In a society in which everyone seems to have chosen sides -- even the Supreme Court got dragged into the political scrum back in 2000 -- perhaps our historians are the only ones left who we can trust as authority figures. If that's the case, then we should listen to what David McCullough says -- he's one of the best. Lucky for you, he's coming to Cheney on Thursday, March 11, to deliver a free lecture as part of EWU's Presidential Series.
You won't see McCullough participating in punditry on TV ("I think they talk too much," he says) -- in fact, you may know the man more by his voice than by his face. Whenever you tune into PBS and the subject is American history, there's a good chance that the narrator is McCullough. In last summer's movie hit, Seabiscuit, it's McCullough's voice that leads viewers through the panorama of Depression-era America. This guy's voice belongs in the Smithsonian.
First and foremost, however, McCullough is a great writer of history, having given us, among others, Truman -- one of the best books of the past quarter-century.
On Thursday, McCullough will talk about what we should expect from our presidents. Without giving too much away, he recently shared a preview from his home in Massachusetts.
The first thing he brings up is how different the times we live in are from the days of the Founding Fathers and even from a century ago -- changes that have impacted the presidency.
"The forces today, the acceleration of information, the acceleration of change, the acceleration of public opinion, the amplification of every word, every movement, is so resounding -- worldwide -- that they not only have to be on their toes, it's as if [our presidents] don't even dare sleep."
Another big difference is campaigning, in which candidates are put in the unseemly position of having to go around telling everyone how great they are -- something McCullough says presidents from Washington to McKinley would never have done.
But McCullough isn't one to stew in nostalgia -- he doesn't say it was better back in the old days, just different. Still, there are some constants, he says, including the fact that presidents who enjoy the job and have a good sense of humor tend to do better. And he adds to his list, naturally, a strong sense of history.
"The best presidents are the presidents who have the inner gyroscope that makes it possible for them, as much as possible, to decide things with a view to the long run; who are willing to take the abuses, scorn, disrespect, acrimony of the moment, knowing that in the long run they will be viewed as having done the right thing. A sense of history helps enormously. It's no coincidence that those presidents who have a strong sense of history are most effective at the job.
"And common sense goes a long way in that job, too. I think it was Voltaire who said, 'Common sense is by no means common.' A lot of it comes from failure. Have they failed and come back?"
Overall, however, history suggests that most of the men who have filled the office have, in some ways, been inadequate. "The truth is, exceptional presidents are the exception," McCullough says. "We shouldn't expect a giant every time."
Unlike historians, journalists live in the present, so it's inevitable to want to ask McCullough to comment on current events. Maybe he'll take a jab at President Bush, or say something funny about Bill Clinton? Nope. Remember, he doesn't take sides -- he tries to be fair and paint as accurate a picture as possible. Such reticence is rare these days, and something to be treasured. McCullough seems to understand that.
"Historians ought to try to remain politically impartial, ought not to be partisan, have no ax to grind. We ought to be independent. If [historians] start to have a political correlation, see the past that way, write history to prove their point, select those things to prove their point, it's like stringing beads."
Still, he's not completely silent on the times we live in. He says he has personally known every president since Gerald Ford, and he thinks they are all different than people have viewed them. As for the current president, he says it's not true that he doesn't read -- he says he has discussed biographies and histories with George W. Bush. But he does offer a criticism, perhaps with an eye to FDR, that Sept. 11 was followed by a call to keep buying SUVs rather than a call for sacrifice.
"If I was [Bush's] advisor, the advice I would give would be for him to call on us to do something, call on us to play a part. If we're in a war -- and I believe we are -- we should have to make some sacrifices. Give us the gift of feeling that we can contribute, that we can do something to help. I think we would welcome that. I know I would welcome that."
Still, the real judgment on Bush, Clinton and even Reagan will have to wait until enough time has passed -- 50 years or so is about right, McCullough says. Then, somebody like McCullough can come along and reintroduce them to the country.
There is one stand, however, that is appropriate for McCullough, and that is to fight for history. Along with discussing presidential prerequisites on Thursday, he says he will address what he sees as a major problem in the nation's education system.
"To our great shame, we are producing a generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate. We need to bring more people into the tent of history."
And instead of repeating that old adage about being doomed to repeat history if we don't understand it, he offers up a fresher, but no less apropos comment. It comes from Daniel Boorstin, another great historian and a personal friend of McCullough's, who died just last week.
"Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past," Boorstin once said, "is like trying to plant cut flowers."
Perhaps it's a fitting epitaph for such a man, who, like McCullough, spent a lifetime combing through the stories of a nation, seeking wisdom, seeking something we can use to guide us. If McCullough is right about our need to pay more attention to history -- and if we don't start - we may end up writing the epitaph of a once enlightened nation.
David McCullough will deliver "What We Should Seek and Expect From Our Presidents," at 1:30 pm on Thursday, March 11, at Eastern Washington University's Reese Court in Cheney. The lecture is free. For more information, call 359-6500.
Publication date: 03/04/04