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Published: Sunday, 4/13/2003

Storyteller shares history's enchanting details

ROCHESTER, Mich. - David McCullough, America's most beloved living historian, confesses he has a soft spot in his heart for Michigan.

“I remember once I went to speak near Houghton. It was August and when I arrived, there were snow flurries,” the author of the mega-best-sellers John Adams and Truman said with his trademark chuckle. “And the fellow who picked me up said, `just remember - 80 percent of the people who live in Canada are south of you right now!'”

That tickled the writer, who last week left his home on Martha's Vineyard to fly to a still-chilly Detroit suburb to talk about “history as a source of strength.” The topic was apt with war still raging, at least fitfully, in Iraq, and difficult times clearly ahead.

If America had anything like the post of the nation's historian, it would certainly be Mr. McCullough, whose expensive, hard-cover history books literally fly off the shelves in an era when people seem more ignorant of their past than ever.

Eleven years ago, Mr. McCullough won the Pulitzer Prize with Truman, a massive, 1,100-page biography of the once-reviled accidental president. That book shot to the top of the best-seller lists and influenced the 1992 presidential campaign, with all the contenders striving to seem like the blunt-speaking, homespun 33rd president.

The 69-year-old Pennsylvania native next spent nearly a decade working on John Adams, a grumpy one-term president who had been seen as one of the less interesting of the founding fathers. “Everybody warned me, don't expect this to be another Truman,” he said with a chuckle. It was a far bigger hit, selling 2 million in hardcover alone. Tom Hanks is working on turning it into a 13-part HBO miniseries.

Additional millions who haven't read Mr. McCullough know him through his role as host of The American Experience, the PBS documentary mini-series, and as the narrator of many popular documentaries, most notably, Ken Burns' acclaimed The Civil War.

Yet his success comes at a time when many college students are unable to say when the Civil War occurred, tell the difference between the Roosevelts, or even explain whether the Vietnam conflict came before or after World War II. The historian, who turns 70 this July, shakes his head.

“I am positive that my friends and I who graduated from grade school in the 1940s knew more basic American history than college students do today. Recently, he spoke at the University of Missouri, and a young woman thanked him. “She said that she had never before known that all the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast.”

Many commentators blame young people, who have an endless sea of distractions these days. Mr. McCullough doesn't. He thinks it's our fault - “we are doing a clearly unsatisfactory job educating our children” - and he thinks he knows why. Those who are teaching history, he fears, have forgotten how to be storytellers.

“That's what I try to do - tell stories,” he said. “We have to get across that history is about why we are the way we are, and it is about everything. People think that people who lived in earlier times were just like we were. Well, they weren't. They had a different culture, but that didn't mean their lives were simpler or less complicated.”

They were, however, fascinating - and his goal in life has been to find out and share the enchanting details with his readers. Mr. McCullough still remembers a history teacher in college who told him “Now, I don't want you to feel called upon to know a lot of dates and the names of obscure treaties. That's what books are for.

“What I do want is for you to have some sense of the order in which things happened and why they happened, and what it all led to and meant.”

He's never forgotten that. Currently, while he is working on another book on the 18th century, his favorite period, Mr. McCullough is deeply concerned with improving the way kids learn history. “There's a bipartisan bill, backed by President Bush, Senator (Edward) Kennedy, and the National Council for History Education to provide $100 million, to improve how our past is taught,” he said.

He enthusiastically testified in favor of it. Meanwhile, he does what he can, writing and lecturing. That time he spent a frozen August in northern Michigan, he wandered the streets of a largely boarded-up town in the early morning gloom before finally entering a shabby restaurant.

“And the door opened and I was in a place full of life, and warmth, and laughter, and everyone was having a good time, and I had some superb Finnish pancakes.” That could be a metaphor for what David McCullough has been doing for the nation's past for decades. Let's hope he doesn't stop any time soon.



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