David McCullough

The Past as an Act of Faith … In Print and On The Air

VTR Date: June 11, 1992

Guest: McCullough, David


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David McCullough
Title: “The Past as an Act of Faith…in Print and On the Air”
VTR: 6/11/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And over the years I’ve had the pleasure of talking here with many distinguished historians: Allan Nevins; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; Kenneth M. Stampp; John Hope Franklin; and many others. Eminent broadcasters have joined me there, too…and journalists as well: both print and electronic. But today I’m particularly pleased to have as my guest one who in essence has plied all these trades: David McCullough, whose most recent achievement is his wonderfully evocative and magisterial TRUMAN, a truly compelling biography/history of a great American President…published by Simon and Schuster.

David McCullough and I have just done an OPEN MIND together about the book and the man: TRUMAN. And now I want to talk further about the Muse Clio, about past and present, about the parallel opportunities – and responsibilities – of the historian and the journalist, of print and television and film as they respectively convey and interpret our past.

But, first, Mr. McCullough, let’s…let’s just go back. The fact is that I cut you off at the end of our other program…we’d reached the end of our time and you certainly hadn’t reached the end of what you had to say about Truman. But I wanted to ask you about this matter of your writing about subjects that are symbols of affirmation. You’ve done that…TR, Truman, and focusing on subjects of affirmation…is there one in our contemporary society…do you see a political figure who matches in any way the, the feelings that you developed about Truman?

McCullough: No. Not any one person. I think that the…I think the advent of Ross Perot as a candidate has re-vitalized the whole process…suddenly, unexpectedly in a way that if he were to…if his candidacy were to disappear next month, he would have to be seen as a, as a…an event of major historic importance. Because, after all, here’s a man who’s undeclared as a candidate, as we talk, who’s a member of neither party and who’s leading in the…in the polls, in popularity nationwide both the President of the United States and the designated nominee of the opposition party. This has never happened before. The closest thing that we’ve had in this century to the Perot/Bush/Clinton contest if that’s what it becomes is the 1912 election with Theodore Roosevelt launching his own Bull Moose Party when Taft was running for the Republicans and Woodrow Wilson for the Democrats. And Roosevelt’s presence in that election threw the, threw the election to Woodrow Wilson. But Perot, of course, is a new face and he’s different from Theodore Roosevelt in that we all…the country knew a great deal about Theodore Roosevelt when he ran again. Truman’s own example was of a man who understood that the strength of the country and the power of any political office rests with the people. And when he was in trouble, when he wanted to be re-elected, he went to the people …physically, literally, he got on a train and as everybody knows, he traveled the country in the famous “whistle-stop” campaign…22,000 miles which is a lot of, a lot of rails. It’s almost the distance around the world. And he made speech after speech, sometimes as many as 156 a day, mostly at little towns and cities that were delivered…all the speeches that were delivered extemporaneously. He spoke for the cuff, off the cuff, from the shoulder and from the rear platform of his Presidential car. The big speeches in the major cities were prepared in advance. But all the other speeches, the great majority of the ”whistle-stop campaign” speeches were spontaneous. He spoke in complete sentences, clear, well-structured sentences…I think his Latin teachers from high school must have been very proud of him, and he told the people in essence “You are the government. You decide, not the experts, not the political pundits and professionals and the, and the columnists…you decide”.

Heffner: Isn’t that what Ross Perot is doing now? Saying, “You decide…we’ll have an electronic, perhaps, town meeting, but we’ll have a town meeting”.

McCullough: Well, Truman would never have conceived an electronic town meeting. What he was saying was “You decide at the polls”. And he was saying “Go to the polls and vote”. He, he felt that you should vote for your self-interests. He’s say “Vote…don’t vote for me, vote for yourself. Vote for the kind of government you want for yourself, for your children, for your grandchildren. Vote for the, for the policies that will benefit you. Vote for the best interests of your country as you understand them”. It wasn’t “me, me, me”. And, and he, he understood who they were…as Sam, Sam Rayburn said, “He didn’t talk at them, he talked with them. He didn’t smile at them, he smiled with them”. He…his mistakes in pronunciation of some words was the same mistakes that they would have made. He was a very good speaker. He always…he was never eloquent. And he, he didn’t have the capacity through his own presence and voice and eloquence to lift a crowd the way some of the great political leaders have had, as Roosevelt…Franklin Roosevelt had had. The people always understood him. They always knew what he meant, and it seemed to everybody who was traveling with the campaign that when he left people felt better than they had before he arrived. Now the big speeches were prepared in advance and he had many people on board the train who had ideas about what should be said. There were speech-writers, his Press Secretary, his Counsel, Clark Clifford…they all had, they all had ideas. And there’s one wonderful moment when the Presidential railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan was rocketing across the West, and they’re up late at night and they’re around the mahogany table in the, in the dining room of the car…and then one person would say, “Well in the next speech we ought to say this because this will do such-and-such”…and the other would say “no, no…What we gotta do is this”, and finally Truman breaks in and he says “let’s just say what we mean’. And that, I think, that’s rather reassuring, refreshing to read that about a President. I think it was also very revealing and admirable in the extreme when Truman, in speaking and writing about his Civil Rights program said…his Civil Rights proposals…”I believe what I’m proposing is right. If it costs me the election, well, that’s what it’s going to cost”.

Heffner: About civil rights…I wanted to ask you…as I read TRUMAN and read of the bigotry…

McCullough: Yes.

Heffner: …that surfaces…

McCullough: Yes.

Heffner: …from Truman…

McCullough: Yes.

Heffner: …how do you…how do we make these reconcilable? A man can grow?

McCullough: Yes, and because I think those conflicts are in us. I think you …it’s symbolic of us. He is us. He could use the word “nigger” and he could also believe that it was perfectly unjust and un-American to treat somebody whose skin was a different color any other way than you treated the rest of the people. He had old habits of the mouth. But if you judge him by what he did, and what he stood up for…you know, he was the first man who sent up the first civil rights message to Congress…ever…ever. Who, who did what he could which…he did have power over the Army so he desegregated the Armed Services. He’s the first President of the United States ever to address an NAACP meeting, which he did in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and he’s a President from a, from a Confederate background. A President whose, whose grandparents owned slaves. So there’s the…there’s this both conflict and growth…change…shedding the old feelings. He’s the first President of the United States ever to campaign in Harlem. Now, he, he didn’t advocate what he called “social equality” because he didn’t think that could be legislated. And later on in his retired…retirement years he was very un…unsettled by the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King because he thought that looked like mob rule, mob solutions to problems. He didn’t like that. He wanted the process to work. Ross Perot seems to be talking about changing the system in some ways, and that would have unsettled Harry Truman very much. It certainly would have unsettled Harry Truman very greatly if in any way the Presidency, the dignity, the, the independence and, and, and aura of the Presidency were in any way vitiated…not aura that’s trumped up with fancy uniforms and big cars and all that…he had no, no love of that. But there was a certain, certain way that the President ought to carry on in the tradition…he saw…he thought that continuity in government, continuity in civilization was one of the essences of government and civilization. He’s the one that re-instates State dinners and sort of the formalities of the Presidency. He loved the office of the Presidency…he loved the history of the Presidency. He would talk about former Presidents that appealed to him particularly as if, as if they were his friends…as if he knew them. He would sit there and imagine them…he thought they walked up and down the halls at night…and he was sure that the old White House before it was restored was haunted, and he…and he would listen to the footsteps and wonder which one it was…and then he’d speculate “Well, maybe that’s old John Quincy Adams, or maybe that’s Abe Lincoln coming to tell me something”.

Heffner: Are you describing an anachronism?

McCullough: Absolutely not. No. I’d think that what is in Harry Truman, what was in Harry Truman, is in us still…I think there’s a great hunger for a return to some to that. Not that anyone should start acting like Harry Truman, because the whole point of Harry Truman is he doesn’t act like anybody else but himself. If there’s a theme in here it’s “be what we are”.

Heffner: Yes, but Mr. McCullough…

McCullough: And…

Heffner: …”be what we are”…are we not something very different?

McCullough: Of course we are, of course we are. And change is, is…history is about change…that’s what history is, it’s change. It was changing then. Harry Truman was very different than anything we’d ever had up until then. And he’s very different from anything that’s followed. But what he would have said was…I’m quite sure that he…if he were here today and you were asking “now, what about these people who are trying to assume the mantle of leadership in national life…”

Heffner: What do you think he would say?

McCullough: What do you…I think he would say “You get the leaders that you deserve”. If we want better leadership, if we feel that our leadership isn’t adequate, it’s our faults because we are the government.

Heffner: But that’s standing at a distance from where we are. That’s saying “You get what you deserve…I’m looking at you as you’re getting what you deserve”. Don’t you think that there would have been some degree…greater degree of sympathy on the part of the President for the changes that have taken place, that almost mechanically…

McCullough: Yes, a great deal of sympathy…and outrage. He would have …he would have thought that much of what he sees in present day America is, is a sign of decadence, of a civilization coming apart.

Heffner: Would you agree?

McCullough: Yea and no. You see I…

Heffner: What’s the “no”?

McCullough: …we, the “no” is that I feel that if called upon in the right way the American people will respond with far greater strength than we have any idea. I think that the country is craving to have political leaders, not just the President…but, of course, the President does set the tone. But if someone in the highest political…people in the highest political offices who talk to us about reality…what has to be done… what ought to be done…and what it’s going to cost…how we are going to get there…And even if we don’t have a solution right away, we’re going to try, with everything we have, to achieve that objective.

Heffner: But you know…

McCullough: And I think that…and I think that he would, he would be giving the press the devil, not for being sensational or piranhas, or whatever else that could be said…But he would say, “You’re not asking the right questions”. The other night when Mr. Bush was on, had his press conference and, and they kept coming after him about Perot…well, I just, I just imagine Harry Truman standing up there. He wouldn’t have taken that, he would have turned it around…he would have said “Why don’t you ask me about the problem of the homeless? Why don’t you ask me about our medical problems in the country? Why don’t you talk to me about Czechoslovakia? Why don’t you, why don’t you ask me about my Haitian policy? Even if you don’t agree with that, these are real issues…this is…these are the problems that are coming across my desk every day and my, my opinions, my decisions, are affecting, are affecting all of that. And, let’s, let’s be serious”. John Kennedy probably would have turned it all around with some wonderfully artful, charming retort and it would…the conference…they (Truman or Kennedy) would have been in control.

Heffner: But as you say, as he would have said…we get what we deserve…or we get what we seem to want. What impact has there been upon what we deserve, what we seem to want of the medium that you sue so well now…television? You’re …I was going to say, not just a writer…I mean just exactly the opposite…aside from being a master of the printed word, you’re a master of the electronic signal. What do you think was the almost inevitable change brought about by the advent of television? After all, Truman’s campaign marked the end and the beginning of old/new techniques in campaigning…

McCullough: That’s right.

Heffner: …and television was the major one.

McCullough: The ’48 campaign was both political parties held their convention in the…in Philadelphia so that the television equipment could…wouldn’t have to be moved from one city to another. Right at the beginning politics is, is doing what television wants, instead of the reverse. I had dinner not long ago in Dallas, Texas and had the delightful privilege of sitting next to Mr. Stanley Marcus who is the genius behind the Niemann Marcus stores, a wonderful elderly gentleman, very cultivated, very wise. And I asked him, I said “What if you could wave a magic wand and solve one of our problems, just one. Which one would you solve?” And he paused for quite a long time and then he said, “I think I would try to do something about television”. And I said, “What an interesting answer” because I was thinking of all the other problems we have and I said, “Why television?”, and he said “Because I think if we could solve that problem, we might be able to make some headway on some of the other problems”.

Heffner: Do you agree?

McCullough: I do, indeed.

Heffner: And how do you see it as a problem?

McCullough: Because here we have this magnificent medium for, for the advance of understanding and learning and sort of the national wisdom, if you will…

Heffner: That’s what your old boss Ed Murrow would say…

McCullough: And we’re wasting it, we’re wasting it.

Heffner: That’s what Murrow would have said.

McCullough: Oh, yeah. I, you know, I do public television. I believe in public television. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. But I tell students when I’m asked to lecture at colleges and universities, “However little television you watch, watch less…you’re wasting your time”. Bucky Fuller once came to, to Yale when I was an undergraduate…the great geodesic dome genius and, and he asked us to imagine all the automobiles in the country that are stopped at a red light right now, this very moment. He said, “Now imagine all those engines running in all of those automobiles stopped at all of those red lights, and keep in mind that all of those engines are running, accomplishing nothing”. Now that’s sort of like what we have every night in this country. People sitting, watching this sort of visual bubble gum called television, with their brains in idle doing nothing. And both it’s the fault of the viewers, it’s the fault of the sponsors, it’s the fault of the politicians, it’s the fault of…it’s our faults…all of us. And, and it could be made…it could be made to be wonderful. Take, for example, Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”, which defied all the conventional wisdom of television…a) nobody will watch anything that’s really serious; b) nobody will watch anything that’s very long; you cannot attract a big audience with history…that would be “c)” I suppose. What happens? What was it…11 hours…night after night, very serious…there was no trickery done to make history appealing or cute or funny or whatever…it was powerful, it was serious, it was extended in time on the air and it drew the largest audience that PBS has ever had. Defied all the experts and it’s still talked about everywhere I go…people…they say, “Oh, you’re the voice of the Civil War”. I go up to an airline counter or something to get my tickets and that’s wonderful. And that’s a demonstration of what can be done. That’s…it’s a tiny little candle in the great dark room but it’s a beginning.

Heffner: But the fact also is that isn’t the light that has been cast, generally by that, by that candle. You would be the first to deplore it. You would be the first, I believe, to comment on its impact upon our politics.

McCullough: Yes.

Heffner: Why then don’t you see this as having brought about the kind of change that makes a Harry Truman possible?

McCullough: Oh, if I implied that, I didn’t mean that. It makes Harry Truman…a Harry Truman possible.

Heffner: A Harry Truman possible.

McCullough: No, I think if Harry Truman were alive today and running for the Presidency, he would sweep the country, because he represents exactly what we crave. It’s what…it’s, it’s the appeal of Ross Perot that “spin doctors” or whatever they’re called, the hokum, the hooey as Truman would have said of politics is being pushed aside by somebody who says “We have a job to do. I think I know how to do it. Let me explain that to you. You decide”. And that’s a very Trumanesque approach if that…we don’t know enough about…I don’t know enough…we all want to know more about Ross Perot at this date to make a judgment. I can’t make a judgment about Ross Perot, and I certainly can’t tell you whether he’s like Truman or not like Truman. But he…whatever it is that is at the heart of his appeal is very much same kind of appeal that Truman had.

Heffner: So at heart you’re a “possiblist” because you still want to say, want to believe, do believe, that’s part of your search for affirmative characters.

McCullough: Oh, I…I’m a…

Heffner: But it could work.

McCullough: Oh, absolutely. And furthermore, I think optimism…optimism is a very important quality in a leader. You see it wasn’t just that Truman was courageous, brave, but that he understood the value of courage in a leader. It wasn’t just that he had a solution to solve the medical insurance problem, or that he thought his program…what we call “Medicare” would go through. He knew it was important for the country to have it in the long run so that when finally it was voted in under Lyndon Johnson, it was really his bill; still…he is the father of Medicare. He knew that it could be done…eventually. I personally think that the operative word for our world right now is “opportunity” because the Cold War is over. The shadow of the mushroom cloud hasn’t entirely vanished, but has receded. Imagine…my children…if you have children…your children, they’re living…going to live now in a time that we haven’t known…when this awful thing, this horrible nightmare of nuclear war is no longer there. The Russians are not the bogey-man in the night anymore. All that money, all that ingenuity, maybe more important than the money that we’ve poured into military hardware can now be turned to, to useful, productive, enlarging enterprises to re-build our civilization and get us back going again.

Heffner: Given what you say, I’ll ask you to second guess…would you second guess Truman’s decision to drop the bomb?

McCullough: Yes, I would. I think that given what they knew, given the reality of the horror of the war even without the bomb, which means the terrible fire raids on Japan, which were taking 80, even 100,000 lives at a strike…that put it to…to drop it in order to stop the war, he did the right thing. And it’s also, in my view, almost inconceivable that anybody else in his position would have done anything else.

Heffner: Were there great regrets on his part?

McCullough: yes, very great that that’s very clear now. His pose that “This was soemthing I had to decide and I went upstairs and went to sleep” and so forth…is understandable. That’s the old, the old tradition…”How are you? I’m fine. How are you?”, you know…I might be dying of some awful pain in my side and whatever, but you didn’t spill out your troubles to other people. “How are you? I’m fine”…”Did making the decision cause you to suffer a great deal later on? Oh, no, no”. But it did, and we know that from his diaries and we know it from Lilienthal’s diaries that this was greatly on his mind. And it has a great deal to do with the fact that he does not decide to use atomic weapons in Korea, which in my view ought to be considered one of the primary achievements of his administration. Which is what MacArthur wanted to do.

Heffner: You used the phrase a moment ago…and we have one minute left…used the phrase “old habits of the mouth”…I gather you’re saying that if he were to some extent burdened by old habits of the mouth, not by old habits of the mind…

McCullough: No.

Heffner: …that the habits of the mind are those that would still be productive today.

McCullough: Absolutely. This was a man who loved to read. This was a man who had a sense of history. To go back to your reference to Clio at the start…a sense of history not only enables you to consider the past, but it, it gives you a frame of viewing the world in which you are going to be judged by history somewhere, somewhere in the future Clio’s going to write in her book about what you did, and he knew that and he knew therefore that what…often when he made these very unpopular decisions, unpopular at the moment, that in the long run he was going to be judged right. And that gives him a kind of stability…

Heffner: In the long run I’ll be judged wrong if I don’t say think you very much for joining me today, David McCullough.

McCullough: Thank you very much.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.