August 9, 2022
David McCullough was a great American. Just weeks ago I read his little 2017 book, The American Spirit — Who We Are and What We Stand For. I did so because I felt in need of a booster shot. McCullough was indeed an eloquent explicator of what this country is all about, mirroring my own sensibility. But while that book gave me the sought uplift, I also read it with a painful cognizance of what’s been lost.
I heard McCullough interviewed before the 2016 election. He was, of course, wholly clear-eyed about the choice and what it meant. Pity the nation didn’t heed him.
I also happened to read recently his Brave Companions, a collection of biographical essays, personal portraits, and the like. Here again, McCullough had such a great feel for the human spirit. For the grand endeavor that I think of as “the human project,” that history is about.
His Truman biography was magnificent. Once again embodying McCullough’s soaring feel for the ideals America represents. Before reading it, while I already had much factual knowledge about Truman and his role in political history, I didn’t really have a sense of the man. I came away from the book with a deep appreciation of what a virtuous human being Truman was.* Not just a politician; a public servant in the truest sense of those words.
Another president, who shared the first four letters of his name, bore no other resemblance.
John Adams also shined in McCullough’s treatment; fortunate to have gotten it, for his place in history. Making a particular impression on me was McCullough’s vivid chronicling of Adams’s travels — and their travails. Hammering home just how difficult, slow, and perilous traveling was in those times. After reading that book, sometimes on an airplane I amuse myself by imagining John Adams resurrected beside me to be flabbergasted at our speed and ease of travel!
The world, today, without David McCullough in it, is a little less wonderful.
* When I was a kid, having written a really jejune political novel, I had the cheek to actually send Truman a letter, asking him to provide an introduction! He answered, declining, but most graciously. (I mainly wanted that for my autograph collection.)