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David McCullough helped America understand itself

Douglas Brinkley recalls his friend and colleague McCullough, ‘the dean of our nation’s historians’

Like the Founding Fathers he wrote about, David McCullough stood for reason, enlightenment, education and incorruptible democracy. In our stone-crazy world of Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian-styled savage banality, McCullough, who died on Sunday at age 89, offered proof of just how reassuring a good American can be. As the dean of our nation’s historians, he was trusted by middle America on par with Walter Cronkite. And if America understood who McCullough was, he returned that favor, showing in his books just how well he knew his countrymen across the centuries. He was our dependable deep river oracle, the silver-haired sea captain navigating around the shoals of endemic narcissism to lead us to the promised port of the Declaration of Independence.

McCullough’s voice on PBS documentaries such as Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” resonated like Jesus Christ delivering the Sermon on the Mount. His very tone personified bedrock integrity. As a professional historian like myself, garnering a blurb from McCullough for your upcoming book was the cultural equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal and Oprah’s Book Club selection combined. And his generosity to fellow tradesmen, myself included, was legendary.

...I first worked with McCullough when he was at American Heritage, at the time, a sort of editor emeritus. Having studied with John Hersey and Thornton Wilder at Yale, he was the ultimate connoisseur of what constituted quality nonfiction writing. For McCullough, history needed to be written so readers were always leaning forward as if hearing a story told by Grandma on a frosty January evening in front of a Pittsburgh hearth. His books — all of them — were fresh and accessible without being breezy. His dazzling talent was on display in two Pulitzer Prize winners, “Truman” (1992) and “John Adams” (2001).

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