We lost a giant of a man earlier this month. Historian David McCullough passed away at age 89. He was the author of more than two dozen books of nonfiction, for which he won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards. In 2006, he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Studying history, he said, was not some fussy and idle pastime for dilettantes. It was critical, I insisted, for understanding today. “It is a guide to navigation in perilous times,” McCullough wrote. “History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
Some of my favorite books are written by historians or by novelists about history: April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik; the Cicero trilogy about the esteemed Roman orator and statesman and An Officer and a Spy about the Dreyfus affair by the wonderful Robert Harris; Lincoln by Gore Vidal Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Koba the Dread by Martin Amis; and Shostakovich: A Life Remembered by Elizabeth Wilson.
My favorite McCullough book is Truman, for which he won his first Pulitzer in 1993 and which resulted in the excellent made-for-TV movie starring Gary Sinese in the title role.
The scene McCullough described of Truman learning about Franklin Roosevelt’s death on the late afternoon of Thursday, April 12, 1945, is indelible. The vice president, who had met with FDR only twice in the 82 days of the president’s fourth term, was relaxing in the office of Speaker Sam Rayburn when an urgent call came in. “Truman was to come to the White House as ‘quickly and as quietly’ as he could. … Truman lost all his color from him. ‘Jesus Christ and General Jackson,’ he said, putting down the phone. He was wanted at the White House right away, he told the others. They must say nothing. He went out the door alone. Then he began to run. … What thoughts were rushing through his mind, he never fully revealed. Truman later claimed he had merely assumed FDR had returned from Warm Springs and wanted to see him about the funeral service of an old friend. “But if this was so, why had he run back to his office from him? … What did he imagine he was running toward him? Or leaving behind?”
I was fortunate to meet McCullough, a bit of history in the making of my part. In my non-journalistic career I managed communications – writing speeches and news releases and supervising annual reports and other shareholder news – at various Fortune 500 companies. At one of them I persuaded the chief executive officer to invite first Goodwin and the following year McCullough to address our annual officer meeting.
“Why would we do that?” I have asked. To share stories of leadership on the global stage, I replied. Turns out the CEO loved history as much as I did, so we sealed the deal.
I will never forget McCullough’s appearance in front of the 200 or so officers. First, in a lovely touch, he introduced his wife to him, sitting in back with administrative staff, as his “chief ethics officer.” Then he proceeded to pace the stage without a note in hand, arms folded behind him, head bent in concentration, speaking eloquently about the leadership qualities of the founders. (His book 1776 had been published two years earlier.) The nation’s first leaders knew they were making history, he reported, and they conducted themselves for history’s stage.
His famous gravelly baritone, well known to viewers of the Ken Burns documentaries as well as the audiobooks he narrated, was mesmerizing. Even on the carpeted floor of the lecture hall you could have heard a pin drop.
His implicit advice to the officers: Conduct yourselves in your business life as you would in your personal life, hewing always to a strong moral code and a sense of the history you are making for your colleagues, shareholders and customers.
He was as delightful in person as he was memorable to his listeners. When I had the chance to chat with him, he explained he was at work on a new kind of history, for him: not a biography of a person but rather of a place: Paris in the 19th century, which nurtured famed Americans like James Fenimore Cooper and Mary Cassatt. That reminded me of a later generation of Americans, such as Hemingway and Gershwin, who also lived in Paris. I mentioned to McCullough that my father taught Gershwin to play golf. Both men exhibited a furious temper on the fairways, so the story went, and word was you could track their progress on the course by the trees wrapped with the old-fashioned wooden-shafted irons with which they expressed their anger at a bad shot. McCullough laughed and affected to enjoy the anecdote, which I enjoyed telling him. The book he was working on became The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.
I offered him my copy of 1776, and he signed it: “For Les. I’m so pleased to be part of the program here – and delighted to know you.” Dated 9-24-07.
History is the chain link of experience. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 led to World War I, which led to World War II, which yielded the American Century, an abiding nostalgia for which accounts for some of the dynamic of today’s dyspeptic politics.
Current events frequently seem like history in the making. A worldwide pandemic, climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s threats to Taiwan, incipient civil war and the appalling epidemic of gun violence in America are all potentially cataclysmic.
During the 1960s, my formative years, we experienced the Cold War, the Vietnam War, a series of high-profile assassinations and riots in the inner cities and on college campuses. The generation before that fought two wars – Korea and World War II – and the one before that endured the 1918 flu pandemic and the Great Depression.
History is always in the making. And it behooves us to tune in.