Oral. History.

Book Review: Historian David McCullough's new collection of speeches offers lessons for historians—and for speechwriters.

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough.  Simon and Schuster, 171 pages, $25.00.

Eminent historian David McCullough, who writes thick books about great Americans, has produced a slim collection of 15 speeches, culled from the many he has given over the past 25 years.  

What does a professional historian talk about when he speaks in public?  History, of course: what it is, why it matters and how we as a nation have so improvidently neglected the study of it.

There is abundant evidence of the extent to which Americans, particularly the young, are ignorant of our country’s story.  But it is still dispiriting to read Mr. McCullough’s account of a young lady, a student at what he calls a “good college” in Missouri, coming up to him to thank him for speaking on her campus because “until now I never understood that the original thirteen colonies were all on the East Coast.”

Even more dispiriting is to read of the occasion when Mr. McCullough taught a seminar for 25 students at an Ivy League college—all seniors, all history majors and all honor students.  As an opening gambit, he asked them how many knew who George C. Marshall was.  After a long silence, once student ventured timidly, “Did he maybe have something to do with the Marshall Plan?”

The importance of knowing history is a leitmotif that runs through all 15 speeches.  This is obviously a book that can be enjoyed for its own sake, but does it have any useful lessons for speechwriters?

Several, in my opinion.  

First, just in case we haven’t learned this by now, we should tell good stories.  History is story, says Mr. McCullough, and good stories are the key to making history—and speeches—interesting to audiences.

Mr. McCullough’s book contains some gems.  One of my favorites tells how President Teddy Roosevelt decided to send America’s Great White Fleet on a goodwill tour around the world.  When he was told that Congress would balk at the expense, TR replied that he had sufficient funds to send the ships halfway.  Then it would be up to Congress to finance their return.

Second, Mr. McCullough shows us how to marshal masses of data in a manner that will engage and entertain listeners, not lull them to sleep.  In a speech commemorating the 250th birthday of the Marquis de Lafayette he says that “more American history has unfolded in France than in any country other than our own.”  At first, I had doubts about that.  But when Mr. McCullough proceeded to enumerate America’s many French connections—from the diplomatic exploits of Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at the French court in the 18th Century to the glittering roster of American expats in Paris in the 20th, from the Louisiana Purchase to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, from L’Enfant’s master plan for the city of Washington to the gift of the Statue of Liberty, from French fries to An American in Paris and, above all, from the contribution that our French allies made to winning our independence at the Battle of Yorktown to 137,000 Americans dead on French battlefields in two world wars—he made good his claim in vivid and compelling terms.

The third speechwriter takeaway from this collection of speeches is this: Cultivate a sly wit; be able to make an audience laugh by taking them unawares.  For example, in a speech extolling the virtues of Founding Father Benjamin Rush, Mr. McCullough ticks off an impressive list of this great man’s achievements.  Rush was a doctor, a writer, an academic and a politician. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a physician with Washington’s army.  He established the first free dispensary in America.  He founded Pennsylvania’s first anti-slavery society.  He championed votes for women, prison reform, and the abolition of capital punishment.  He published the first chemistry textbook in America and what may have been the nation’s first guide to the game of golf.  His complete writings, on a myriad of subjects, fill 45 volumes in the Pennsylvania Historical Society Library.

Maintaining his poker face, Mr. McCullough concludes: “He was also a vociferous champion of abstinence from hard or spiritous liquors—but then, no one’s perfect.”

Mr. McCullough has one more lesson for speechwriters: Always be truthful“History,“ he says, “reminds us that nothing counterfeit has any staying power, an observation, incidentally, made by Cicero about 60 B.C.”

Study history.

— Hal Gordon

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