NEW YORK (AP) — David McCullough, worried about a president he calls “a cloud” on the American horizon, knows well the consolations of history.
“We’ve been through much harder times than we’re in now,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author told The Associated Press during a recent telephone interview. “Yes, we have had problems and have had dishonest and evil people in positions of responsibility. But we have overcome those challenges and we’re often better for it.”
McCullough, who turns 84 in July, had for decades been nonpartisan in his public life. He has praised Democrats (John Kennedy) and Republicans (Dwight Eisenhower) and hesitated to directly criticize a sitting president. His history of the Panama Canal, “The Path Between the Seas,” was cited by members of Congress from both parties as they deliberated over the Panama Canal treaties, approved in 1977.
“When I was a witness to the great debate over the Panama Canal treaties, I saw Congress at its best,” he says. “I saw people crossing party lines when they realized it was the best thing to do.”
McCullough’s latest book is “The American Spirit,” a collection of talks he has given over the past 30 years. Known for such best-sellers as “John Adams” and “The Wright Brothers,” McCullough also is one of the country’s most popular speakers, in demand at colleges, historical societies and political gatherings, including a joint session of Congress in 1989.
Like so many releases this year, “The American Spirit” was conceived well before Trump’s election, but takes on new meaning because of it. McCullough, speaking in 2016 at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, praises the immigrants who helped build the capitol. In a 1994 commencement address at Union College, he warns against the “purists” who shun the “empirical method.” At a conference in Providence, Rhode Island, not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he disputes assertions that “everything has changed.”
“But everything has not changed,” he says.
McCullough works hard on his speeches, spending days or more to find the right words for a graduation or occasion for national reflection, like his 2013 address in Dallas for the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. His talks have been mini-essays on the evolution of the presidency, the Declaration of Independence, his native Pittsburgh, the role of universities in public policy or the lives of congressional leaders he thinks deserve more attention, from Florida’s Claude Pepper to Robert Taft of Ohio. An official at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, Laura McCulty Stepp, says McCullough came to Washington a few weeks before his speech for research and to get a feel for the actual location.
“He spent quite a bit of time touring the site,” says Stepp, the society’s vice president, membership and development. “He paid a great deal of attention to detail and to making sure everything he said was accurate. He never assumed anything.”
In his address to the society, he lamented the “Dialing-for-Dollars reality” of the current Congress, but last year he had much harsher and more surprising words for the Republicans’ presidential contender. In July, he and Ken Burns started the Facebook page Historians Against Trump, featuring videos from McCullough, Burns, Stacy Schiff and others.
“What has the Republican Party come to?” McCullough asked in his video. “He is unwise, he is plainly unprepared, unqualified and, it often seems, unhinged.”
For McCullough, being an historian is itself a kind of rebuke to Trump. (“History is an antidote to self-importance,” he said during his recent interview.) Politicians of both parties once seemed to compete over who most admired McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman. Trump, McCullough says, “not only doesn’t read history, he brags about it.”
“He talks about how he’s never read a biography of a president and that he feels he doesn’t need to because he can depend on his instincts and natural genius to decide what he should do,” he adds.
Asked what he would tell Trump should he ever have the chance, McCullough said he would urge the president to study his predecessors.
“He has to understand who has occupied that all-important role down through the years and what can be learned from their successes and failures, their conduct in the face of disappointment or in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.”
McCullough is confident about the country, because of history — “who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.” He is currently inspired by an act of the Continental Congress from 1787, the Northwest Ordinance, the subject of a book he’s working on and hopes to have out in 2019.
The roots of his next book, which he is calling “The Pioneers,” can be seen in a 2004 commencement address at Ohio University. The Northwest Ordinance set down guidelines for the governing and admittance of Ohio and four other future states (plus a part of Minnesota) to the union — Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The ordinance also established rights for the territories, including the prohibition of slavery and a commitment to education, which the ordinance deemed “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”
“These are strong, clear declarations of faith in education as the bulwark of freedom,” McCullough said in his speech, using words that seem sharpened by the rise of Trump, who as a candidate had boasted of his appeal to the “poorly” educated.
“For self-government to work, the people must be educated.”