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Journey through history with David McCullough

McCullough, part one
McCullough, part one 13:59

The following script is from "McCullough" which aired on Nov. 4, 2012, and was rebroadcast on June 30, 2013. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning, producer.

With Independence Day just a few days away, we thought it appropriate to take another look at a story we first broadcast last November, a profile of the historian David McCullough, a man 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.

Despite the deadlocks, and the adversarial nature of today's politics, McCullough was ever thus.

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 8-by-12 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 presidential campaign last November, 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. But members of Congress used more than words.

David McCullough: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: If you sit and look at that building, for two or three hours, it isn't just that the building will stay with you forever, but that the whole moment, the day, the light will stay with you.

We'll continue in the City of Light in a moment.

In part two of our profile of David McCullough, we went with him to Paris -- the destination back in the 19th century for a host of young Americans, eager to learn from what was then the most important city in the world.

France was the cradle of the modern idea of democracy. French troops were vital to America's victory in the War of Independence and Paris led the world in science, medicine and the arts. And as McCullough has written, the city was irresistible to the new citizens of a new nation.

David McCullough: They came here in the droves. They were here in order to improve themselves and to go home and thereby improve their country.

They were the first wave of innocents abroad, who began arriving in Paris just 50 years after Independence. Writers, artists, medical students.

David McCullough: They couldn't quite adjust to how old everything is. When they were looking at Notre Dame they were looking at a building that was begun before Columbus ever sailed.

Paris had grand boulevards. Breathtaking parks. Great universities. All the things young America didn't have.

Morley Safer: Was there even an art museum in the United States?

David McCullough: No. No art museum in the United States, none.

So in 1830, an artist named Samuel Morse came to study the treasures of the Louvre. His painting of what he saw there is a masterwork. But Morse had other talents as well. While in Paris, he dreamed up the idea for the telegraph, as revolutionary in its day as the Internet is in ours.

David McCullough: He developed not only the telegraphic system, but what we call the Morse code, which was essential.

Morse later met Louis Daguerre, the father of photography as we know it. Daguerre showed him this picture, a Paris street scene from 1836: the first photographic image of a human being: a man getting his boots polished. Morse was astonished, and with Daguerre's blessing, brought photography to America.

David McCullough: So one man, having spent time here, brought home not only a stunning work of art, an American masterpiece, but the idea for the telegraph and the idea for photography.

Others would bring back new ideas in art, architecture and medicine. In 1871, Mary Putnam became the first American woman to graduate from medical school in Paris. Artists drew inspiration from the city's magnificent Luxembourg gardens, irresistible to anyone with a passion for art, including our tour guide.

[Morley Safer: You got it.]

133 years ago, at nearly the same spot, the young American John Singer Sargent painted the gardens in one of his early masterpieces: a couple out for a stroll at twilight.

David McCullough: There's something magical about this place. I think it's the bridges. I do. There's something about -

Morley Safer: You and your bridges.

David McCullough: - my bridges. But truly, isn't it wonderful?

This bridge figures in the story of another American in Paris: Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a street kid from New York. He was determined to be a sculptor, and scraped together the money to study here.

David McCullough: He got by, barely, almost starving. But he got by and he studied, and he progressed rapidly.

His greatest works are part of the American landscape. Abraham Lincoln, in Chicago. In Boston, a memorial to the black soldiers who fought in the Union Army. And in New York's Central Park, the famous statue of Civil War General William Sherman. Saint-Gaudens suffered from periods of depression. And while working on the Sherman sculpture in Paris, had a recurrence that one day became unbearable.

David McCullough: It was very early in the morning, still not quite light. And what he was going to do was kill himself by jumping off this bridge.

Morley Safer: The Pont des Arts.

David McCullough: The Pont des Arts, the bridge of the arts. And as he got out here, probably about where we're standing, the sun began to rise, and the whole facade of the Louvre was lit up, all the bridges. And he said to himself, "I don't want to die. I want to live." And he started whistling, and walked back up to the studio happy as can be. It was Paris. Paris saved his life, literally saved his life.

We moved on to the Sorbonne, Paris's ancient university. It changed the lives of many other Americans.

David McCullough: Charles Sumner was here in 1838. And he had come to broaden himself, to become a more civilized human being.

Sumner was a young Boston lawyer who found himself studying alongside students from colonial Africa.

David McCullough: He saw that they were dressed exactly like the other students. They were treated like everybody else. And he wrote in his journal that night "I wonder if the way we treat black people at home has more to do with what we've been taught than the natural order of things." And it was, it was an epiphany for him.

Sumner went home convinced of the evils of slavery, and became a major voice in the campaign to abolish it.

David McCullough: So you talk about dropping a stone in the pond that sends out ripples. This one young man, one American, studying here at the Sorbonne, has that moment, goes home, and that was the effect.

Just about the only 19th century pilgrim with anything negative to say about Paris was Mark Twain, who may or may not have meant it when he said he was shocked, shocked by the can-can dancers. Twain would be truly shocked to see Paris after dark today.

Otherwise, 21st century Americans find the city - with its art, its history, its cafes and byways - as beguiling as the first wave of Americans did.

David McCullough: Are you a citizen of Paris?

Woman: I am.

David McCullough: Lucky you.

McCullough encounters fans everywhere. Many of them turned out for a reception in his honor at the residence of the American ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, where the author had an unexpected encounter with a very famous admirer.

David McCullough: I just kissed Olivia de Havilland.

And for good measure, he did it again.

Madame de Havilland is 96. Just about the last great star from Hollywood's Golden Age. Melanie, the good girl, in "Gone with the Wind."

David McCullough: How long have you been in Paris. And what brought you here?

Olivia de Havilland: A Frenchman. (laughter)

David McCullough: That'll do it.

Olivia de Havilland: A Frenchman.

She has lived in Paris for half a century. A love affair with the city shared by Americans past and present.

Olivia de Havilland: You feel that it belongs to you.

David McCullough: Absolutely.

Olivia de Havilland: That's what's so magical about it. That it's yours.

David McCullough: What's the great line, "We'll always have Paris"?

McCullough is the soul of courtliness, but also carries a warning to his audiences about his concern -- his alarm -- that history and its lessons are being lost to many younger Americans.

David McCullough: And those of us who have children and grandchildren...

Saying farewell to Paris, he put it bluntly:

David McCullough: We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate.

Morley Safer: The teaching of history has become your hobbyhorse, correct?

David McCullough: Yes.

Morley Safer: You, you, calling us historically illiterate.

David McCullough: Yes. I feel that very much so. I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn't know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she'd never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, "What are we doing that's so wrong, so pathetic?" I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it's not their fault. It's our fault. And when I say our fault I don't mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.

Morley Safer: But are the teachers themselves semi-illiterate in history?

David McCullough: Well we need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers. I don't feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. "Show them what you love" is the old adage. And we've all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

[David McCullough to wife: How about some black-eyed Susans?]

McCullough will soon turn 80, and has begun work on his next book. He and Rosalee, his wife of nearly 60 years, have five children. As newlyweds, they lived in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the inspiration for his second book, "The Great Bridge," from 1972 -- his first bestseller. To McCullough, it's a profound symbol of the American journey. We close with his thoughts on its meaning: a looming, almost living presence as we talked, behind its back, at Brooklyn's River Cafe.

Morley Safer: You have described this as America's Eiffel Tower.

David McCullough: Yes, indeed. If you could pick this bridge up and turn it over, underneath it would say "Made In America."

It has endured for 130 years. And McCullough is still awestruck by the genius and courage of the people who built it.

David McCullough: I look at that and I think, "Who were those guys and how the hell did they do it?"

Remember, this was the 1860s and 70s. Workers had to reach bedrock at the bottom of the East River, working 60, 70 feet down in wooden boxes, breathing pumped in air.

David McCullough: They would send men down through shafts into that space to dig.

Morley Safer: By hand.

David McCullough: By hand, all by hand.

Morley Safer: Pickaxes and shovels.

David McCullough: Yes. So the temperature down there was unbearable, the air was awful. And the days were long and as arduous as you could imagine. Many of them couldn't take it.

McCullough's pantheon of heroes includes Washington Roebling, who oversaw the bridge's construction, and his father John, a German immigrant who designed it.

David McCullough: He was a new American, he was a very proud American. He wanted to show this is what we can do, we Americans. And he certainly did.

Indeed. In fair weather and foul, the bridge looks as sturdy and iconic as anything the country has built.

David McCullough: This is a bridge about motion. Ships passing underneath, people walking over the promenade, traffic pouring across 24 hours a day. It's still serving its purpose.

Morley Safer: How many more years do you think it will stand?

David McCullough: Oh, forever. If we have a civilization wise enough and appreciative enough to take care of it.

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