The American Story: A Master Class with David McCullough

To be a good writer, it helps to be a good painter, one of the most acclaimed writers of history and biography told host Marvin Kalb on the May 12 edition of “The Kalb Report” at the National Press Club.

David McCullough, who has won two Pulitzer prizes for his biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman as well as a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, said he had seriously thought of becoming a portrait painter when he studied at the Yale School of Art.

McCullough, who was seated across from Kalb on the dais, studied the host’s face.

“If I were painting your portrait, the way I would show the light and wonderful sparkle of your eyes is to have a shadow or a dark side of your face to make the light side look better,” he said to Kalb’s amusement, and continued.

“It’s the same in writing about people. You have to show the shady side or the dark side. Otherwise it will be boring.  Perfection is boring. Thank goodness none of us are perfect. Imperfection is the human story.”

When McCullough teaches courses in writing, he said, he encourages his students to take a course in drawing or painting.

“When you learn to draw or paint, you look at people or the setting in a different way than you ever did before, because you have to,” he said.  “It helps.”

In a wide-ranging talk about the art of writing history, the state of American history, and how today’s presidential election fits into the nation’s history, McCullough said he chooses his subjects carefully.

“I have to ask myself, I’m going to spend five years with this man or this woman or maybe more,” said McCullough, whose most recent book is about the Wright Brothers.  “Do I want him for my roommate that long a time? I have to find someone very interesting.”

But, McCullough said, he never chooses someone he knows much about.

“To me, embarking on a book is an adventure. It’s a journey, putting my foot on a continent I have never been to before” he said. “When I start a book, I really don’t know much about what happens to that character in his or her whole life.

“I want to get to it chronologically, like they did,” he said. “Always there are surprises. And always, when I realize what they have been through, my admiration for them increases, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.”

McCullough said he started his career as an English major who had taken few history courses. Then, in the late 1960s, he ran into some photos at the Library of Congress taken in the aftermath of the flood that consumed Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889.

“This was a disaster as terrible as 9/11. More than 2,200 people were killed,” he said.   “What happened?”

The only book about the disaster wasn’t very good, McCullough said, so he decided to write one himself.

“Once I got going, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

In writing history, one should never look at it in the past tense, from the perspective that you know what is going to happen and that events are locked in, McCullough said.

“You have to create the air of freedom, the air that none of your characters know what’s ahead of them,” he said. “There is no such thing as the foreseeable future, not now, not ever.”

Instead, McCullough said, writers have to put themselves into the time period that they are documenting and look at events as though they were happening for the first time.

History “should never be conveyed as though it was on a track,” he said, “because it was never on a track.  It could have gone off in any number of different directions, principally because of the actions of individual people.”

It’s that human dimension that makes history so interesting, he said, because humans are never boring.

McCullough said his cause in life is to find figures who deserve credit and have not received it.  He said he believes in the importance of failure, to write about people who made mistakes but got back up on their feet and pushed on.

“When choosing a leader it’s important to take a careful look at how often he has faced failure or an embarrassing mistake,” he said. “If they have never known failure, I would say be careful. Because every president of the United States will have things go wrong.”

Looking through the lens of his long view of American history,    McCullough  told Kalb  that Donald Trump’s rise to be the presumptive Republican nominee baffles him.

“How does the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower even consider nominating a man who has risen to his prominence and wealth by television shows and owning gambling casinos?” he replied to Kalb’s question asking how the American political experiment could produce Trump.

Trump, McCullough said, has never served his country in any way – ever — and doesn’t seem to have any curiosity about what he might need to know to do the job.

“It would be as if we were about to put someone in the pilot seat who has never flown an airplane,” he said, “and we’re all going to get on board.”

 Watch the program for more about McCullough’s perspective—on the role of freedom in the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the state of American history, the impact of the dinner table on education …

The Kalb Report is a joint project of the National Press Club, University of Maryland University College, the George Washington University, and Harvard University. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.