|June 14, 2005|
Has David "1776" McCullough Turned Tory?
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
David McCullough's best-selling books on American history have been praised for their readability and criticized for their superficiality.
But no one has detected a political agenda behind McCullough's output. McCullough's books projects a patriotic warmth about his American heroes -- nothing too controversial.
And until now, McCullough, unlike such well-known American historians as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Forrest MacDonald, has steered clear of partisan political organizations, and kept his political beliefs to himself.
But a look at the fiercely conservative and influential Heritage Foundation's website shows that McCullough may have changed his mind about declaring his political affiliations -- and that some right-wing think tank chiefs think his work actually does have a deeply political message.
Last Friday, June 10, McCullough took the book tour on behalf of his latest volume, "1776", to Washington -- and to the Heritage Foundation. A videotape of the proceedings appears on the Heritage site: http://www.heritage.org/Press/Events/ev061005a.cfm
The Foundation was sure it knew exactly what it was getting.
John Hilboldt, the Heritage director of lectures and seminars, gushed over McCullough as a "rock star historian." He noted how the story McCullough tells in his new book fits in with the Foundation's political commitments, including "preserving individual liberties," and "limiting government power."
Edwin J. Feulner, President of the Foundation, introduced McCullough by making the point that he is not "a professionally-trained historian," but an author following in a "great but sometimes forgotten tradition in the United States" -- "writing history for real Americans."
McCullough, Feulner proclaimed, is "America's historian."
Limiting government power? Real Americans? America's historian -- as opposed to those American historians who don't belong to America?
The message was perfectly clear: David McCullough is the Heritage Foundation's kind of historian. If Harry Truman, the subject of one of McCullough's earlier books (and one of his heroes) had been introduced that way, by Heritage Foundation officers, he would have given his audience hell. (Although, true enough, it is hard to imagine Truman on a book tour, let alone taking it to a right-wing think-tank.)
McCullough gave the Foundation something different. He did not object to or distance himself from Hilboldt and Feulner's remarks. Instead, he smiled and profusely thanked them for their "grand introduction." Then he delivered a smooth and dramatic lecture on the importance of history as a humanizing force and on the military saga of 1776.
The lecture carried little overt political content (aside from McCullough's admirable lamentation that the state of Alabama has removed history as a subject to be taught in its public elementary schools.)
McCullough did not say too much about the state of public education in Alabama. That might have been dangerous.
But it is clear that McCullough knew his audience as well as they thought they knew him.
And so he concluded his remarks by describing how, after suffering through a cold and bloody winter, the American troops stuck it out at the end of 1776, heeding George Washington's proposal to stay even after their enlistments were up.
Why did they remain? Patriotism? Personal honor? Loyalty to their comrades and commanders?
Maybe. But McCullough, quoting the American general Nathanael Greene, concluded his talk by crediting an even higher power.
"God Almighty inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew."
The Heritage audience thundered its appreciation and approval.
Major book tours take in big bookstores, public lecture halls, and similar venues. It's rare, almost unheard of, for a major author with no political axe to grind to include on the itinerary so partisan and ideological a place as the Heritage Foundation -- and to listen appreciatively as that foundation praises his work for embodying and advancing its agenda.
That goes beyond the perfectly honorable practice of shilling for one's book.
But it's a step David McCullough has now taken.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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