“A man of character. A man of integrity,” David McCullough said. “A man who spoke the truth. … And a man who was traditionally American. I loved it when he said, ‘I’ve tried never to forget who I was, where I came from, and where I would go back to. … He knew where his strength came from.”
McCullough talked of Harry Truman, Independence and the American spirit for more than half an hour Thursday evening. It was a homecoming of sorts at the Wild About Harry gala, a major fundraiser for the Truman Library Institute.
McCullough won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 biography of the 33rd president, “Truman.” He has written about many people and events: John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, the Wright brothers, the Revolutionary War, the building of the Panama Canal.
But Truman remains close to his heart.
“Looking back on my work, I realized the degree to which over and over I’ve been writing about people who faced severe adversity, unpredictable adversity, but who came through it because they would not give up. … That’s character. Harry Truman had strength of character. Oh how we need that.”
Although he listed several of Truman’s accomplishments such as desegregating the Armed Forces and pushing through the Marshall Plan to save post-war Europe – “The Marshall Plan was one of the most generous and far-reaching decisions of any president, any Congress that this country’s ever had, and it changed all that happened afterward,” he said – McCullough came back time and again to Truman’s character and of a country’s need to read, listen and learn..
“There’s a saying about ‘gone but not forgotten,’ he said. “My very strong feeling – and I have reached this conclusion more and more – if they’re not forgotten, they’re not gone. And as long as we don’t forget people like Harry Truman – and what they stood for, and what they braved, and what they left us in the way of legacy to live up to – as long as we do that, we’ll be on track. We’ll be continuing with the American mission.”
He had written four books, “The Johnstown Flood,” “The Great Bridge” about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, “The Path Between the Seas” about the building of the Panama Canal, and “Mornings on Horseback,” about President Theodore Roosevelt. Those last two had won the National Book Award.
So what’s next? His editor suggested Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“And I said, no, no, I’ve been with the Roosevelts now for four years. I think that’s enough,” McCullough said. “I said, if I were ever going to write a book about a 20th century president, it wouldn’t be FDR. It would be Harry Truman. And I have no idea why I said it. Honestly, I didn’t. It just came out of me.”
The editors in the room loved the idea. He came to Independence – specifically the Truman Library – and discovered “a gold mine of material.”
“The time I spent doing research on Truman, it just flew,” he said.
McCullough dives deeply into original materials that in many cases have gone unexamined or not fully appreciated. Among other things, he read 2,000 of Truman’s personal letters. And along the way the author gets to know the people around a historical figure’s life who not only add depth to the larger story but are often themselves overlooked stories.
In Truman’s case, those include two high school teachers, Margaret Phelps – “Harry Truman’s favorite teacher, by far” – and English teacher Tilly Brown.
McCullough read a comment from Phelps, adding a word or two for emphasis, on the essense of history and learning:
“History cultivates every faculty of the mind, every faculty, enlarges sympathies – think about that, enlarges sympathy – empathy – liberalizes thought and feeling, furnishes and approves the highest standards of character.”
He paused and added, “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Teachers do crucial work and should be paid more and respected more, he said.
“I think there ought to be statues somewhere maybe in the center of Independence, Missouri, celebrating Margaret Philipps and Tilly Brown,” he said.
Jump ahead decades to George Marshall, Truman’s highly respected secretary of state. They disagreed over Truman’s decision to recognize the new state of Israel in in 1947, but Marshall made a point of saying Truman in foreign affairs always acted in the nation’s best interests.
“‘It’s not the courage of these decisions that will live but the integrity of the man,’ McCullough quoted Marshall as saying.
And then McCullough added, “We need that. We need to be reminded of that. We need to teach that in our schools, to talk about it at the dinner table with our children and grandchildren. We need to be reminded of what we stand for.”
“And I feel very strongly that the Truman Library isn’t just for Independence, Missouri – isn’t just for Kansas, isn’t just for Missouri, isn’t just for the memory of Harry Truman. It’s for the betterment and the good of our country.”
McCullough said – as he often has – that reading the American story is a good antidote to the day’s dark headlines. He expressed optimism.
But he had words of advice and warning, too.
“Harry Truman in many ways was far better educated in Independence High School than many young students today are being educated in our colleges and universities,” he said. “We have to go back to required courses. In 80 percent of the colleges and universities in the country today, history is no longer required. Big mistake. One of the reasons I stress this importance of required course is because I think quite adamantly that young people should learn early in life that some things are required.”
His next book
McCullough said he’s never set out to write a book about something he already knew well.
“If I knew all about it, I wouldn’t want to write the book,” he said. “Because the adventure is discovery, curiosity, one thing leading to another.”
He drew applause at the mention of his latest project. It’s about the old Northwest Territory, the land north and west of the Ohio River ceded to the United States by the British after the Revolutionary War. It’s an area the size of the original 13 colonists and the area that today is Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. “The Pioneers” is due in 2019.
It was an evening of warm memories.
“I love coming back here," McCullough said. "I love the attitude of the Midwest and good people doing good work for good reasons."
At the beginning of the ceremony, Clyde Wendel, chair of the Truman Library Institute board, announced the large crowd – more than 850 – and that more than $523,000 had been raised. That’s about $3,700 short of the record for the gala.
Then he repeated that – $3,700.
In a few seconds came another announcement. A donation of $3,800 has just come in.
It was from David McCullough.