By MARSHA MERCER
About 2,500 book lovers erupted in sustained applause when author David McCullough talked about a mantel in the White House. But this was no ordinary hunk of cold marble.
The audience at the National Book Festival in the Washington Convention Center Sept. 2 applauded the hopeful words inscribed in the mantelpiece: “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”
McCullough was doing what he’s done for half a century: telling America’s stories so we will remember who we are as a people and the values we share.
He explained that John Adams, the first president to live in the White House, wrote the sentence in a letter to his wife, Abigail. Franklin Roosevelt had the words carved into a wooden mantel in the State Dining Room, and John Kennedy later had them carved in marble so they’d last forever.
“And I think it’s very important to understand . . .he (Adams) put honesty first, ahead of wisdom,” McCullough said. “Honesty.”
The redoubtable McCullough, a vigorous 84, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, didn’t utter the name Donald Trump. He didn’t need to.
The audience also applauded warmly when he said, again without the name, “None of our great presidents has ever been one who didn’t have any interest in history.”
Trump proudly says he doesn’t read books – history, biographies of presidents or anything else – because he’s so busy. Besides, his brain is so big he doesn’t need to read. He reaches the right decisions because he has a lot of common sense, he says.
With the help of ghostwriters, Trump has published about 10 books, mostly about his business acumen and success.
Not every president has been an intellectual, and some readers and deep thinkers in the White House have been accused of dithering instead of acting. During the campaign, McCullough was among historians who warned voters that the vulgarian Trump was a clown, unsuited for the job.
Pulling back from direct criticism of the sitting president, McCullough now reminds people of the strain of intellectual curiosity that has run through the White House:
John Quincy Adams spoke many languages and may have had the highest IQ of any president. Jefferson was a genius in many fields. The brilliant Theodore Roosevelt wrote many books, including a definitive history of the Naval War of 1812.
Woodrow Wilson was a professor of history at Princeton. Dwight Eisenhower himself wrote every word of “Crusade in Europe,” a classic about World War II, without the help of any ghostwriter.
McCullough, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for biography for “Truman,” praises Harry Truman, who lacked a college degree but loved to read, including Latin.
John F. Kennedy wrote three books of history, including “Profiles in Courage,” which is still read.
“Curiosity is what separates us from the cabbages” is one of McCullough’s favorite lines. But our educational system is letting us down.
“We are raising several generations of young Americans…who are by and large historically illiterate, and it’s not their fault,” he said. “We have to stimulate curiosity.”
McCullough’s latest book, “The American Spirit,” is a collection of speeches he’s given around the country over the years. He wrote it mindful of Trump, but it’s aimed at helping readers gain perspective.
At an immigration and naturalization ceremony at Monticello July 4, 1994, McCullough said Thomas Jefferson “was an exceedingly gifted and very great man, but like the others of that exceptional handful of politicians we call the Founding Fathers, he could also be inconsistent, contradictory, human.”
So Jefferson wasn’t perfect, but his “absolute belief in education” is part of his lasting legacy. Jefferson “said any nation that expects to be ignorant and free . . . never has been and never will be,” McCullough said.
For many of us, the start of the school year feels like New Year’s without the hangover. Fall is a time of possibilities and a second stab at resolutions.
No matter our politics, it’s time to rev up the curiosity that separates us from cabbages. What are you reading this fall?
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.