Several years ago, on a summer evening, as the Amtrak train pulled out of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, James and I sat in our sleeper car ready for a trip that would take us overnight to Chicago. It was 2017, and the weight of the outcome of the previous fall’s election was pressing against the contours of our national sense of norms and traditions. In our compartment, as the train trekked towards Pittsburg, over the swaths of America that were like painted vistas as the sun set, we settled back with some books we had purchased on our vacation. Among them was The American Spirit by David McCullough. It was subtitled Who We Are and What We Stand For.
The collection of speeches from the famed historian had been released just weeks prior and James was immersed within the pages. (I had Thomas Fleming’s book on the Founding Fathers as my selection while drinking a cup of coffee from Amtrak’s kitchen car.) We had followed the advice from only a couple of weeks prior upon hearing McCullough, in a wide-ranging interview, and in his usual eloquent way about why people needed to see this country’s national parks and historic sites. He spoke about the need to show young people the wonders of the past. James and I were already months into the planning for such a trip that took us to Washington, D.C., and some sites in the general area. Connecting with the touchstones of the past was exactly the very thing that McCullough urged.
Tonight, America is learning of the death of David McCullough, a man so many truly respected and admired. He was 89 years old.
In 1992, as President George Herbert Walker Bush was campaigning for reelection his Truman-like train came into Plover, Wisconsin with a long blowing of the whistle. It was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin. Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot. The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book Truman in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948. In spite of the polls, there were still campaign stops to be made as Bush was working overtime at trying to make his Truman moment come true.
(As a side note my mom and dad attended that rally with me. We arrived very early which allowed us to stand up front near the podium. It needs to be noted that in 1944 this is where my mother’s family had debarked upon their arrival from Ozone, Arkansas. It was that tidbit from history and the circle coming around again that would have made McCullough smile.)
Again, that fall in Waukesha I would attend a Bush rally where the candidate alerted the huge turnout that he had read McCullough’s book and he was going to be like the Missourian come Election Night. That was the trip I was able to shake both George’s and Barbara’s hands. Again, the historian would have smiled as he knew American values, as expressed by joint efforts to accomplish things, mattered in our system of government; that joint effort starts with listening and respecting each other.
In Washington, it is one thing to see the Lincoln Memorial in daylight, but to stand in the lighted wonder at night and ponder Abe is quite another. I had found myself talking to many people day after day and asking them their impressions of sites all over the city. As such, I asked a black woman who was, I learned, age 88 what her feelings were about the memorial. It was her first time to see it and being from Jamaica she spoke as one who knew of the power Lincoln’s words gave to those outside this nation. “It is very powerful for everyone,” she said with soft words and dark knowing eyes.
On the backside of the memorial looking out across the Potomac, I spoke to a father and then told his young teenage children about the battle of First Bull Run and how many townspeople took carriages and boxed lunches to watch the battle as many felt the war would be a short term operation. Hours later the beaten and badly wounded soldiers would be limping or being carried back over the river into Washington. Some without shoes, others without guns, others without an eye or limb. It was interesting to see the young look out and hear of the events and perhaps in their mind see history play out.
I just know Dave McCullough would smile at such a conversation. It was exactly what he hoped our nation’s citizens would do, and how we might engage with one another. Caring about history, along with our nation’s highest ideals, and the continued desire to reach them is the best way we can remember and honor this man.