Dwight D. Eisenhower said there were four qualities by which we should measure a leader: character, ability, responsibility and experience. Eisenhower, who was the supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II and served two terms as US president, had these qualities in spades.
American author David McCullough, like the Greeks, believes character is destiny. It is a theme that runs through his books, journalism and lectures that have vividly brought back to life long-dead founding fathers, presidents and pioneers for new generations of Americans.
But the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning author of biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams worries young Americans are, by and large, “historically illiterate”.
In speech after speech he has urged Americans to not let the consciousness of history fade from contemporary life.
“We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed,” he told a college in 2005.
“History isn’t just something that ought to be taught, read, or encouraged only because it will make us better citizens. It will make us better citizens and it will make us more thoughtful and understanding human beings.”
McCullough implores teachers, parents and grandparents to educate their children about history, emphasise how important it is and how fun it can be. Whether it is family history or community history or the triumphs and failures of nations, leaders and movements, make it interesting, he argues.
“Tell stories,” is how Barbara Tuchman said history should be taught. This is how McCullough, 84, has approached his life’s work: as a storyteller. He seeks to infuse his writings with “heart and empathy” so readers are transported to a time and place and realise that the people are as “human and real as we are”.
This is repeated often in The American Spirit, a superb volume of McCullough’s lectures to colleges, universities, historical societies and addresses to the US congress and at the White House. It is filled with poignant stories informed by scholarly wisdom and a prose style that makes every speech a grace note to the country he loves. It is a pure joy to read.
McCullough believes leadership is one of the prime movers in history, which is undoubtedly true, but he is not starry-eyed about politicians, presidents or pioneers. Great men and women The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For By David McCullough Simon & Schuster, 176pp, $39.00 (HB) were not born made of marble. The Declaration of Independence was conceived and signed by great men but they were also flawed, contradictory and human, like the rest of us.
When the founders adopted “the pursuit of happiness” as a founding creed, McCullough instructs, it did not mean more holidays or material things. It was “the enlargement of one’s being through the life of the mind and spirit”. If the revolution had failed, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the rest, would have been hung for signing a document that said such a thing.
He laments that Americans don’t know more about John Quincy Adams, a president and son of a president, who was “maybe the most brilliant human being who ever occupied the executive office”. He had served as a senator, ambassador and secretary of state. He became a freshman congressman after being president because he still had causes to fight for. Although short in stature, he is “a reminder that giants come in all shapes and sizes”.
The power of the presidency comes, McCul-
The faces of former US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, chiselled into Mount Rushmore