David McCullough:
a little touch of Harry

An interview by Tom Knapp,
April 1993

David McCullough lives in awe of the people whose lives he chronicles. Over the past 25 years, McCullough has written about some of the greats in history. Some of the names are immediately recognizable, such as Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt.

Others are less familiar, but their works stand as monuments to their genius. Ferdinand de Lesseps, for instance, who built the Suez Canal but failed in Panama. George Washington Geothals, who pushed the Panama Canal through ahead of schedule and under budget despite tremendous odds. Washington Roebling, who completed the Brooklyn Bridge after his father, engineer John Augustus Roebling, died in an accident.

McCullough's books include The Johnstown Floods, The Path Between Seas and The Great Bridge. He also hosted the PBS series The American Experience and narrated The Civil War and LBJ documentaries.

His most recent work, Truman, was more timely than he anticipated. Both Bill Clinton and George Bush claimed the mantle and memory of Truman during their 1992 campaigns.

McCullough, reminiscing about the book during a visit to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., recalled being invited to speak about Teddy Roosevelt at a White House lecture series on former presidents. When he suggested a lecture on Truman, McCullough was told that "it will be a very long time before Mr. Bush ever wants to hear anything about Harry Truman."

Shortly after Truman was published, however, McCullough was hastily invited back. Less than two weeks later, McCullough said, the Republican president was using the record of Truman, a Democrat, in his campaign. "I think it was fine for the president to draw inspiration from Harry Truman," McCullough said. "There comes a point when they become American presidents, American heroes, and not Republicans or Democrats. ... His is an American story. In many ways, his is an allegorical story. He is Harry True Man, from a place called Independence."

Both candidates cited McCullough's book at the first debate, he noted. Although he declined to say which candidate he supported, he said that Bush referred to his 1,000-page tome as "that big fat book" while Clinton called it "that magnificent biography by David McCullough."

In his deep and resonant voice, McCullough rambled through the histories covered in his books. He cited the successes and failures of the Panama Canal and the efforts that went into the Brooklyn Bridge. He discussed in detail the qualities that made Truman and Roosevelt outstanding presidents. McCullough admitted that Truman lacked charisma and eloquence. Instead, he had courage, conviction and honesty.

"What did he have?" he asked. "He had no artifice. He didn't lie. He believed in hard work."

He even made mistakes, McCullough said. For instance, he demobilized troops too quickly in the aftermath of World War II. He failed to fire J. Edgar Hoover during the formative years of the FBI. He wrote policies that lent fire to McCarthyism. He was also thrust unwillingly into an unenviable leadership role. "He faced more difficult decisions and more far-reach decisions in less time than any president," McCullough said. "And by any president, I include Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt."

Truman also stood by his convictions, he said. When advisers told him that his stand on civil rights would cost him re-election, Truman responded, "If I lose for that reason, I will have lost for a good cause." He also ordered the desegregation of the military despite public protest. "He did it because it was right" without checking his standing in the popular polls, McCullough said. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have politicians like that today, everywhere in our country?"

What mattered to Truman, McCullough said, "was how he would be judged in the long run. He stands the test of time so well, increasingly well, in large part because he knew the test of time was the most important."

The United States could use a Truman today, McCullough said. "If we're having a crucial depletion or shortage in our nation, it's in leadership," he said. Citing Shakespeare, he said he hopes "very much that President Clinton and the people around him will continue to draw on that 'little touch of Harry in the night.'"

Earlier in the day, McCullough spent an hour signing copies of his books at F&M's Follett Bookstore. Scores of people, young and old, stood in line to get an autograph from the well-known author. Many had personal comments, sharing their own memories of Truman or recollections from relatives who lived through the Johnstown flood. "I want to thank you for all the hours of entertainment and enlightenment you've given me," said one man.

Some fans carried an armload of books, some wanting enough signed copies of Truman to give friends and family, others wanting their collection of McCullough works personalized. One reader handed over a copy of Truman with a bookmark firmly wedged in the middle. "I hope you enjoy the rest of it," McCullough said as he handed it back.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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