Not made of marble
lough writes, through “the potency of words”. Few presidents have understood the power of language but those who did were Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. One of the interesting things about Kennedy was that he rarely talked about himself. Contrast that to Donald Trump.
McCullough’s first book was The Johnstown Flood (1968) about the Pennsylvania deluge that took the lives of more than 2000 Americans in 1889. It was followed by his account of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, The Great Bridge (1972), and the building of the Panama Canal in The Path Between the Seas (1977).
But it was his deep-voiced narration of Ken Burns’s epic The Civil War (1990) and his earlier documentaries such as The Statue of Liberty (1985) and The Congress (1988) that enveloped him with the great stories of America’s past. He also narrated the television program American Experience in the 1980s and 90s.
McCullough’s Truman (1992) and John Adams (2001) are superb biographies. As a firstyear university student in 1994, I remember staring at the mammoth Truman biography in the window of the second-hand bookshop on campus, weighing whether I should blow my meagre part-time salary and buy it. From the opening pages, I never regretted it.
It prompted me to pick up a copy of Mornings on Horseback (1981), which described in rich detail how Theodore Roosevelt, born into a great American family, transformed from a sickly boy into a robust young man with an outsized ego and ambitions to match, on the verge of plunging into political life.
McCullough’s book about the American Revolution, (2005), again enabled him to turn his talents to the finer points of personality and strategy with vivid portraits of US and British military and political figures. His account of Washington’s victory at the Battle of Trenton is remarkable.
In recent years, McCullough has moved away from politics but not character-driven stories. It is what motivated The Wright Brothers (2015) and no doubt spurs the writing of his next book, The Pioneers, due in 2019, about the explorers and settlers of the postrevolutionary Northwest Territory of the US.
In the tradition of commencement speeches, McCullough’s advice to graduates is full of heart. Live “the fullest lives possible”, he says, because their energy, originality and idealism are needed. He encourages them to read history, biography and poetry. To climb mountains, learn piano and painting, and see the world. Be kind, thoughtful and loving.
And when they check out of a hotel, McCullough says, always tip the maid. The Australian. is a senior writer and columnist at