Not made of mar­ble

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Troy Bram­ston

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

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