David McCullough died just a few days ago. I grew up around history books. They lined our shelves and I had access to any of them. Learning about who we are and how we came to be was always viewed as a good thing, at least that’s how I remember it. McCullough’s name was on those shelves and his voice echos in my memory since he narrated the Civil War documentary I watched when I was young. Not only did I grow up in a home with an appreciation of history, I married into one as well. That same documentary sits in my husband’s childhood home along with at least one of McCullough’s books too. Documenting history in a way that brings excitement to the reader is never an easy thing. Making words and sentences about history move from textbook to literature is a form of magic. Writing in ways that honors those who led the way while also being realistic about their faults, weaknesses, and mistakes is a task few choose to risk. Though we love to criticize our leaders, we typically only are accepting of this if we do it personally. If someone else analyzes our ancestors, we view them critically in ways we don’t view authors of either genres. McCullough managed to take this risk and become beloved. I think this comes from one of his fundamental perspectives on historical figures:
“I think it’s important to remember that these men are not perfect. If they were marble gods, what they did wouldn’t be so admirable. The more we see the founders as human the more we can understand them.”
Notice, McCullough doesn’t reference liking these figures or loving them. He talks about understanding them. Being understood, seen for who you were, you are, and who you want to be, are all, in my opinion, deep desires in the hearts of people. I suspect this was one of many reasons why McCullough spoke against Donald Trump. McCullough rarely shared any of his own personal political leanings, neither publicly or in his work. I think McCullough saw that Trump already believed he was a god and that attempting to understand such a mindset was futile. It was McCullough’s decision to share his feelings about Trump that spoke much, much more than maybe some realized. McCullough was born in 1933 and had many opportunities to share displeasure regarding various presidents’ actions during his lifetime. I believe he saw the other leaders for the humans they were, capable of terrible good and terrible evil, as we all are. Trump was unlike the rest. For many historical leaders, whatever form their terrible evil takes, it often comes from a distorted, broken attempt to do good. We also know that what was once believed to be good often is not through the microscope of time and distance. Likewise, sometimes a seemingly evil, unspeakable thing at the time is truly monumental and ultimately good. Understanding why good and evil exist in our history helps us to grow, learn, and reshape ourselves, even if just a little. Trump’s contradictory perspectives, repeated lies, and assumptions that his position as president allowed him the liberties of a god was enough to merit McCullough breaking his silence. Trump was not a president who was a human acting like a human. Trump was a president acting like a god, therefore he did not deserve the respect of the belief of good intentions. When an author known for trying to control his own personal bias so that a more true depiction of history is depicted opts to speak with such abandon that he calls a president a “clown”, it’s worth turning an ear and considering critically why he would say such a thing. Not only did McCullough help me to learn to identify good intentions, he also helped me to perceive when very little but ego is present in the actions of a leader. If either of my children ever ask to read McCullough’s work, I won’t hesitate to agree.