Watch CBS News

Journey through history with David McCullough

Journey through history with David McCullough 14:07

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.

The papers, the pundits all agreed: Truman didn't have a chance against Tom Dewey. Even when Truman started drawing big crowds, campaigning by train.

David McCullough: It was the first time any president had ever done that. He would pull into these little stops where nobody would ever stop and give a talk.

[Harry Truman: I'm coming out here so you can look at me and hear what I have to say and then make up your own mind as to whether you believe some of the things that have been said about your president.]

David McCullough: He wasn't smooth. He wasn't glib. He just talked straight. He said "I'm gonna go out there and give 'em hell. And later on he said, "I didn't give 'em hell, I just told 'em the truth and they thought it was hell." (laugh)

[H. V. Kaltenborn on radio: Well, there seems to be a trend and the trend is for Dewey.]

Election night, it was all over for Truman, until - it wasn't.

[Harry Truman: And the morning after that, in Saint Louis, I was handed this paper which said "Dewey Defeats Truman." Of course he wished he had but he didn't. And that's all there was to it.]

David McCullough: Authenticity. It worked. Authenticity.

As for the current, seemingly endless campaign, McCullough gives both sides low marks.

David McCullough: The shame of it is, the shame of it is they're spending all this unconscionable amount of money. And what is it producing? A not very good show.

Morley Safer: Well, it's schoolyard squabbles.

David McCullough: Imagine the quantity of words that are being produced and you think there's anything that's gonna stand the test of time in there? I haven't heard it yet. We should demand more of them. We should get to be like people who go to the theater all the time or go to the symphony all the time and they know a punk performance when they see one and don't like it. That's the way we should be.

But if you think negative campaigning has hit a new low, McCullough would remind you of the presidential election of 1800. When Thomas Jefferson beat John Adams.

Morley Safer: The mudslinging in that campaign -

David McCullough: Brutal.

Morley Safer: - makes today's look quite tame.

David McCullough: Well, Jefferson was paying a slander specialist, a journalist, to go after Adams, writing that he was mentally unbalanced. He was a hermaphrodite, all these things.

Morley Safer: A hermaphrodite.

David McCullough: And - yeah.

The Adams camp fired back, saying if Jefferson were elected, murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest would sweep the land. A gentler time? Hardly.

David McCullough: It was rough and tough. When Adams was vice president, presiding over the House of Representatives, they went at each other on the floor with fire tongs. They grabbed the fire tongs off and come hammering each other. Imagine how that would look on the nightly news.

Morley Safer: In the long history of this country, who was the greatest president?

David McCullough: George Washington was our greatest president in that he set the standard. He had no example to go by. And if he had been a fool or a self-indulgent, lazy glory-hound, it could've been disastrous. He did everything right.

Talking about great moments in American history, McCullough will often say: I wish I could have been there. We couldn't arrange that, so we took him to Philadelphia, where the first fires of the American Revolution were fanned.

David McCullough: This is where our country began, not in a grand presence but in a space that's really quite small. But beautiful. I love this building.

It's Carpenters' Hall, where delegates from the thirteen colonies met for the first time in 1774 to air, in secret, their grievances against British rule. It was treasonous talk.

David McCullough: They closed the windows so nobody could come up and listen at the window.

Morley Safer: Because there were so many British sympathizers in -

David McCullough: Exactly.

Morley Safer: - Philadelphia.

David McCullough: Exactly. And they wanted to know who were the ringleaders, what were they saying?

Morley Safer: Was that a real worry for these men, that they would be taken and hanged?

David McCullough: Yes. Certainly it was. And when they rode away from their homes, their families, they knew that possibly they'd never see them again.

Upstairs in the hall, there's a library. The country's very first lending library.

David McCullough: It was Ben Franklin's idea. At the very beginning comes the idea of learning, of books, of ideas.

Ben Franklin still watches over this city. And so does George Washington.

Morley Safer: Tell me something. As a historian do you get any funny feelings when you wander around Philadelphia?

David McCullough: Now, Morley, you understand, I don't believe in ghosts. You, you, that's clear.

Morley Safer: OK.

David McCullough: But at night walking up Market Street or Chestnut Street, going past where they all lived and convened it gets very quiet. I know that they're here. They really, you feel it. You feel it. Walk around at night. Walk over to the cemetery at Christ Church just up the way here. You'll feel it.

You might feel it too at the City Tavern, the watering hole for Franklin and the others. Where, after hours, they plotted revolution.

David McCullough: This is the place where George Washington and John Adams first met. This was the hangout. And it was loud. It was lively.

[David McCullough: Well, I would like to start with Mr. Washington's beer. And say here's to our Founding Father....]

The beer is from Washington's own recipe. And you wonder, looking at the examples of colonial cooking from Chef Walter Staib's kitchen - how the founding fathers ever got up from the table. Fried oysters. Beef pie. Mushroom toast.

[Walter Staib: Thomas Jefferson served it often...]

Washington's West Indies pepper pot soup. Supposedly fed to the troops at Valley Forge. Fried tofu, first introduced here by that early hippie, Ben Franklin.

[David McCullough: Whoa!]

McCullough's favorite: homemade sausage and sauerkraut.

[Morley Safer: I think I've hit my limit here.]

And finally, Martha Washington's orange cake.

David McCullough: You understand those other times by being in the buildings, walking the streets, hearing the music and eating the food.

It's a walk of just a few short blocks from the City Tavern to the most revered site in Philadelphia: the old Pennsylvania colonial statehouse: Independence Hall. Where in July 1776, the colonies - already at war with Britain - voted on making the final break.

Morley Safer: Can you give me a sense of the atmosphere in this room on that day in 1776?

David McCullough: The atmosphere is tense. And it's exciting. It was very, very hot. It was summertime in Philadelphia. Flies biting through their silk stockings. This is on July second, not on July fourth. Nothing really happened on July 4th. That was the date that was on the document when it was printed.

The document, of course, was the Declaration of Independence from Britain. The writing of it was largely Jefferson's work: this is an early draft, in his handwriting.

David McCullough: In this room, Thomas Jefferson never stood up to say much of anything. Ever. He left that to others to do.

Morley Safer: Not a speaker.

David McCullough: Not a speaker. And when he spoke his voice was weak. He would be terrible on television today.

David McCullough: Franklin often looked as though he were asleep. And his admirers and friends said he thought, "If I look like I'm asleep, people might say things they wouldn't say in front of me if I were awake."

David McCullough: Adams was short and stout. And cranky and abrasive. But honest. And courageous. And he had great humor.

To those still wavering, John Adams' speech turned the tide. It was delivered during a thunderstorm: an hour long, but carrying a short message.

David McCullough: Adams insisted now was the time. Now was the time.

Whether you celebrate it on the 2nd or the 4th of July, John Adams also spelled out how it should be observed.

David McCullough: " ought to solemnized with pomp and parade, with guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more." Which is remarkable when you consider that these colonies were just on this side of the Allegheny Mountains. And the idea that he's seeing it all the way to the Pacific Ocean. So they dreamed big - and we ought to remember that - in this little room.

Morley Safer: The new nation was barely out of adolescence when it realized it had a lot to learn. So the best and brightest of America went to seek out the wisdom of old Europe. And they came here, to the most magnificent city of the 19th century - Paris. And 200 years later, McCullough followed them on what he called the greater journey.

David McCullough: There's something magical about this place.

We'll go along on that journey, on part two of McCullough, next Sunday.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.