just for a moment, the jarring, self-important disharmonies of today.
This wholeness was at the heart of McCullough’s art of storytelling. It is the essence of his achievement. He could and can still unite us, even as we still differ, as we always will. McCullough shows us clearly, in a way that gets our hearts’ ready assent, that we would not want anything less.
I know I will dip back into his books again and again. It gives us real hope in a real American harmony, one never able to be broken by the worst of difficulties, because it never shies from the truth of those difficulties or the great story that unites in the shared work of overcoming them. Even the death of this remarkable man will not silence this message.
I hope you will dip into his books, too.