Journey through history with David McCullough

In the hours before Election Day, historian David McCullough reflects on America's past -- including our founding fathers' campaign tactics

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The following script is from "McCullough, Part One" which aired on Nov. 4, 2012. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning, producer.

He's won most of the literary prizes worth winning. His voice is familiar to anyone who watches public television. As an historian, he's bridged that yawning gap between popular and academic history.

David McCullough is in love with America's history, from its struggling birth to its soaring achievements. In turn, American readers are in love with David McCullough -- more than 10 million copies of his books are in print. All published by Simon and Schuster, a company owned by CBS. In these last hours before Tuesday's election -- in this season of uncertainty -- we thought it might be useful to reflect a little with McCullough, on our history and the people who got us here.

David McCullough: We are an optimistic people by nature. And we've always had reason to be optimistic. We also have always had reason to think we're a nation in decline. That's nothing new about that. You can go back and read the letters of Henry Adams and, written in the 19th century, and the country was just going to hell.

Morley Safer: And still is.

David McCullough: I grew up in a Republican family. And the night of the '48 election, I couldn't stay awake. So the next morning I got up and my father was in the bathroom shaving. I said, "Dad, Dad, who won?" And he said (grimacing) "Truman." Like it was the end of the world. Well, 30-some years later, I was back home. And he was telling me all about how the world's going to hell and the country's going to hell, I'd heard this so much in my life. And then he paused and he said, "Too bad old Harry isn't still in the White House." And that's what we want. Somebody who will address the problems. And do things that aren't popular.

David McCullough's books have all come from a machine invented about the time Abe Lincoln was president. Some of you may recognize it as a typewriter.

David McCullough: I bought it when I was embarking on my first book in the mid, early 1960s.

He calls this world headquarters. An eight-by-twelve foot sanctuary in his back yard on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

Morley Safer: Why do you use this as opposed to a computer?

David McCullough: I can't press the wrong button and eliminate a month's work.

From his trusty Royal have come books about the Johnstown flood, the Brooklyn bridge, the Panama Canal and the Revolutionary War. And biographies of three presidents: John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman.

David McCullough: The only way to teach history, to write history, to bring people into the magic of transforming yourself into other times, is through the vehicle of the story. It isn't just a chronology. It's about people. History is human. Jefferson: "When in the course of human events." Human is the operative word here.

And human rhymes with Truman, the unlikely victor in that presidential election McCullough slept through as a teenager.

David McCullough: Every candidate running for any office ought to study the Harry Truman 1948 campaign. I think what's important about it, he ran by being himself. And he said "I'm going to go out there and say what I mean." Can you imagine? A politician taking that as his approach? And people loved it.