By John Ballard
Fareed Zakaria played an interview with David McCullough this morning. I thought it was fresh material but it was recorded in July. It takes about fifteen minutes to watch. I recommend taking note of it and coming back when you have time to pay attention to what is being said.
I found the transcript on line and copied it below. The year will be ending this time next week and now is a time for reflection and analysis. Several of McCullough's comments made in July are even more appropriate now than they were at the time.
ZAKARIA: One way to gain some insight into the current mess in Washington is to step back and get some perspective. I tried to do some of that at the top of the show. But I wanted to get some deeper historical perspective on the performance of the president and of Congress.
And few today understand the past and present of this nation better than David McCullough. He is one of the world's most decorated historians, having won two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams. Welcome.
MCCULLOUGH: Thank you very much.
ZAKARIA: We have in the White House a president who clearly is interested in history, a writer himself. How do you think about him?
MCCULLOUGH: I admire him very much, and I think that his - his time in office presented him with problems such as very few presidents have ever had to address. And given the complexity and the gravity of those problems, I think he's handled himself very well. My - my hat goes off to him, my heart goes out to him.
Who - who could possibly do that job? No human being is sufficient for that role. It's beyond human capacity. We all ought to want to help him. We all want to help everybody in elected office to do the job the way it ought to be done, to live up to the responsibility.
In the old House of Representatives Chamber in the Capitol, what's now Statuary Hall, over the doorway, there's a figure of Clio, the Goddess of History, and she's riding in her chariot. And on the side of the chariot is a clock, put there way back in the 1830s or earlier. Still runs perfectly. She's writing in her book of history.
And the idea was that the Representatives would look up to see what time it is now, but they should be reminded that that's just present daytime. What legally matters is what's being written in the book of history. What looks down on Congress today? Television camera. Very different attitude.
Any time you have a president in office you have to think, too, as compared to whom? What are - what are the choices we have? Who else is there? Who else was there in the election? ~
I've known to a greater or lesser degree, I think seven presidents. And I guess what's impressed me most is how different they have been one from another as - as men, as human beings. And some of those that I like best as people weren't necessarily the best presidents. And my - my understanding I think of what weighs on their minds is pretty - pretty close. I don't think I can sleep at night if I knew what they know and had all of that on my shoulders. I don't know how many people could sleep at night.
ZAKARIA: When you look at it, Mr. McCullough, what makes a great president?
MCCULLOUGH: The capacity to move the country to do better than it thinks it can with the use of the English language.
ZAKARIA: Communication is that important?
MCCULLOUGH: The power of the written word, the spoken word, very, very important. An ability to stick to your principles, an ability to work with people with whom you disagree and may dislike.
I try to stress that exceptional presidents are the exception. We can't expect every president to be a great president. It doesn't happen that way. Life isn't like that. And you can't predict - there isn't a type. They come in all shapes and sizes.
Who would have ever thought that Harry Truman would be one of our greatest presidents? And there's no question he was. He said, I never forget where I came - who I was, where I came from and where I would go back to. Now, that's a man who knows exactly who he is. He's not craving this adoration and - and limelight in order to feel good about himself. He didn't want the job. It was thrust upon him.
He did not have the gift of moving the country with words the way FDR did or Lincoln did. And he did not have the physical presence that Washington had - and I think Washington is our greatest president.
MCCULLOUGH: He set the standards for behavior, integrity and patriotism of the best kind, not the flag-waving kind, but true love of country. All of our - all of our best presidents, without exception, have had a sense of history and I don't think that's coincidental. And one of the things that a sense of history gives to a person, is not just an appreciation, an understanding of what happened before we came along, but the realization that we, too, are a part of history and we, too, are going to be judged by history.
MCCULLOUGH: And that's extremely important. The today's polls, today's - tomorrow's headlines, are not going to matter.
MCCULLOUGH: What matters, how will you look? How will this time look in time to come? What are - what cathedrals are we going to build? We don't ask ourselves that much.
ZAKARIA: But you're optimistic at the end of the day?
MCCULLOUGH: Yes, I am. I'm optimistic in the long run principally because of what I see in the generation of my own children and grandchildren and the students that I meet when I'm lecturing at colleges and universities. I'm distressed. I'm sometimes stunned by how much they don't know about the history of our country. But I know how bright they are. How well meaning they are, that they want to do the right thing.
I agree with you that we're making a grievous error in not accepting these able, talented people who come here for our education opportunities. It's a big mistake. That is the natural resource of all natural resources, the most important of all, what's up here, ideas, ingenuity, foresight, all of that, training.
We ought to be as Canada is being. We ought to be a place they all want to be and come on over, we need you. What would we be without immigration? What - think of who would never have become an American without immigration? That's who we are, thank goodness.
ZAKARIA: Powerful words. David McCullough, thank you.
And we will be right back to talk about a time when America and Americans were fascinated by France. David McCullough's new book, when we come back.
ZAKARIA: We are back with the historian David McCullough, whose latest book "The Greater Journey" is about a wave of 19th century Americans who migrated to Paris.
We think of Americans as famously uninterested in the world. We think of America today and we don't care what's going on in the rest of the world. We don't want to borrow anything from the rest of the world. The Americans you're describing seemed fascinated by - by France. Why?
MCCULLOUGH: They craved, craved France, and they weren't anxious to go there because they were disenchanted with our country. They went to find out if the talent they had was really as strong as people were telling them, and in order to get the training, the experience that they could not get here. There were no museums with paintings hanging in them then. There was not one school of architecture in the United States. This is in the 1830s.
MCCULLOUGH: And no way to train as an artist to work in an Ataye (ph) or to get the kind of training that one would need to be a sculpture or a painter. And Paris was the medical capital of the world. So they went for a multitude of - of professions and artistic careers.
If you were a foreign student in France, in Paris, you could go to the Sorbonne. You could go to the L'ecole de Medecine for nothing, free. Imagine if the students who were coming to Harvard or Yale or Stanford were coming here and going free? It was part of the policy of the - of France at the time.
So if they could afford to support themselves, room and board, then they could go to these greatest of institutions. But American medical training, for example, was woefully behind. Most doctors in the United States in the 1830s, '40s, '50s, really right up through the Civil War had never been to medical school.
ZAKARIA: The Paris you describe is a place that is clearly the center of the world in a sense, and we forget now because the industrial revolution had just begun when - when you're - so you're describing the last gasp of the great agricultural revolutions, and France was probably the richest country in the world, and Paris certainly the center
MCCULLOUGH: Well, what most people don't realize is that Paris was the cultural center of the world. And we had - this city, New York, has became the cultural center of the world after World War II.
But Paris was also the center for medical education, medical science, science itself, technology. The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, stands on an underwater foundation system called caissons, which was developed by French engineers in Paris. So the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, Washington Roebling went to Paris to find out how they do it. And that's why he was able to do it. And most Americans don't realize that, how much we owed to France.
ZAKARIA: I've got to just go on a tangent here for a second, because you wrote a book about the Brooklyn Bridge.
MCCULLOUGH: I did. And here you are talking about the engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge and what he borrowed from France. How does it stay that fresh in your mind?
ZAKARIA: To me the writing of the book is like an experience in life, you never - particularly if that's a powerful experience. You never forget it. And some subjects, once I've finished with them, that's it. I've gotten it out of my system. But with the Brooklyn Bridge, there's something about it, I'm still involved. My wife and I take a walk over the bridge every year. We go back and walk through the old neighborhood in Brooklyn where we lived when we were first married.
And I think it's - it's one of the great accomplishments of our civilization. It's both a work of technology and a work of art, and it stands - it stands the test of time, both visually and technically. It's a magnificent production.
And it also rises up out of what was really a very corrupt time, much like our own. And the idea of this emblem of affirmation can rise up out of that sort of swamp of the gilded age is to me reassuring, and particularly in our time.
ZAKARIA: Our times, though, do seem more parochial. I mean, the people you - you discuss in the book, they seem so interested in the world and in intellectual currents in France, but elsewhere as well. And the people, you know -
MCCULLOUGH: It wasn't cool to be cynical then. It wasn't cool to be - to be filled with self pity. One of the - people often ask me when I'm starting a book, what's your theme? Particularly some of our academic friends. I have no idea what my theme is. I make up something to calm them down, but I have no idea. It's one of the reasons I'm writing the book.
And one of the themes that I realized is a theme as I was about halfway through this project is - is work. We receive such ballyhoo constantly about ease and happiness being synonymous. Again and again, people were saying on paper in their diaries and letters, I've never worked harder in my life and this is the happiest time of my life. And they're struggling as Saint August - Augustus Saint- Gaudens, the sculptor. He said, "We're struggling with all the realities of life, the mundane, every day chores of life, struggling to soar into the blue," as he says. And I think that's emblematic of that - that generation.
ZAKARIA: Do you think that we have lost some of the optimism and energy that - that you saw in the 19th century?
MCCULLOUGH: Yes, temporarily. I'm a short range pessimist, long-range optimist. I think we'll get through these troubles. We've been through worse.
When the 9/11 happened, people said, oh, this is the worst thing we've ever been through. Yes, it was terrible. But by no means was it the worst we've ever been through. The Revolutionary War, the Civil War. Imagine 600,000 people killed. The influenza epidemic, the Great Depression. These were terrible times.
The dark - I think maybe the darkest time was right after Pearl Harbor. We had no army. Half our navy had been destroyed. The Russians - the Germans were nearly to Moscow. Britain was about finished and Churchill came across the Atlantic and he gave a speech and he said, "We haven't gone this far because we're made of sugar candy." That's the message we need now.
ZAKARIA: And that's the kind of historical perspective we all need.
David McCullough, thank you very much.
We will be right back.