We shouldn't worry about America. Things work out. Anxiety is eventually replaced with something else. David McCullough, one of a handful of American historians whose ideas and insights can still command the attention of presidents, said this last night before an audience of 800 in the Stranahan Theater. Or rather, he talked about this.
Good men - smart politicians, great thinkers, good men - aren't remembered for a few messes, or even a well-publicized moment of vanity or ego or supreme arrogance.
We know their names because of what they accomplish. He didn't name names either. No Gore. No Bush. Nothing about confusion at the polls. He made no mad dash to show how his work as a historian, how his next book, about John and Abigail Adams - and Thomas Jefferson too - relates to any current political issue.
He didn't need to. McCullough, 67, was gentle and interesting and dressed in a navy blue suit, with a white and blue tie and a white handkerchief that matched his white hair.
He was charming and simple. Speaking as part of the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, he explained why he was writing about Adams and Jefferson, but with the enthusiasm and attention to detail of a young boy recounting a fistfight. First of all, he explained, in order for him to want to write a book, the subject needs to be so good that it gets him up every morning.
Harry Truman did it for him; McCullough's biography, Truman, sold 1 million copies and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. He has written six books in all, including ones about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the creation of the Panama Canal, and the Johnstown Flood.
The biggest challenge to writing history, he said, is conveying that no one involved knows how the story is going to end. Of course, with Adams and Jefferson, he knew, and, better yet, he knew he had a terrific, ironic, inspiring, and profound ending: They died on the same day, July 4, 1826, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence.
McCullough started six years ago on the new one. But now some of the subject has nicely dovetailed with modern day. “I have to tell you a little about the election of 1800,” he said, “because it bears so pertinently on our own, well, what we might call an ... impasse.”
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the contenders. It was “the most vicious election in our history,” he said. “Neither Jefferson nor Adams campaigned in that election; that wasn't done. You were supposed to look as though you didn't want this job. The country comes to you and begs you to be president.
“It wouldn't have made very good television.''
He went on: “The real campaign as we know it began with Theodore Roosevelt. But Adams and Jefferson were each at their respective homes while the dirty work was being done out in the field. They were called everything imaginative.... It was savage.”
Jefferson's relationship with a slave girl - who we now know as Sally Hemings - was first whispered about during the campaign. “Adams was declared insane by several papers.” One candidate was accused of being a hermaphrodite. And worse yet, a scenario that seems unthinkable today, “Adams was running against his own vice president.... In that day, the winner of the vote, the electoral college, became the president. The runner-up became the vice president....''
And it gets even more confusing. He went on. But then, we have our own problems.