Troy Bram­ston

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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