David McCullough: 2017 National Book Festival

David McCullough: 2017 National Book Festival


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Please, welcome to the
stage Mr. David McCollough and Mr. David Rubenstein. [ Applause ]>>Thank you, then.>>David Rubenstein: David, you were at our first national book
festival, the very first one. How many people here were
at the first one, anybody? How many have been to every one? How many this is the first time? Okay. How many people like
the price of admission? [ Applause ] So we’re very honored
to have David McCollough and let me just give you a
brief background of David. David is a native of Pittsburgh,
grew up as one of four boys in a family, where his father had
a small electrical supply company, not quite General Electric
but very impressive you said. David went to Yale, where he did
quite well, graduated in 1955. He then went to New
York, did not go back to Pittsburgh despite his
parent’s interest in his doing so, went to New York, joined
“Sports Illustrated,” which was then a novice, new
publication and then ultimately came to work in Washington at the
USIA., and while at the USIA, got interested in something that
he was interested in from his time in Pittsburgh at Johnstown Flood
and then wrote his first book about the Johnstown flood,
which was a bestseller, that was his first book. He has now written, with this book
we’re going to talk about today, with “The American Spirit,”
he’s now written 11 book. He is now working on
his twelfth book, which we’ll talk about shortly. Every single one of
his books is still in print, which is very unusual. His first book is now
almost fifty years old. [ Applause ] David, has won the Pulitzer
Prize twice for his books on Harry Truman and John Adams. He has won National
Book Prize twice. He has been given the
presidential medal of freedom by President Clinton. He has been asked to speak to
a joint session of Congress and given virtually every
honor a citizen can give. He’s been also give 55 honorary
degrees, which must be a record. So that’s very impressive, but
even more impressive is he has five children, 19 grandchildren
and the love of his life, Rosalie, his wife of 63 years. Where’s Rosalie? [ Applause ] Okay. So did you ever think when
you were growing up in Pittsburgh that you would one day become
the most famous chronicler of American History?>>David McCollough: Of course.>>David Rubenstein: You did?>>David McCollough: No. I never imagined such a thing.>>David Rubenstein:
What was your ambition as a young boy in Pittsburgh? What did you want to do?>>David McCollough: I wanted to
get good grades in school but not to spend too much of my
time worrying about that and then I got interested
in girls and took out a lot of my thought and preparations. And once I got to college,
I knew that I either wanted to be an artist, or a writer,
or an architect, or an actor, but I couldn’t make up my mind. So when I finished college, I
thought, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll go to New York
and see what happens.” So I went to New York
and a lot happened.>>David Rubenstein: Now, did
your family say, go to New York, or did they say come
back to Pittsburgh?>>Oh, no. My father would call
me after my second or third book had been published, he
said, “Well, now it’s time for you to come back to Pittsburgh
and get a real job.” He never understood but I’d go
back to Pittsburgh all the time and I’m very grateful I grew up when
I did then at that time in that city and it was a lesson
in history, in itself. It was a simulation for the
Arts and the literature, the principal by school,
leading the public school, was one of the founders of the
first PBS station in America, Carolyn [phonetically
spelled] D. Patterson and KDKA was the first radio
station in America and I was invited to do a little voice over for KDKA
when I was still in high school, so that interested me too.>>David Rubenstein: So yo
went to “Sports Illustrated.” That isn’t American History
exactly, a very nice publication, but what did you work on there?>>David McCollough: Well, I worked in the circulation
promotion department and we had these test
mailers, as they called them, where they would four or
five different letters to people asking them to take an
interest in this new magazine, and I asked if I could contribute a
competitor in the test, and I told, “Yes, but you have to
do it on your own time. Don’t waste office time doing this”
a ten-year job, I was a trainee. So I wrote the letter and
submitted it and they decided to use it, and it won the test. From that point on,
I was looking good. But the wonderful thing
about it was the “Sports Illustrated” was brand
new, and nobody really knew exactly where it was going
or how to make it go. It was a very exciting
time and the whole spirit of the city then was amazing. I went to work for
5000 dollars a year. They allowed me an extra ten dollars
a week because I was married. The stereotype for women was not
just in salaries, it was expressed in other ways too, but I also found
right away how many wonderful there were working there and later
when I came to Washington, I found some of the
best people I had worked with in my life were the women
at the U.S. Information Agency. What happened when Kennedy ran, I
thought this is really exciting. He was going to make a difference. He was going to give us
all a chance to take part, and when he gave his magnificent
inaugural address and said, “Do not ask what your country
can for you but what you can do for your country,”
I took that entirely to heart, and I quit my job. I knew no one in the Kennedy crowd, I knew no one in the
government here. I came down and went door to
door looking for some place in the federal government
where my training and my education would be
appropriate and wound up, luck would have it, and luck is a
big factor not just in our lives but in history — it’s not
sufficiently paid attention to, but as luck would have it, I
wound up working at the USIA when Kennedy had appointed Edward
R. Murrow to be the director, so it was a very exciting time. It stayed an exciting
time for the three years until the president was killed, but
during that time, I happen to be in the Library in Congress
doing some research for some articles we
were going to include in the magazine I was editing
and chanced upon this big table at the library in the
Princeton photograph’s division of photographs taken
at Johnstown right after the famous disastrous
flood of 1889. And I had heard about the flood all
my life but I really knew nothing about it and I looked
at those photographs and saw the devastating destruction
and couldn’t believe my life and I thought, “What happened?” So I took a book out of
the library, which was okay but the author didn’t really
understand the geography of western Pennsylvania,
which I did understand. So I took another book
out of the library and it was pot boiler
written at the time, full of inaccuracies and so forth. But while I was in college, I had
the good fortune to cross paths with Thorn Wilder, the great
playwright and novelist, and he was asked, at one point,
why do you write the plays you do, the subjects you choose, why
do you write the novels you do and subjects you choose? He said, “I imagine a story
that I’d like to be able to read and if I find nobody’s written it
so I can see it on stage or read it in a book, I write it myself
so I can read it in a book or see it performed on stage
and I thought, why don’t you try and write the book you
wish you could read about the Johnstown flood? And I soon as I started working
on that book, here at the Library of Congress, primarily, I
knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life?>>David Rubenstein: So did
you quit your job at USIA?>>David McCollough: I did not. When Kennedy was killed, I was asked
to come back to New York to work at “American Heritage,” the
wonderful American History magazine, which was then published with
hard covers and no advertising. Bruce Catton was the editor. It was an exciting, marvelous and
adventurous time and I worked there for six years, and I wrote
“The Johnstown Flood” on nights and on weekends for three years,
carrying on my job as usual but after I had written the book
and then I after I got the idea for the next book on building
the Brooklyn Bridge, I thought, “I got to quit and see if
I can do it full-time,” and because I was married
and married to a very brave, wonderful woman — [ Applause ] — she said, “If that’s what
you want to do, we’ll do it.” We had no outside income. All we had was an advanced
on the new book, and after my Johnstown
book was published, several other publishers came
to me and one of them wanted me to do the Chicago Fire and the
other the San Francisco earthquake. So I was hardly 30 years old and
I was already being type casted as “bad news McCollough”
and I didn’t want that. I wanted a symbol of affirmation,
a symbol of positive affirmation and I must say it took me a
while to come up with the idea. People say, “Where do
you get your ideas?” I get them from all over the
place and I was having lunch with two friends, one was a science
writer, the other an engineer. They started talking about
all that the builders of the Brooklyn Bridge didn’t know
they were in for when they first set out to do it and I thought,
“There’s my subject.” I came out of that lunch. It was down on the lower
eastside, and I went to straight to the New York Public Library, the
marble stairs to the card catalog — the old card catalog days — and
pulled out the draw and there were over 50 cards on the subject
of the Brooklyn Bridge but not one describing a book of the
kind I intended already to write. And I knew this is it. So it was on the basis of that idea
and the willingness of my publisher, Simon and Schuster, to go behind
me and give me an advance, that I was able to
stop working full-time. And I’ve never changed publishers. Simon and Schuster have published
all my books and I always figured if I was loyal and faithful
to them, they would be to me and they certainly have been.>>David Rubenstein: One wife
and one publisher for 63 years.>>David McCollough: One
wife and one publisher.>>David Rubenstein:
You might describe, as you might describe
elsewhere, your style of writing because it’s a little unique in the
sense that your wife is involved in the process of helping
you with the writing. Can you describe how you do that?>>David McCollough: Well, I’ve been
confessing to this truth more lately than before but I don’t
consider myself an historian. I have no degree in History. I have no PhD. I didn’t major in History. I majored in English. I only took the History
courses that were required and I’ve always believed that one
ought to write for the ear as well as the eye; all the great did
it, Dickens and all the others because when you hear what you’ve
written, you begin to hear words that you’re using too often. You begin to hear sentence
structures that become repetitious and you hear when you are
starting to be boring and I had two or three wonderful writers help
me along the way, Conrad Richter, the great novelist, whose work
is really beyond imagining, still Paul Horgan, wonderful
writer and Charlton Ogburn, I don’t know if any of you know his
work, a brilliant, wonderful band, and writer, and nationalist and they
helped me a great deal understand you have to cut back. you have write and rewrite. I’m not a writer. I’m a rewriter and all the
best of them had been that way. Rosalie reads everything
that I write to me out loud and she sometimes reads a
chapter three or four times because I’m rewriting
it three or fours. When we were working on my book about Theodore Roosevelt
— may I tell this story? [ Laughter ] — we were in the next to
the last chapter, I think, and she was reading
aloud and she just said, “There’s something wrong
with that sentence.” I said, “Well, read it again.” She read it again. I said, “No, there’s nothing
wrong with that sentence.” She said, “Yes, there is.” I said, “Give me.” I read it aloud to her. I said, “See?” She said, “No, there’s something
wrong with that sentence.” I said, “Just keep going, please.” Well, she kept going and I didn’t
do anything about that sentence and the book went to the publisher. The publisher published
it and it came out. It got wonderful reviews
including a very fine review in the New York Review of Books
by [inaudible], up until he was about to end the review, he
said “Sometimes, however, Mr. McCollough doesn’t write very
well, consider this sentence — [ Laughter ]>>David Rubenstein:
Some historians do a lot of research and then they write. You perhaps do something different. You research and write,
research and write. Can you describe why
you do it that way?>>Well, for one thing,
I never undertake a book about a subject I know much about. If I knew all about it, I
wouldn’t want to write the book because the search process would
not be an adventure, and, for me, each subject I undertake
is a new experience. I’m setting foot on a continent I’ve
never been to before and working on a detective case, and I really
don’t know much about the research for the last half of the book and
I don’t want to know that yet. I want to be involved
with the people who were involved in the story. I want to be with them. I want to know them. I want to be inside their time. When you say to me, “You’re working
on a new book,” I say, “Yes,” but I really say, “I’m
working in a book.” You have to get in that
other time and you have to understand those human beings. History is not about statistics and memorizing dates,
and boring quotations. History is about people. It’s about human beings when in the
course of human events and we have to be able to put ourselves in
the shoes of those other people and know what the life that they
lived was like, what the hardships, adversities that they faced that
we don’t even have to think about and what spoiled brats we are that
we have so much that we owe all to them, and yet we don’t
bother to know who they were. It’s not right. [ Applause ] So I do the research as I go
along and as you do the research and as you learn more, then
you have different questions. You have to ask questions
all the time. Why did this happen? Where was he? Who was he? What was he or she worried about? And you have to keep learning more
from the original sources, letters, diaries, unpublished memoires
and the like, and, of course, that’s where the gold, all,
so much of it is right here in the Library of Congress. When I was working on the Wright
Brothers Book, all those letters that they wrote to each other, and
to their father, and to their mother and sister, Katharine, are all
here in the Library of Congress and you read those letters,
these two young fellows who grew up in a house that had no
running water, no indoor plumbing, no central heat, no telephone
and you could put ten of them in this room, tiny little
house but it was full of books, and their father insisted
that they all read and that they read
above their level. And those letters that they wrote
expressed what he drummed into them, learn how to use the English
language on paper and on your feet. Their vocabulary, their
handling of — is breathtaking and they never
even finished high school, and when I see the
writing that is produced by college students today — when I learn that nearly
all the law schools in our country are now requiring
incoming freshman, who, of course, are all college graduates, to
take a basic a writing course because they can’t write a
respectable, presentable letter or report, or proposal
of some kind in the work that they are going
to have to be doing. We have to knuckle down and get
back to learning how to write, learning how to read
with concentration and understanding and
teaching history. We’re raising a generation —
we’re raising several generations of young Americans — and I know
this because I lecture or teach at colleges and universities
constantly all over the country. We’re raising young people
who are, by and large, historically illiterate and it’s not
their fault and I think that some of the brightest people I’ve
ever met are some of the students that I’m involved with in
colleges and university. And we have to stimulate curiosity,
ask questions, ask questions. don’t think you always
have to have the answers. I don’t have all the answers. I hope I never reach the point where
I think I have all the answers, and curiosity, and I
forgotten who said this, and I wish I could remember. One of the great writers said, “Curiosity is what separates
us from the cabbages.” [ Laughter ]>>David Rubenstein: So when
you are writing, do you type it? Do you use a typewriter,
a word processor? Do you use long hand?>>David McCollough: Are you ready?>>David Rubenstein:
What is the answer?>>David McCollough: I am proud to
say I work on a manual typewriter.>>David Rubenstein: Okay. When it breaks, where
do you get the parts?>>David McCollough:
It’s never broken.>>David Rubenstein: Really.>>David McCollough: I bought
it second hand in order to write my first book,
“The Johnstown Flood.” I’d always work at Time and
Life with the issued typewriter on the job, which was
manual Royal typewriter. We were living in White
Plains, New York. I went to a typewriter shop and bought a second hand Royal
typewriter that was in 25 years old. I paid 75 dollars for it. I’ve written everything I’ve
ever written, every speech, every article, every book on
that typewriter for over 50 years and there is nothing wrong with
it and there never has been.>>David Rubenstein: Wow.>>David McCollough: Talk about — by no means was the notion
of planned obsolescence enter in to the minds of the
manufacturers of that machine. It’s fantastic. Now, why this typewriter? Why not word processor? It goes too fast. I don’t think all that fast and
if you hit the wrong button, you can eliminate months of work. [ Laughter ] I have a friend, Bill
Fowler, a very good historian, a very good book writer,
lost 5000 words because he hit the wrong button. Also I love to take the
paper out of the typewriter and after I finish the chapter,
put it up on the clipboard. If it’s a good weather, find
a nice comfortable place to take an outdoor chair and sit
under a tree and let the editor, me, show that mug who wrote that
stuff how it should really be done and you’re editing
on the manuscript. With a machine, all
that it’s eliminated. You never see that again, but with
this, you can see the process. Now the only other avid,
devoted typewriter man that I know is Tom Hanks. And Tom Hanks writes all of this
letters, everything, on a typewriter and he has, what must be, the world’s greatest typewriter
collection, more than, I’m sure, there are at the Smithsonian, and
he understands perfectly why I work on a typewriter, and I urge
others to do it and I urge others to remember how much work
goes into writing a book.>>David Rubenstein: I think Robert
Caro still uses his typewriter as well.>>David McCollough: Yes, he does.>>David Rubenstein: How many words
do you do a day before you say, “Okay, that’s it.”>>David McCollough: Well, in the
old days, when I was full of beams, I would do four pages a day
when I was growing underway. Now, I try to do two pages a day. Two pages a day is ten
pages a week or more because I often work seven days a
week and by the end of the month, you’ve got a chapter, or the
beginnings of the chapter.>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>David McCollough: I’m often asked
how much of my time I spent writing and how much of my time
I spend doing research, perfectly good question. Nobody ever asked me how much
of your time you spend thinking.>>David Rubenstein: How much of
your time do you spend thinking?>>David McCollough: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein:
What’s the answer?>>David McCollough: There you
are, David, you’re the first man.>>David Rubenstein: All
right, so what’s the answer:>>David McCollough: A lot. If you were looking in
the window where I work, you might think the guy’s
asleep but I’m thinking deeply.>>David Rubenstein: Well, in
my roles at the Smithsonian, whenever you do retire, can
you give us that typewriter?>>David McCollough:
Well, I’m not sure. I have to talk to the boss.>>David Rubenstein: Okay. Let’s talk about this book. You’ve written ten books before. This is your eleventh book.>>David McCollough: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: We’re
going to talk shortly about your twelfth book
called, “The Pioneers,” which is going to be out in 2019.>>David McCollough: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: This book
is a compilation of your speeches and honorary degree
of commencement talks. You’ve got 55 honorary degrees. That must near a world record. When you give a commencement
speech, what do you have left to say that you haven’t said before. Do you get tired of saying
the same things to students? Are they really listening to
these commencement speeches?>>David McCollough: No, because
the setting of every talk, like everyone you meet,
is different. So you want to know something about
the university where you’re speaking or the college where you’re
speaking, or if you’re invited to speak let’s say at some event
at the White House or capitol, you have to do the homework.>>David Rubenstein:
So you do the research.>>David McCollough: I do a lot of
research and I’m very conscientious that what I’m saying is
going to go on the record at the university or
at the — [inaudible]>>David Rubenstein: All
right, so let’s talk about some of these speeches and this
is a highly readable book. I highly recommend it
and let’s talk about one of the first speeches in here. You were asked to give a speech
to the joint session of Congress. Very few citizens, private
citizens, are ever asked to do that. How did that come about and
what did you want to talk about to the members of Congress?>>David McCollough: There
was a gathering of historians and biographers that spoke at a
conference here at the Library of Congress on the Congress
and after that was over, when it came time — it
was the bicentennial, 1989, I was asked to come and give a
shorter version of the speech I gave at that gathering at
the Library of Congress.>>David Rubenstein: Shorter
version because members of Congress don’t like
long speeches or?>>David McCollough: I would
imagine they were afraid that I would run away with my
excitement and go on forever.>>David Rubenstein: All right.>>David McCollough: But it was a
very, very high compliment and honor and I worked extremely
hard on preparing this.>>David Rubenstein: One
of the people you talk about there was John Quincy Adams –>>David McCollough: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: — who had been
a member of Congress for 20 years after he left the presidency. Why did you talk about him
and what do you think is so appealing about
John Quincy Adams?>>David McCollough: John Quincy
Adams had been a diplomat, served in several diplomatic post,
very important diplomatic post. He’d been a senator and he’d been
president of the United States and after he left the
presidency, he was asked if he, by any chance, run for Congress. He said, “Certainly,” so he
went back and served in Congress until his death and he died
on the floor of the Congress. He died in the, what
is now, Statuary Hall, in the little room off to the side. He died in “heinous,”
as they said then. He didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to be a
congressman as he was, but he had a mission
not only to represent as best he could his
constituency in Massachusetts but to represent the country and
more than that the constituency, and he was ardently against slavery. So he was battling slavery
on the floor of the Congress until the day he fell dead or fell
down and died a few days later. And talk about devotion, talk
about integrity, talk about truth and honesty and loyalty,
his father, John Adams, was the only founding father
present, only one in the presence who was a founding father, who never
owned a slave out of principle, and his wife, Abigail, was even
more adamant on the subject. The next president who never owned
a slave was John Quincy Adams, so it ran in the family, as did
dedication to public service. It ran in the family. He was also brilliant. He was interested in everything. He spoke many languages. He was, in many ways, I think
he may have had the highest IQ, the most fertile, versatile mind
of anybody who has been president, even including the
greatest among the founders, but as chance would have it, he
was only a one-term president and one-term presidents don’t
get the attention that others do. It’s the same now as it was then.>>David Rubenstein: Let me ask you about another president
you’ve talked about. You spoke on the 4th of
July at an Immigration and Naturalization
ceremony at Monticello, which is held every 4th of July. Monticello is Thomas
Jefferson’s home. Thomas Jefferson gave us the creed
that all men are created equal that he wrote in the Preamble to
the Declaration of Independence but how do you swear that with
the fact that he was a slave owner and how do you address that issue
and how do you think he addressed that issue of the fact
that he was a slave owner but he thought all men
should be created equal?>>David McCollough: I don’t. I can’t. I don’t understand it,
nor do I understand the fact that he destroyed every letter
he ever wrote to his wife and every letter she
ever wrote to him. So we know nothing about her. We don’t even know what she looked
like and I can’t understand. I can’t understand that he kept
very close track of every cent, every dime he ever
spent on anything. He has incredible financial
records but he never added it up.>>David Rubenstein: Well, that
was why he probably was bankrupt at the end.>>David McCollough: He
was never out of debt from the time he was a young man. He just kept spending. I don’t understand it. But I also don’t understand
where that genius came from. The man was a genius and if he’d
been nothing but an architect, now that alone would qualify him to be somebody we all
should know about. And he served a brilliant service
to all of us with this idea that all men are created equal, but he also said something I think
has not been sufficiently played out and given. He hasn’t been given
sufficient credit for and that is his absolute
belief in education. He said, “Any nation that
expects to be ignorant and free, expects what never
was and never can be.” We have to be educated. We have to be literate. We have to understand that there
are no easy answers to big problems and so forth and nobody has
glib solutions to big problems. They have to be worked out. I wish I’d have the
chance to know him.>>David Rubenstein:
Let’s speak about that. If all the people you’ve written
about, John Adams, Harry Truman, John Quincy Adams, Thomas
Jefferson, if you could have dinner with any one president
who’s not alive, who would you like
to have dinner with?>>David McCollough: John Adams.>>David Rubenstein: John Adams?>>David McCollough:
Because there are so many questions I want to ask him.>>David Rubenstein: All right, let’s talk about John
Adams for a moment. You gave a speech at the
University of Massachusetts. You talked about John Adams. Of the founding fathers, he
gets a little less attention than George Washington, Thomas
Jefferson, James Madison. Why do you think so few people
paid that much attention until your book came out and why do
you think there is still no monument in John Adams in Washington D.C.?>>David McCollough: Yes, there is.>>David Rubenstein: Where?>>David McCollough: He’s on the
mantle piece in the White House.>>David Rubenstein: Oh.>>David McCollough:
You know about that?>>David Rubenstein: I don’t.>>David McCollough: John Adams
was the first [inaudible] president to reside in the White House and
his first night, he was alone, Abigail had not arrived yet and the
next morning, after his first night, he wrote her a letter in which he
said — what he wrote in the letter, Franklin Roosevelt had carved
into the wooden part of the mantle in the east room, the
same dining room. When Truman was in charge
of redoing the White House, he made sure that that
quotation stayed there. When Kennedy became president,
he had it carved into the marble of the mantle piece so that it would
stay forever and what Adams had said in the letter to Abigail was
this, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule
under this roof.”>>David Rubenstein: Oh!>>David McCollough: I think it’s
very important to understand, to think about, he put honesty
first ahead of wisdom, honesty.>>David Rubenstein: So in your
Pulitzer Prize-winning book on John Adams, which was also made
into an HBO series and won a lot of awards as well, you went
through about 1000 letter between John Adams
and Abigail Adams. Have you ever experienced like that
between a husband and wife before and what was it that struck you
so unusual about those letters?>>David McCollough: The quality
of the use of the English language, the quality of the use of the mind, how well read they both
were, superbly read. John Adams advised his
young son, at the time — he was about 10 years old when they
went off with his father to Europe to serve as a diplomatic — he
said, “You’ll never be alone if you have a poet in your pocket,”
in other words, carry a book and that was part of the
relationship attitude toward life. They were incredible readers
and Abigail was right there and her letters are phenomenal.>>David Rubenstein: She
was not college educated.>>David McCollough: No,
she never to college. She never went to school. She was tutored at home as it
were but she never stopped reading and she was brilliant and she was
brave, and patriotic and she put up with incredible
difficulties, running the family, running the household, trying
to stay afloat financially when he was off serving overseas. And those children were
raised by her in a way that they would never forget. At that dinner party you
were asking who would I have, I would definitely want
Abigail Adams there and I would definitely
want Katharine Wright, the sister of the Wright Brothers. You can’t understand what
they did and how they did it if you don’t understand the
part played by Katharine Wright. Oh was she something. She kept at them and made them
tell the line and behave themselves in a way that we all need.>>David Rubenstein: You
gave a speech at Dartmouth and there are two people
featured in that speech about whom you’ve written. One was Teddy Roosevelt. You wrote a book not
about his presidency but about the time he left New
York in the east and went west. Why did you find that such
an appealing part of his life and what was the most important
lesson you took away from that book?>>David McCollough:
Theodore Roosevelt is like a caterpillar
turning into a butterfly. He was a child who was
not expected to live. He suffered terribly
of seizures of asthma, which were really life threatening. He was afraid of everything, fearful
of everything and he outgrew it, and he outgrew it by
facing adversity. He took hold of himself and he
worked hard at it all the way through college but then onto life. His father’s death was a
devastating experience for him. Then his wife and mother died on the
same day and he was a shattered man and that’s when he went west. And this whole idea of
going west is so American. It’s a way of healing. It’s a way of escaping. It’s been traditionally and
many historians have written and quite profoundly about this
and he is the essence of that, but he never forgot who he was
and where he was going back to and when he comes back, he then
remarries and gets involved in politics in a big serious way.>>David Rubenstein: Now, you’ve
also spoken to Dartmouth –>>David McCollough:
He was brilliant — wonderful writer, and
he was a historian. None of our great presidents
has ever been one who had no interest
in history, true. So he wrote about 40 books. Theodore Roosevelt wrote many
books including a very good book, I still consider a good book on the
naval war of 1812, which he started when he was still in college. Woodrow Wilson, of course,
was a professor of History. Dwight Eisenhower’s “Crusade in
Europe” is one of the best books about World War II ever written and
he wrote every word of that himself. No ghostwriter did
anything to help him. And, of course, Kennedy wrote
several works of his, “Profiles and Courage,” and kept referring
to history, citing history, bringing history into the
dialogue of the presidency of the executive office
again, and again, and again.>>David Rubenstein: Now, you
also in the “Darkness [inaudible] ” talked about Harry Truman –>>David McCollough: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: — about whom
you wrote another Pulitzer Prize winning book. Why was Harry Truman so unpopular
when he left the presidency, 15% popularity rating, but now
he’s everything favorite president. What changed in the years since
he left the presidency other than your book?>>David McCollough: Well, it began
before I wrote the book, believe me. I grew up in a very old-fashioned
Republic family and the night of the 1948, I was a high school
student, and I was very interested in politics and I tried to
stay awake to hear who won but, as some of you may remember, the
final tally didn’t come in until about two in the morning, and I
just couldn’t stay up that late. I fell asleep. The father was in shaving
the next morning. I went in and I said,
“Dad, dad, who won?” He said, “Truman,” like
the end of the world. Well, twenty or thirty
years later, I was back home and we were having a chat
after dinner and he started in on how the world was going to
hell and the country was going to hell, and he paused, he said, “Too bad old Harry isn’t
still in the White House.” But Harry Truman is a
great American story. This wonderful gathering here
is about the American story. If there was ever a story
that is so American, I don’t know of another one. He is Harry True man from a
place called, “independence,” and he never went to college. He had to go on in as his own. He had all kinds of bad luck
and defeat but he never gave up. My favorite people are the
people that don’t give up. George Washington in 1776
had every reason in the world to say, “Well, that’s enough. We can’t win this war, the hell
with it,” but he would not give up and he knew how to convince
others; we’re not going to give up. The Wright Brothers never gave up. Washington Roebling in the
building of the Brooklyn Bridge, they had many reasons to
say, “The hell with this. This is more than can be achieved,”
but they wouldn’t give up.>>David Rubenstein: Talking
about never giving up, you gave a speech at
Ohio University –>>David McCollough: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: — about people who help build the northwest
territories and you are now working on a book called, “The
Pioneers,” as I mentioned earlier, it’s going to be out in
2019, what was so unique about the northwest territories and
why did those people not give up?>>David McCollough: I was invited
the speak at Ohio University at their 200th Anniversary
commencement and I thought I’d better learn
something about Ohio University and I found out the oldest building
on campus was called, “Cutler Hall,” and I thought, who’s Cutler. I was told it was oldest
university college building west of the Allegheny Mountains. Well, Cutler’s name
was Manasseh Cutler. He was a classic 18th
century poly-math. He was a medical doctor,
a lawyer and a minister. He was a minister of a small
church in Ipswich, Massachusetts. And a group of war veterans
in Ipswich, Massachusetts, revolutionary war veterans’, had the
idea that because they had been paid with worthless money all the
time that they served for eight and a half years, one
way to compensate that would be propriety land in
this new northwest territory, seated through our country by the
British at the treaty in Paris, and that land was fertile
in a way that nobody in New England would have
even imagined, and it belonged to a government and there it was. This man, Cutler, was picked by
these officers from the war to go down to the capital, which
was then in New York, and sell them on the idea of
creating a northwest territory, ordinance, whereby new
states could be formed. Now, Manasseh Cutler had
never lobbied anything in anywhere in his life. The word “lobbyist” or “lobbying”
had never even entered the languages yet. He had never been to New York,
never had been to New England, but off he went in his
one-horse shay down to New York to convince the continental
congress — there was no constitution
yet — to go ahead with this. This was the summer of 1787 and
they put the ordinance through. He did it — one man. He did it. And the ordinance stipulated three
things of immense importance. It was one of the most
important bills ever passed by our congress even
before we had a president. One, there would be
complete freedom of religion, absolute complete freedom
of religion. The number two, the government
would be involved in education. There would public education
all the way through college. Hence, the beginning of the state
university system, for example. Third, and most important of
all, there would be no slavery. Now, what that meant — this territory was as big
as all the 13 colonies. There were slaves in every
one of the 13 colonies but it meant this new empire,
this wilderness empire, would be free to everyone. All you had to do was get across the
Ohio River, the northwest territory and west of the Ohio River. It now constitutes the
states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s as big as all of
France, no slavery. So half of our country
would be no slavery. Imagine with one vote of congress,
one man put it through and yet I never knew anything about it, and most people know
nothing about it. Now, I go back again
to Thornton Wilder. Thornton Wilder was once again about
how he got his ideas and so forth, but I thought our town was one of the greatest things
I ever saw on stage. I still love to see it when
it’s big and done again. And I’ve always wanted to write a
book about people you’ve never heard to see if I can get you
into the tent, as it were, without relying on
historic celebrities. So none of the characters,
expect one or two, are in periphery are people you’ve
ever heard, but all their letters and diaries have survived and their
in the archives at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio and it was as
if I had come into King Tut’s tomb or something, really and truly. And oh my goodness and what they
talk about, and what they reveal, and the adversities they faced
and they would not give up.>>David Rubenstein: So as we wind down with the time we have
available, two final questions, one, what is the great pleasure of
your life today, as you look back on what you’ve achieved, is
it exposing all these things to Americans so they know
more about our history? What is it that has given you
the greatest in your life? Other than your relationship
with your wife and your children, what is the greatest
professional pleasure of your life?>>David McCollough:
Being an American. [ Applause ]>>David McCollough: Thank you.>>David Rubenstein: And when people
talk about you, the legacy you would like to have left behind — not
that you’re leaving any time soon — but what would say is the legacy that you would be most
proud of having achieved?>>David McCollough: He
tried to do his best.>>David Rubenstein: All right,
well, you’ve done a terrific job and a final thing about
the Library of Congress — The Library of Congress is a place
you’ve done a lot of your research. How important is the
Library of Congress to you?>>David McCollough: The Library of
Congress is indispensible for me, professionally, but I also see it as
a shrine on our metropolis devoted to the idea of education
and it’s available to all. Our whole public library system
is something that’s a miracle of imagined creation. [ Applause ] The Library of Congress
is the greatest library in the world and we did it. We did it. And if you ever get down
about American culture, you might like to remember that there are still more
public libraries in this country than there are Starbucks.>>David Rubenstein:
All right, David, thank you very much for
a good conversation.>>David McCollough:
Thank you very much. [ Applause ] This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov

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