TRU Blog

TRU Blog Archive for August, 2022

An American Conversation: David McCullough and Allen Weinstein | August 15, 2022

In 2007, David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman, returned to Independence, Missouri and the Truman Library to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Library’s dedication. On June 14, he participated in “An American Conversation” with then-Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein. A full transcript of their conversation follows.

Allen Weinstein: I think they welcomed you David, properly. But let’s have another one. That a historian of the distinction of my friend, David McCullough, can write so brilliantly, so intelligently and so effortlessly apparently, that, of course, the greatest test of all for the effort he puts in to it is enormous. But, for David McCullough to have emerged from his career as extraordinarily active… he is producing a book every couple of years now. His books increasingly are tackling complex, monumental subjects. Who wants to write on Truman after David is finished with Truman, who wants to write on John Adams after David is finished with John Adams? I don’t think we are going to see much on 1776 for a while. So it is a privilege to be here with you, David, and to try to see whether we can talk about the kind of history you write and why you write it that way. For those of you who are curious, I’m Allen Weinstein, and I’m archivist of the United States and a great admirer of this gentleman. Now, how do your write, just physically, technically. Do you write on a computer, I think I know the answer to that, do you write on a Selector 3 the way I do, how do you write?

David McCullough: I write on a second hand Royal Manual typewriter (applause) that I bought in 1965 in White Plains, New York and I don’t remember what I paid for it. Not very much, and it was manufactured in 1940. I have written everything that I have had published since 1965, which is virtually everything I have written, on that typewriter and there is nothing wrong with it. And I’m told by my children and my more advanced friends that I could go so much faster if I used a word processor and I tell them, I know that. I don’t want to go faster, if anything I’d like to go slower. I don’t think all that fast and that is what writing is, it’s thinking.

Weinstein: Well, those that have investigated say that you work in a small garden shed office in the backyard of your Martha’s Vineyard home and you produce four pages a day, or thereabouts.

McCullough: When I am really rolling.

Weinstein: Huffing it. (laughter)

McCullough: I produce four pages a day, four typewritten pages, which I then will edit later with a pen and people say to me, don’t you realize if you use a computer you can move a paragraph from the bottom of the page to the top of the page, you can get rid of a line. I say, I can move a paragraph from the bottom of the page to the top of the page, I just draw a ring around it and put an arrow. I find if I try to do more than four pages a day, the quality decreases and I am often asked how much of my time do I spend writing and how much of my time do I spend researching, which is a perfectly good question…

Weinstein: Then consider it asked. (laughs)

McCullough: But nobody asks me how much of my time do I spend thinking, and the thinking, in many ways, is the most important part of it. It isn’t just gathering all the material, taking all the notes; its sitting down and really looking at what you’ve accumulated, thinking about it, thinking about how to put it into the English language that will have some compelling quality, and I feel very strongly that one ought to try when writing history to reach toward the ultimate of literature. You don’t always get there, but that ought to be the polar star it seems to me. To try and write what you have to say as well as if you were writing a novel or a play or poetry, to use the language in the great tradition of historians going back to Thucydides and Homer, because if it isn’t well written, it seems to me, that is going to vastly decrease the number of people who are going to want read it. And vastly decrease whether it will survive, and I really believe that if history isn’t well written it will die. And so I work very hard at making it look easy.

Weinstein: Somebody who claimed to be David McCullough said the following, “I think of myself as a writer, not a historian. I am a writer who has chosen history and biography as my field. but to me the writing problems, the writing opportunities, the writing adventure are what run the engine. Not being a historian or a biographer.”

McCullough: That is right, I do think of myself as a writer not a historian who has chosen history, biography as my field. And I really care about the writing. I was an English major in college. and I am very glad that I was. I discovered that I wanted to write history quite by chance in Washington at the Library of Congress when I was working on something else for the U.S. Information Agency during the Kennedy years. and once I started into the work, which was a book about the Johnstown flood, I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Weinstein; Tell me about that period working for the USIA. Did that have an impact in terms of shifting your career?

McCullough: Oh, entirely. I had been working at Time Life in New York since I got out of college, and when President Kennedy in his inaugural address called on us to try to do something for the country, I really took it to heart and gave up my job, which was a very good job, and went to Washington. I had no connection with the new administration; I just wanted to do something, and I wound up getting a job with the U.S. Information Agency. And it was an exciting time, because Edwin R. Morrow was then editor, and the day of my decisive interview with a man named Don Wilson, he asked me, after we had been through a good deal about my background and my work and so forth, he said, “How much do you know about the Arabs?” And I could just see all chance of getting the job going up in smoke. And I said, Mr. Wilson, I don’t know anything about the Arabs, and he said, “You’re gonna learn a lot.” (laughter) And that is exactly the way I feel when I embark on any new project. How much I’m going to learn, and I think for example of the ten years I spent here at the Truman Library… how much I learned. What a privilege it was and what an adventure, a journey it was to work with this collection, to have the advice and encouragement and stimulation, inspiration of the people who work here in the library.

Weinstein: It is a wonderful library.

McCullough: Wonderful, wonderful people who work here.

Weinstein: And, of course, after the Roosevelt Library, it was the next one developed by President Truman, and President Truman was here all the time working at the library, if you will, himself.

McCullough: Yes, I came too late. I never met Mr. Truman.

Weinstein: What did you learn about the Arabs?

McCullough: Well, alas, I learned a lot and became extremely interested in the near East and Islam, and I went everywhere through the Arab world. I was the editor of a Life magazine-style magazine, which we produced in Washington, and it was translated and printed in Beirut and sold on the newsstands, and so we really had to earn our readership, it wasn’t handed out.  And, of course, at that time USIA had libraries all through the Middle East, all over the world. It was a wonderful program, wonderful.

Weinstein: This is a generation, David, which has grown up without knowing anything about the USIA experience and the extraordinary importance in reinforcing the role of intellectuals across the board. Without…

McCullough: Well, it was very exciting and admirable in the extreme looking back on it, and to have been part of that then was exhilarating beyond description. I was thrown into a job that I knew virtually nothing about, I was in my twenties and I had never run a magazine in my life. I was so over my head and then it dawned on me six months later that everyone was over their head, and it was very encouraging. But, we don’t know enough about how we learn. And it seems to me from my experience that how we learn, how quickly we learn, how well we learn depends an awful lot on motivation, need. And the sink or swim sort of environment calls upon a lot of fast learning. Alas, much that I learned is still true today about the Middle East – problems of our inadequacy of understanding it, our very tragically, shamefully limited understanding of Arabic, and how different the people of the Middle East are one from another depending on which part of the world they are located and how interesting that world is, how interesting intellectually going way back. I loved it, I absolutely loved it… the time in Cairo, and Beirut, and Morocco. Baghdad was not so appealing, it was a very dangerous time then, all those years ago, a very dangerous place to have been then, and I can’t say that I know a great deal about Iraq, but I certainly learned a lot fast, and I will never forget him saying, you are going to learn a lot, and what an exciting thing that was be told.

Weinstein: Now, are you going to do a book on the Middle East?

McCullough: No.

Weinstein: Why not?

McCullough: Because I’m not in any way up to speed, and there are other things I really want to do.

Weinstein: Ok, in that case, let’s talk about the first historians, you mentioned the second one, at least the second one in my estimation, Thucydides, but remember first there was Herodotus talking about the purposes of history. And remember, just to refresh your memory and mine, what did Herodotus say, he said, “these are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their duty of glory, the barbarians by the way are the Persians who were not barbarians, and with all to put on record what were their grounds of feud.” Three purposes, he talks about analysis, what happened, he talks about commemoration, which is something some historians do not talk about, you do and I’m glad you do and commemoration not simply of what the home team did, but what the opposition did and accomplished. And finally, analysis, why did it happen, what were their grounds of feud? Has much changed in terms of the historians function since then?

McCullough: Obviously, one would agree with all of that, but I think that it is not just what happened, but what happened to whom and why and to what consequences and it’s… history is human, it’s about people, it’s about two great mysteries it seems to me: time and human nature, human personality, and it’s essential to in effect be grown up. Cicero said that anyone who goes through life thinking that nothing of much interest or consequence happened until you came on the scene is someone who will go through life with the outlook of a child. And I loved what Dan Boorstin former Librarian of Congress, the late Danny Boorstin, who was a front rank historian, first rank historian himself, American historian, he said, “trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” And I think that’s true and I think what Samuel Elliot Morrison said that history teaches you how to behave. But, I think above all you can’t really know something unless you feel it. Otherwise information would be all that would be necessary. Encyclopedia Britannica would be in effect sufficient to tell you what you need to know about events past and people of other times. One of my favorite examples is from E. M. Forrester’s book on the art of fiction in which he is explaining the difference between a sequence of events and a story or a plot. He said, “if I tell you that the king died and then the queen died that is a sequence of events, if I tell you that the king died and the queen died of grief, that’s a story” and it is with that “of grief” that you feel something. Otherwise one could skip reading. I think, if I may one further point, I think what he is saying, said about history, ought to be taught over and over, and Morrison as well, to help counteract the notion that information is all we need. That information is learning; this is something that we’re feed all the time in a variety of ways: information age, the information highway. Information isn’t learning, information isn’t poetry, information isn’t literature, information isn’t drama and if information were learning, if you memorized the world almanac you’d be educated. If you memorized the world almanac you wouldn’t be educated, you’d be weird. (laughter) And I really truly believe that the three elements of education are, in order of importance: the teacher, the book, and the midnight oil. You got to work at it, you got to work hard at it. And I have always felt, and I was raised on the idea, that ease and joy aren’t synonymous. That joy can come from work and the joy of research, the joy of being on the detective case side of doing research is surpassing for anyone who has done it and it’s what makes me want to get up out of bed in the morning.

Weinstein: There is not a single one of your books which does not spend an extraordinary amount of time, to my knowledge, on framework and context which is another way of talking about what you’re talking now. I’ll tell two stories briefly. I helped organize a conference with Russian scholars, Soviet scholars actually, late Gorbachev era, in which most of them were apologizing for things they had done in the old days, lies they had told about Western scholars and things of this kind until a young historian who was not part of this cavil turned to me, was sitting at the table in Moscow, and he said , “you know Allen, we live in a wonderful country, people can predict the future and the present is perfectly clear to us but the past, the past keeps changing everyday.” (laughter)

McCullough: Wonderful.

Weinstein: Story number two. World War II, Paris, a garret in the heart of Paris, and a scholar named Mark Block, who you know well, great French social historian, is putting the final touches on his masterwork, The Historians’ Craft, why? Because the Gestapo is chasing him, he’s basically a resistance leader and that’s the book that produced, among other things, the simplest and clearest exposition I’ve ever read of the nature of a generation in which he says, to be excited by the same dispute even on opposing sides is to be alike and this common stamp deriving from common age is what makes a generation. So many of us are a part of your generation and I wanted you to think about and perhaps share some thoughts now is how you see the success of your generation doing history in comparison to the history you’ve done and others have done in this generation

McCullough: Well, I’m very concerned that future historians, future biographers, scholars, students will have so much less to work with. Maybe nothing to work with. We don’t write letters anymore. Writing letters isn’t part of our notion of being civilized. Very few people in public life will ever keep a diary again as things are today.

Weinstein: Zip.

McCullough: I don’t know how long, I am not sufficiently informed to know how long our electronic devices or communication will hold up. Will they last fifty years, a hundred years, two hundred years, a thousand years, I have no idea. I am told by many who do profess to understand, that they won’t last long at all. It’s a huge shame. And when I think, for example, to give you the reverse, I’ve been working for the last twelve years or so in the 18th century and we have no photographs of any of those people. We have no TV outtakes, we have no recordings of their voices. We have precious little except their letters and diaries and paintings. And those alone are so remarkable. The volume of letters, the quality of the writing, which means the quality of the thinking, is so vivid and timeless that we can know them very well. And more and more new things, new in the sense that some of us are seeing them for the first time, keep coming to the fore. When I started working on 1776, I thought, well little chance that I’m gonna find anything that hasn’t been published before. Found all kinds of things that hadn’t been published before. Or things that people had looked at, but never looked at in the context of what else was happening. Context is all, context of the time, context of place, context of culture. You can’t understand who those people were if you don’t understand the culture in which they lived and I felt, as I said yesterday in my remarks here, it is not just important to read what they wrote, but to read what they read. To go back and read what those 18th century people were reading, that is when you really begin to understand them.

Weinstein: Context, we were in the green room, I’ll tell this story out of school, but, David and I are waiting to come here and he wants to speak to somebody at the National Archives in Washington. He has a fact to check, a name to check, we track the person down. David spends a good amount of time talking about the person’s work and what’s happening. Does the fact. That’s context, that’s the context not just of the fact, but of the person.

McCullough: Yes, may I tell a story that goes with that.

Weinstein: This is all for you David, so you can tell all the stories you want, I am just here for you.

McCullough: The man we got in touch with is named Rick Peiser and Rick is an archivist at the National Archives. And his specialty are the pension records, the pension files, these are dating from the pensions for Revolutionary War veterans and to qualify for a pension one had to write to the pension office a description of service, where you served, with whom you served, under whom you served, and so forth and so on to qualify for a pension and very often those pension records were filed by the widow of someone who had served or died before filing for the pension in time. And we’re walking down this long aisle with industrial style shelves packed with these pension records which are about that big in envelopes, thousands of them and Rick was explaining to me that they are arranged alphabetically and he said, is there anybody whose record you would like to see? And I hadn’t thought about it and I said, yes, Billy Tudor. Well, Billy Tudor was one of those characters that one encounters when writing a book that is infinitely interesting, colorful, a good story, but doesn’t quite make the cut and doesn’t wind up figuring very significantly in what you write and I regretted it because it was a wonderful story. Very quickly, Billy Tudor was a patriot, he served with Washington, served in Boston, served elsewhere in the war, was there crossing the Delaware and the rest, young Harvard graduate who had fallen in love with Delia Jarvis in Boston. Delia Jarvis was from a prominent Tory family and it was a sort of Montague-Capulet love affair and Billy would sneak out and cross the tidal parts of Back Bay at night taking all his clothes off and carrying them over his head to get over to where Delia Jarvis lived and then he’d re-dress and go and call on her. And all through the war, she was writing to him begging him to give this up, it was a lost cause, there was no chance that the Washington-Patriot side of the struggle was going to succeed, and come home and marry her. And he kept professing his love and his adoration for her, but also his devotion to the cause and he kept on serving. Eventually the war ended and he went home and he married her. So I was sort of curious to see what there might be. The pension file was written, the letter of his record in the war, was written by his wife, his widow, Delia Jarvis Tudor, and we pulled it down and very often in these little envelopes there will be a letter, an additional letter, confirming that what this person says is true and I know it’s true because I know her and can trust her and have every confidence that you can be certain that this is an accurate, fair account. And in there was one such letter signed by John Quincy Adams. (ahhs) So there was a treasure of a kind that Rick Peiser and the National Archives didn’t know was there. So it isn’t ever all a known story

Weinstein: Can I continue that story?

McCullough: Yes, please.

Weinstein: There is another part of it and I hadn’t put the two and two together there. We collected at the National Archives, eventually the National Archives, it was collected before then but, the United States government collected an enormous number of appeals from widows like this when their husbands passed away to collect their pensions, why? Because of course there were no draft cards, there were no documents that said I worked for the revolution, etc. What many of them did was to send us their family bibles, why? Because somewhere in the bible they said, Billy Tudor left for the war today, will return with General Washington, etc. We never returned those bibles. They are the most treasured family possessions of these people, but they became federal documents so we have them. I have hundreds of them, I don’t have them, but we have hundreds of them here. I was sworn in on one of them and shed a few tears as well because I realized that this was somebody’s major possession. Now I am going to find some way to get those bibles back to those families. I don’t know how that is going to be done because there are probably two thousand cousins all of whom want possession of every bible there, but we’ll work on that. The stories continue. May I read something to you and get your response?

McCullough: Yes.

Weinstein: This is by a classicist named Francis Cornford, turn-of-the century, 20th century, he is trying to describe his view of history, “moment by moment the whole fabric of events dissolves in ruins and melts into the past, and all that survives of the thing done passes into the custody of a shifting, capricious, imperfect, human memory… the facts work loose; they are detached from their roots in time and space and shaped into a story. The story is molded and remolded by imagination, by passion and prejudice, by religious preconception or aesthetic instinct, by the delight of the marvelous, the itch for the moral, the love of a good story; and the thing becomes a legend. A few irreducible facts will remain; no more, perhaps, than the names of persons and places…” How does the historian rescue us from this agnostic paradise that I’ve recalled in basically unverified memories?

McCullough: That’s wonderful, that’s wonderful. Well, you are trying to get the truth, trying to get at the truth, and you are trying to do it by casting as many nets as possible and you are verifying or disproving stories that come down. In my experience, most stories that come down are true in essence. It is the details, it’s the sequence or the timing or something that is not quite right. And of course if you are interviewing people which I think is of the utmost value who were participants or eyewitnesses you have to be very careful because memories do fade. Memories can sometimes become colorful and extreme. And here in Missouri there is the old tradition that any story worth telling is worth exaggerating and sometimes you are almost like an umpire at the plate, you have to call the play and if you are doing that then you have to make sure that comes through in what you are writing, you have to always level with the reader or if you wish to see it to history in the long run. You can’t ever know enough, but in the last analysis you have to take all of that that you have been marinating your head in and try to figure out what happened and how can I express what happened, describe what happened fairly and to take them in to consideration, them, the people you are writing about, for instance nobody ever knew how things were going to turn out and therefore to judge people for not doing something this way or that because they weren’t aware of how stupid that would look in the future is very unfair. Nobody in the past knew how things were going to turn out anymore then we do. By the same token, I was schooled trained as a writer with the old adage, don’t tell me show me, don’t tell me that he was a miser, show him being a miser, and so, therefore, I tend to hold back on the kind of analysis that many historians specialize in. I want you the reader, I want generations to come, if what I’ve written holds up, to come to their own conclusions from what I have written which is, I hope, as fair a presentation of what happened, and what those people were really like, an individual character, as I’ve been able to achieve.

Weinstein: Back in my teaching days, I used to call that knowing where you end and the past begins.

McCullough: That’s good.

Weinstein: Don’t sound so surprised David.

McCullough: No it is. I like that.

Weinstein: Ok, good.

McCullough: That’s good, maybe I will swipe it. (laughs) No, I think that…people talk about revisionist historians. All historians are revisionists. You wouldn’t bother to do it if you weren’t going to have some new way of seeing it, putting a new light on it. There was a big move, what has been a move, to get away from writing about the protagonist of conventional history, the dead white men supposedly, and I think that the lights of the drama of history or the stage of history have been too much focused on the protagonist, the leaders, the obvious sort of traditional people of history and not enough on all the other people on stage, but to take the lights away from the protagonist, to not write about Washington or Harry Truman or Abraham Lincoln with the same kind of intensity and desire to understand them that a more old fashioned sort of history specialized in is really to avoid addressing yourself to why things often happened the way they did because they happened the way they did because who was in charge, who was leading, who was inspiring, who was making the mistakes, which is not to say that the everyday life of everyone else isn’t important, of course it’s important. When I worked on my book on the Panama Canal, I was the first historian that I know of who went and really tried to find out what was it like to be a laborer on that job, what was it like to have been a Barbadian who came out from the home island to live in Panama and work on that canal in physical labor, manual labor in that heat, in that sun and under those conditions.

Weinstein: Let me ask you a question about that book and the body of your work. I have a theory. I want to try it out on you. But before I do, I should tell you that the Truman Library and the State of Missouri have filed formal protest against your ascertain that they were going beyond the facts early on, but there is a sign on Mike Devine’s desk that says, “The Blarney Stops Here.” Ok, David McCullough produces an extraordinary trio of books in a field that could be called the study of the technical developments in Modern West and we’re talking about his book on the Johnstown Flood and his book on the Brooklyn Bridge, the building of the bridge, obviously the canal that passed between the seas. Those, there is a niche in there that you filled, which you were dealing with the sociology, and the history and the individual developments that made all of those technological developments possible or that made the responses possible. And then we have a turn at some point in the ‘70s toward the focus on, I suppose what I would call, substantive books having to do with the American adventure and I am talking here obviously about some of the major books, the Adams biography, the Truman biography, 1776 and a number of other essays and you used the phrase at one point that one could see allegorical commentaries here. That 1776 is, after all, about the founding of our nation, major turning point, the Adam’s book is about the kind of individual, improbable it would seems, who was absolutely necessary balas to a Jefferson or some more mercurial figure in stabilizing American identity through its early decades. Harry Truman, goes without saying, ends World War II, stabilizes America at the time of the Cold War. So many of our institutions that emerged to fight that war emerged in the Truman years and so forth. This isn’t just accidental, is it? This reflects something of your perspectives on the kind of history you want to write, can you talk to that?

McCullough: Well, the first three books all take place in the period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. Barbara Tuchman called World War I the great burnt path across history. Everything changed after that and that’s the way I see it. I think there is something quite allegorical about Truman’s life, he is Harry Truman from Independence and he sets off on his journey and this is a classical story form and his… the arc of his life includes the period of the greatest change ever in the history of the world and to have this 19th century boy from a farm experience… what he did in the war, in the First World War and then go on to assume the burdens he did without panting for position power, political importance, is the kind of allegory that if you wrote it as a novel nobody’d believe it. Things like that don’t happen in real life, well it did happen. For example, as an English major, I was lead into all the great books that came out of World War I, from the so-called Lost Generation, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Dos Passos, the Lost Generation, and then I read about Harry Truman who had no connection to the Lost Generation. He is the part of that World War I experience that came home and became active in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and whose career depended on the fact that he had lead his fellow people from Jackson County in the war and had been a hero of a kind in the war, its the reverse story. Again, to sustain literary analogy it is as if George F. Babbitt turned out to be a very different sort of fellow then George F. Babbitt, he became Harry Truman. And how the country has reacted to Harry Truman was interesting to me. The night of the ‘48 election, I was very interested in politics. I tried to stay up. I was in high school. I got too tired. I went to sleep so I didn’t know what the outcome was and I had grown up in a very Republican family and the next morning my father was in shaving and I went in and said dad, who won, and he said, (in a groaning voice) Truman. Well, thirty years went by and I was back visiting my father, same house, same everything and he was going on as he often did about how the world and the country was going to hell and he said, “to bad old Harry isn’t still president.” Well, that interested me a lot because we have to stand back from history, from events of our own time. I liken it very much to an impressionist painting. If you are up very close to it, it’s all a blur, it doesn’t read. If you step back from it then you can see it. And that is what happens in the 50, 60, 70 years when the dust settles as Truman liked to say and you see it. I find it hard to understand why anybody isn’t interested in history and I find it wonderful, especially wonderful that young children, 4th, 5th, 6th grade children, adore it and they want to know about it. They’re hungry to learn. It’s not yet cool to be dumb and they can learn all about this kind of thing easily as readily as they learn languages. We know how fast they can learn another language. And again, Barbara Tuchman was once asked, what is the secret to teaching history and she answered in two words, “tell stories.”

Weinstein: (in unison) tell stories. This straight arrow soldier comes back from France after the First World War and he decides to go into politics. So who does he go into politics with? The Missouri equivalent of the Duke and the Delphat.

McCullough: Exactly.

Weinstein: They were all that was available.

McCullough: And he goes into business and he fails. Failure is a very important part of life and a very important part of understanding human beings. How have they handled failure? In anybody who is aspiring to public office, in particular the presidency, I am always interested to look what blows have they had to sustain in life and how have they responded to that, how have they copped with it?

Weinstein: The State of Israel has one debt to Harry Truman based upon that failure. Basically, that Eddie Jacobson relationship.

McCullough: Absolutely and the Eddie Jacobson importance in that story is true and that’s sometimes sort of said, that is just a story. No, that is true. Again and again you have to understand where somebody came from. That is why it is so very important, in my view, that the presidential libraries are located where the president grew up, where he… that part of our country which was part of him. You want to understand Jack Kennedy, you gotta go to Boston, if you want a feeling of the world of Franklin Roosevelt go to Hyde Park and just walk out there and look at that view of the Hudson and get a sense of a very different America from Independence, Missouri to say the least. And Alexander Pope talked about the genius of place. You have to go there, you have to walk the walk, you have to smell it, you have to breath it, you have to eat the local food, you have to hear the local expressions. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen, that’s not Harry Truman, that’s Jackson County. That’s an expression that was used here. Time and again when I was working on my Truman project, I would hear things and think, oh I know where that comes from. And the use of, to finish a sentence, say, and that’s all there is to it. That’s an expression.

Weinstein: I will never again be invited back to Missouri unless I do a few things right now. One, make up for the fact that I haven’t indicated up to now that Mr. McCullough’s books have won two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and the most extraordinary array of other awards imaginable. That we knew him, know him over all of these years also from not only his books and articles, and reviews but from those wonderful American Experience and Smithsonian Public Television programs which I think we might want to thank him for separately right now. (applause) And I think I will go out on a limb and say that until somebody comes along in another generation to tell better stories, David McCullough is my Homer, my candidate for Homer here. But let me tell you one about Jacobson, Eddie Jacobson, that you probably don’t know. I was in Israel for the 30th Anniversary of the State of Israel running a conference along with folks from the Truman Library here, Ben Zobrist and various others. And it was on Truman and the State of Israel and it turned out that two of Mr. Jacobson’s children, I think maybe it was his two daughters, were in Israel and the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, took all of us on a tour and took us into the Arab section of Jerusalem to dedicate a Harry S. Truman, I think it was a Harry S. Truman Boulevard, oh excuse me, yeah it was a Harry S. Truman Boulevard, and I couldn’t resist saying, “Mayor we just passed a Harry S. Truman Street. Two blocks from this point there is a Harry S. Truman Lane, and there are about three or four other Harry S. Truman places.” And he didn’t even look at me, he just looked at the Jacobson children and their husbands and he finally turned to me and he said, “Well, sonny boy, you know what a fact on the ground is? That’s what Eddie Jacobson does for us. He’s a fact on the ground. We will be grateful to him forever. And if we name ten places for Eddie Jacobson it won’t be enough.”

McCullough: Wonderful.

Weinstein: Yeah. Well, I think we have covered the lot. David is there anything that you… I have one more question I’m going to ask you but is there anything you would like to cover at this point?

McCullough: I would like to say something in addition to what I talked about in my remarks yesterday about what we can do to educate our children and grandchildren in the story of the history of our country more effectively than we have been. I think if there is a problem with American education, the problem is us. All of us. We’re not doing enough ourselves. Education really does truly begin at home. And we need to talk with our children, grandchildren more about the story of our city or our state or our country. We need to tell them about the books that we read when we were their age and loved or that we are reading right now and love and interest them in reading more than we do and I think that we need to encourage them to embark on books that are maybe a little above what they think they are ready for because they are ready for all of it. We need to bring back the dinner table conversation. We need to bring back dinner. And we need to take them places, take them to historic sites. Don’t wait for the school trip, the school trip may never happen. Bring them to the Truman Library, bring them to the Eisenhower Library, the FDR Library. Bring them… take them to Gettysburg, Williamsburg, Washington, Philadelphia, Conquered Bridge, take them there. Not just to convey the idea, the truth, that these are places where real things happened, with real human living people of great interest and importance, but to let them see how much that place and that subject means to you. A father takes his little boy to a baseball game and the father loves the game and the little boy sees the father loves the game. That is as important as the little boy’s enjoyment of the game. So show them what you love and let’s make conversation reach beyond sports and television. Let’s talk about history and let’s do everything we can to encourage teachers. To let them know that we’re on their side. What can we do to help you, ought to be our attitude with teachers. And of course we’re all students. We’re all learning all the time and that ought to be the point of education that it never ends.

Weinstein: David, while that’s coming up (referring to a gift for McCullough) can you tell us what you’re now working on.

McCullough: No. (laughter)

Weinstein: Oh, I knew he was going to say that.

McCullough: I am working on a new project. I’m very excited about it. But until some details are worked out with my publisher, I’m not talking about it.

Weinstein: Well, the National Archives of the United States is now offering a reward for the person that successfully identifies even the period of David’s new book. (laughter) We’ll see about that. I wanted to basically say that… to repeat something that David has already said, that our presidential libraries are a major component in this education of the America public on history. We at the National Archives are incredibly proud of our relationship with the presidential libraries individually and as a group and they are doing enormous work and we intend to fund them even more effectively than we have in the past to continue doing that work.

McCullough: How wonderful, thank you very much. Well, let me say please Dr. Weinstein that I couldn’t have done what I have done from my working life without the National Archives and I have had some very thrilling moments at the National Archives. I will never forget ever opening up a box in the great collection of the records of the French attempt to build the Panama Canal which are part of the National Archives in which there were the death certificates of all those French engineers and others who died of yellow fever in the hospital in Panama with every detail about their age, their height, where they came from, the color of their eyes, everything. All of a sudden the statistics of how many of them died became human and deeply moving because they were so young, most of them. And again I must stress the value of the employees, of the staff, of not just the presidential libraries, but the great collections in Washington who can guide anyone in ways that are of infinite value and never ever forget that all of that is open to everybody not just to people writing books or scholars working on PhDs or whatever. Everybody, as is the case with all presidential libraries. And it is all free. Free. It doesn’t cost anything to come and use the collections at the Truman Library, at the National Archives in Washington. How blessed we are with our public library system and with such collections and systems as that.

Weinstein: I cannot thank you enough for your support for the National Archives over the years and for the presidential libraries system. I think it is probably a fitting place to close here. If I close on some remarks I made just very briefly when we discovered the Lincoln letter and we met with the media to explain that. Because we started by trying to explain that the National Archives has always been a place of discovery, that’s what… we’re in the discovery business, the access business. And we pointed to something that I think will please you, it’s not an American source, it is a French novel, or at least it is a British novel about a French detective. In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot explains and I am quoting Poirot here. Is that… do people read Agatha Christie still or has that also gone away as so much of my reference material has gone? How many of you have read an Agatha Christie novel. (Both men raise their hands.) She is still in business, good, In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Poirot explains quote “one fact leads to another. There is something missing—a link in the chain that is not there. We examine. We search. And that little curious fact, that possibly paltry little detail that will not tally, we put it here! It is significant! It is tremendous!” And he closes on that score and I’ll close on that score. Thank you David, you are tremendous.

McCullough: Thank you.

 

 

 

An American Conversation: David McCullough and Allen Weinstein

David McCullough on Truman, Presidential Libraries and Education | August 8, 2022

On June 13, 2007, David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Truman, returned to Independence, Missouri and the Truman Library to deliver a keynote address marking the 50th anniversary of the Library’s dedication in 1957. The transcript of his address follows.

What a pleasure it is to be back here and what a lot I learned in the 10 years that I worked here.  A time that flew! And my heart is still very much in Jackson County wherever I am, and to be welcomed – as I have been by so many people even before I arrived at the Library this afternoon –has been a great kick… people stopping when I was out walking in the street.  Just this morning one very friendly, nice lady came up and greeted me and she said, “Welcome back, how good to see you here Mr.  Cronkite.” (Laughter) Read More

David McCullough on Truman, Presidential Libraries and Education