My David McCullough Story

David McCullough July 7, 1933 — August 7, 2022

You never know the full extent of the impact of the ripples produced by chance interactions with people we encounter throughout our lives. David McCullough, the most eminent historian in America, was my ripple effect. Only he was unaware of it. After we met twenty years later, he became my writing coach. He had no idea.

1992 Malcolm Forbes gave me a funny look. Not funny as in laughing but eyes brows furrowed and quizzical. I was sitting in his office trying to convince him to make me the publisher of his magazine, Forbes, when our discussion wandered onto editorial matters. He casually asked what I thought of the recent McCullough article on Washington D.C. That was tricky. I could be a kissass and say it was great or tell the truth. It was brilliantly written but poorly constructed, not by McCullough but the editors, which means the features that would give more attention to his writing were missing. Only in so many words it left the impression I was telling Malcolm Forbes how to edit a magazine. Oops? Never one to hit the delete button too soon, I rambled on.

“If you had a map of the historical places, it might add an actionable element to the places and great events McCullough writes about. Now, if you only added a map to illustrate the locations (the article was about Washington, D.C.), it might make the piece more actionable. Readers want to see and touch, not just read.” It was a moment I won’t forget. Everyone in the room but Malcolm Forbes stared at their shoes like they were waiting for an explosion. After a pause, Malcolm looked at the other family members who attended my interview and said, “I think David would like that.” I got the job.

Thank you, David McCullough. Ripple effect.

2010Not twenty years later, we were at a dinner party in Paradise Valley, Arizona. A noble head sporting a crown of silver curls walked up to us. He introduced himself, although in a sense we had met before. His infectious smile shined brightly. He instantly made you feel happy to be in his company as we stood on a pueblo-style patio in a background of saguaro cactus with vermilion flowers. As his official bio makes clear, I introduced him to the audience as America’s greatest living historian, and dinner in his honor was to follow. Wine was poured, glasses clinked amid intimate banter, the kind he enjoyed, punctuated by laughter. His was the loudest. Then the sounds faded to a low hum as he stood up to talk.

He looked in my direction and began gently chided me for the way I introduced him, like a maestro instructing the first violinist to start over:

“I’m not a historian. I’m a storyteller.”

We were perplexed. Has McCullough lost his marbles? If the author of over twenty bestselling biographies of Harry Truman, John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and other greats from history was not a historian, Andrew Wyeth was a sketch artist, and Robert Frost wrote limericks. It bordered on blasphemy, false modesty at best.

“Explain the difference?” someone yelled. There is one in every crowd, right? But in fact, we wanted to know. With arms held like a signalman on an aircraft carrier, McCullough exclaimed, “People are the history that matters,” He is not the first historian to identify as a nonbinary storyteller or ambiguity about whether they tell stories or write history.

Two thousand years ago on the Aegean, Plutarch said much the same thing:

My intention is not histories, but lives. The most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles.”

— Plutarch (A.D. 45–127), A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden

McCullough continued in this vein, explaining loud enough for listeners forty feet away:

“There isn’t any such thing as a past.”

As we are taught, the past is about “glorious exploits,” historical dates, dreary battles, and body counts. We also call that history. The serving tray organizes the flotsam and jetsam of humanity like a bento box so it can be read, taught, and tested. If you get it right, you can say you know history. But that’s not what happened out there a long time ago. What McCullough and his frat brother Plutarch were onto was far more consequential.

People are the history that matters, those who live extraordinary lives, the kind he likes to write about, the kind that exert a noticeable effect, and their half-life is forever. Those never have sell-by dates. But to learn from them and teach and get people to read about them, you must tell a story.

Give them a break.

McCullough thinks that when it comes to great achievers, we ought to lighten up a bit. Stop obsessing about our petty morality where we tar and feather the greats. We would not have greats if they didn’t wrestle with significant moral decisions, sometimes brilliantly with a few blind spots like Thomas Jefferson. Others were always right but often against the tide of popular opinion, like Abraham Lincoln. In any case, put any of us in their shoes, and we would have screwed things up beyond recognition. They were experimenting, and the rules weren’t clear, or there weren’t any rule books. That is why some failed, others succeeded, but none of them need to as for our forgiveness. We may tear down their monuments, but we can’t erase their contributions. They were men and women of their time and did what those times demanded—or allowed.

“Others have gone through more than we can imagine.”

We persist in the obstinate belief we are morally superior.

So we delegate to ourselves the right to remove Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln monuments, eject Shakespeare’s portrait from the English Department at UPenn, and demonize the early settlers of the land that was a slave-owning British colony as if our moral outrage makes us somehow their betters. As if we would do anything differently. If the world has changed for the better since those times, our forbears made us reflect. They taught us how to think.

Then, McCullough delivered the coup de grace, “You think our times are tough? You think you are beset by adverse luck?” He made the fundamental point that to be a student of history, you must shift perspective. He continued, “You’ll find others have gone through more than we can imagine. We have gone through more than we can ever imagine. Others have triumphed over bigger and more difficult obstacles. We think we’re superior? Why, because we live in this miraculous twentieth century?”

They give us hope. That’s one of the main reasons we look up to the greats of the past. Despite their struggles, they provide a story that nurtures our need to believe in a kind of higher order. That gives us grit and tenacity. The brain is not a logic processor. According to Will Storr, it is a story processor. If we tell a tale in which we have an epiphany about who we are and what we are here to do, we can become that person. Maybe even achieve some level of greatness in our own humdrum lives. Even if our role in the overarching story is only a minor walk-on part, we become a part of history.

McCullough told us incredible stories. He gave me my marching orders.

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