Douglas Brinkley: David McCullough helped America understand itself

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Like the founding fathers he spoke of, David McCullough represented reason, enlightenment, education and incorruptible democracy. In our mad world of Donald Trump stone and wild Kim Kardashian banality, McCullough, who died Sunday at 89, offered proof of just how reassuring a good American can be. As our nation’s oldest historian, Central America trusted him as much as Walter Cronkite. And if America understood who McCullough was, he returned that favor, showing in his books how well he knew his compatriots through the centuries. He was our trusted oracle of the deep rivers, the silver-haired captain navigating around the shoals of endemic narcissism to lead us to the promised port of the Declaration of Independence.

McCullough’s voice on PBS documentaries such as Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” sounded like Jesus Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount. His very tone personified the integrity of bedrock. As a professional historian like me, getting a McCullough blurb for your next book was the cultural equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal and Oprah’s Book Club selection combined. And his generosity to his fellow tradesmen, myself included, was legendary.

David McCullough, great columnist of American history, dies at 89

McCullough was born on July 7, 1933 in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He had a beautiful childhood where sports, reading and nature walks were part of his life. There was no malfunction in McCullough’s youth to mar him later in life, no breach in his armor that would have had a hangover effect in adulthood. Steeped in the civility of his parents, he saw Pittsburgh as a city buzzing with middle-class entrepreneurship and philanthropy. He never sought the seedy side of city life like Nelson Algren or Upton Sinclair. Cheerfulness and optimism were ingrained in his personality. His college years at Yale didn’t change that.

There was about McCullough the personification of the Boy Scout Handbook coming to life. It would never have occurred to him to throw a rock through the bay window of Pittsburgh’s stately Duquesne Club to protest corporate corruption or mock the yacht in Martha’s Vineyard for the White privilege. They were important American places to him, and he was not ashamed of their momentum. If he thought a change was needed, his modus operandi was more like let me join the private club first, then put me on the steering committee, then we will diversify memberships to address gender deficiencies and of ethnicity. It is the quintessential path of the learned gentleman at Yale following the civil rights laws of the 1960s. It would be a mistake to consider McCullough a Democrat or a Republican. His instincts turned to our foundational documents like the Bill of Rights and the leaders who sought to uphold them.

A few years ago, I participated in a roundtable at Boston College, with McCullough, Burns and Don Henley (of the Eagles). It was a fundraiser for the Walden Woods Project in Lincoln, Mass. We were all serious admirers of Henry David Thoreau. At one point, Henley asked McCullough to name his Walden Pond, his personal outdoor sacred place. It was set up for dramatic responses such as Yosemite in California or Acadia in Maine. McCullough chose Pittsburgh for Mount Washington, a hill on the southern banks of the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. “Nowhere is more majestic to me,” McCullough said. “Pittsburgh is serene and sublime from this view.”

Serene and sublime are good words to describe McCullough. Yet over the decades, as a friend, I saw him get angry a few times. Once at a dinner party in Dallas, I saw him tremble with indignation during a discussion about the fact that geography was not properly taught in the schools. Every young person, he believed, must develop a mind map.

I first worked with McCullough when he was at American Heritage, at the time, a sort of editor emeritus. Having studied with John Hersey and Thornton Wilder at Yale, he was the ultimate connoisseur of what constituted quality non-fiction writing. For McCullough, the story had to be written so that readers would always lean forward as if hearing a story told by Grandma one freezing January evening outside a Pittsburgh hearth. His books – all of them – were fresh and accessible without being airy. His dazzling talent was demonstrated by two Pulitzer Prize winners, “Truman (1992) and “John Adams (2001).

Evoking the atmosphere of distant eras, McCullough brought these presidents to life as flesh-and-blood human beings. My favorite of his books was “Mornings on Horseback” (1981) because he blew Theodore Roosevelt’s whole family off the page. This TR book was the antithesis of what today’s universities teach PhD students to do. McCullough put the personalities of his subjects ahead policy documents and data. Novelists such as Willa Cather, Conrad Richter and Thomas Wolfe influenced him more than C. Vann Woodward.

This does not mean that the McCullough approach is the best way to study a president. Pivotal political documents can tell the real story of the Biden administration more helpfully than how the family dogs Champ, Major and Commander comforted the first couple in our troubled times. McCullough’s family style had limits. But among modern narrative historians, only Doris Kearns Goodwin, TJ Stiles and Barbara Tuchman come to mind as her peers for making every page riveting.

When news of McCullough’s death hit the headlines, my cell phone went on as friends offered their condolences. Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN, was one of them. Over the decades, Lamb and I have shared McCullough stories the way Beatles fans might talk about Paul McCartney. C-SPAN interviewed McCullough 77 times (with Lamb conducting 10 multi-hour sessions in Maine, Massachusetts and DC). They are wonderful to watch online. “At some point in his life,” Lamb told me, “McCullough decided to tell the world that American history mattered. It was his mantra. He was the teacher of the nation. I love all of his books. But McCullough was also about his personality; he was the set of songwriting skills, resonant voice and big presence.

There was a fluidity to McCullough as a writer and speaker that was heartwarming. His mastery of the past, the precise details of Independence Hall in “1776” (2005) or Kitty Hawk, NC, in “The Wright Brothers” (2015) or the Ohio River Valley in “The Pioneers(2019) at the time of the first European American settlement of the Northwest Territories were fascinating.

Only occasionally has McCullough involved himself in pressing contemporary political matters – such as when he called Trump “a monstrous clown with a monstrous ego”. His comfort zone was with the ghosts of the past. If you’ve ever seen McCullough walking down Newbury Street in Boston or Fifth Avenue in New York, you got the distinct impression that his mind was imagining what those towns looked like during the Valley Forge era. In conversations, McCullough spoke about the need for biographies of the Liberty Bell, the Hoover Dam, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Nothing about our technological age interested him as a writer.

McCullough’s high school teacher enthusiasm for the past was combined with a watchdog attitude to protect him. In the 1990s, when the Walt Disney Co. thought about building a theme park near the Manassas National Battlefield in northern Virginia, he went on high alert like a dog. stop on a hunting mission. I once jokingly told McCullough, April Fool’s Day fashion, that Disney had just been allowed to paint Mickey Mouse ears on a water tower taller than the Washington Monument in the county of Fairfax, Virginia. With his thick gray eyebrows and spiky body, it took him a long minute to realize that I was ripping off his chain. For the next two decades, every time I saw him, he teased me about the Mickey Monument with a twinkle in his eye.

Douglas Brinkley is Katherine Tsanoff Brown Professor of Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University. He is the author of the next “Spring’s Silent Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening.”

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