Les Jacobson: History in the Making

Famed historian David McCullough died Aug. 7, 2022. Credit: National Endowment for the Humanities

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.

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