MAY 12, 2017
ANYONE WHO HAS EVER heard David McCullough speak in public knows what a gifted orator he is. The mellifluous voice. The statesman-like bearing. Even when discussing profound matters, he never comes across as pedantic, all the while maintaining a distinct twinkle in the eye with flashes of levity and a lighthearted tone.
A new volume of McCullough’s speeches called The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For demonstrates that the content of what McCullough says is as dynamic and memorable as the presentation. While many anthologies reveal the hidden weakness of many speeches — how flat and uninspiring they are without the boost of their author’s voice — this collection captures McCullough’s passion and vigor throughout.
He seems never to rest on boilerplate material or give a talk in a place that he hasn’t diligently researched, and these plums are not merely tossed off to flatter the audience’s hometown pride. His commencement address at Union College in Schenectady, New York, for example, yields this: “Once, in 1779, even before there was a nation, nearly a thousand people of the community petitioned for a college here and this was something that had never happened before, the first popular demand for higher education in America. Think of that!”
The very layout of the school, McCullough explains, was also remarkable:
The design of this noble campus, by the French architect Joseph Jacques Ramée, dating from 1813, was not only the first architectural plan for a college campus anywhere in all of America, predating Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia, it represented a whole new outlook. The arrangement of buildings we see about us was a major event in American life and ideas — not the closed monastic seclusion of the medieval quadrangle, but an open plan, in keeping with the open spirit of the times. […] It was to be a place of learning open to the west, up the valley of the Mohawk, open to the wide world, open to those who wished to enter, open to ideas and innovation.
At the University of Pittsburgh, McCullough pays homage to the host city (and, as it happens, where he was born and raised), a place where “the Monongahela meets the Allegheny to form the mighty Ohio, longitude 80 degrees west, latitude 40 degrees 26 north, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of our nation’s best, most interesting, most promising cities.” Having established its precise location, McCullough goes on to expound on why the city is so significant:
Few places there are where past and future so vividly join forces as they do here. In ways distinctly its own, Pittsburgh has been both grounded in yesterdays and ahead of its time. […] The first general hospital, the first radio station, the first educational television station when founded here were all well in advance of their time and events of national importance.
McCullough’s enthusiasm for history is infectious. He reminds us, first and foremost, that it is not about memorizing names and places or simply amassing information. “Facts,” he states, “rarely if ever have any soul. In writing or trying to understand history one may have all manner of ‘data’ and miss the point. […] It can be like the old piano teacher’s lament to her student, ‘I hear all the notes, but I hear no music.’” McCullough can take the most seemingly trivial facts and make them sing. In what must have been among his most daunting assignments — an invitation in 1989 to address to a joint session of Congress (an honor usually reserved for American presidents and other heads of state) — McCullough mentions, in his opening remarks, a large clock in the Capitol building made by a man named Simon Willard from the early 19th century who did all of his exacting work, McCullough says, “by hand and by eye.”
Opinion polls have consistently shown Congress to be among the country’s most loathed institutions, but McCullough does not descend to cynicism in speaking of forgotten representatives like Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, and one of the few senators to stand up to her Republican colleague Joseph McCarthy when he began his scorched-earth hunt in early 1950 for suspected communists. McCullough quotes from her courageous “Declaration of Conscience” that she gave on June 1, 1950: “I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States Senator. I speak as an American. […] [And] I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny — fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”
McCullough deftly praises Congress while subtly reminding his audience that history will judge them for their actions, be they laudatory or otherwise. “[L]et no one misunderstand, and least of all you who serve here,” McCullough states, “we have as much reason to take pride in Congress as in any institution in our system. As history abundantly shows, Congress, for all its faults, has not been the unbroken parade of clowns and thieves and posturing windbags so often portrayed.”
He expounds on the “decisions of courage and vision” achieved by “men and women of high purpose and integrity, and yes, at times genius, who have served here” and then recalls their accomplishments, ideally, to spur present and future representatives to act accordingly. “It was Congress after all,” McCullough notes,
[that] ended slavery, ended child labor, built the railroads, built the Panama Canal, the Interstate Highway System. It was Congress that paid for Lewis and Clark and for our own travels to the Moon. It was Congress that changed the course of history with Lend-Lease and the Marshall Plan, that created Social Security, TVA, the G.I. Bill, the Voting Rights Act, and the incomparable Library of Congress.
McCullough then circles back to Simon Willard’s 162-year-old clock and states: “I have decided that the digital watch is the perfect symbol of an imbalance in outlook in our day. It tells us only what time it is now, at this instant, as if that were all anyone would wish or need to know.” Willard’s clock sits below a statue of Clio, the muse of history, which overlooks Statuary Hall in the Capitol. “It is also a clock with two hands and an old-fashioned face,” McCullough observes, “the kind that shows what time it is now … what time it used to be … what time it will become.”
Dorie McCullough Lawson — David’s daughter and a stellar historian in her own right — selected the speeches for this book, and her choices well exhibit her father’s diversity of expertise as well as the fundamental themes he wishes to accentuate, without ever seeming repetitive. Among them is how the study of history isn’t necessarily about grand, abstract ideas, but its potential to affect us, personally and on a daily basis. In part, it does so by uncovering little-known stories that cause us to see the world with fresh eyes and and renewed wonder, but also in how we think about and treat one another by nurturing a sense of empathy and gratitude.
In 2004, to the graduating class of Ohio University, McCullough exhorts them to keep in mind that, when “bad news is riding high and despair in fashion” to remember that “90 percent, or more, of the people are good people, generous-hearted, law-abiding good citizens who […] care about their neighbors, care about their children’s education, and believe, rightly, as you do, in the ideals upon which our way of life is founded.” And then he concludes (concludes!) by saying: “Whenever you check out of a hotel or motel, be sure you tip the maid.” Initially this seems to come out of the blue, but, upon further reflection, it’s simply a variation on a sentiment McCullough repeatedly emphasizes.
“Be generous — with your money, of course,” he had said 20 years earlier to the seniors of Union College in that most neglected of American cities, Schenectady. “But more important, give of yourself. Take an interest in people. Get to know people. Get to know what they’ve been through before you pass judgment. That’s essential.”
McCullough’s reasoning is founded in a larger truth about this country. “We are, each of us, responsible for our own actions,” he said, “but we also know it has been the bedrock in our American creed, that without cooperation, without all of us working together, pulling together, we can’t make it.”
Sound advice, indeed. Back then, now, and in the days to come.
Andrew Carroll is the director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University and the author of My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War (Penguin).