WASHINGTON – David McCullough is trying to stage an intervention with Congress.
The renowned historian’s latest book, The American Spirit, a collection of speeches he has delivered over the last three decades, begins with his 1989 address to a joint session of Congress and ends with 2016 remarks in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, both of which included calls for lawmakers to live up to the history of the building.
This week, his publisher, Simon & Schuster, is delivering the book to every member of the House and Senate with an inscription letting them know they “can enact change and help close the gap to common ground.”
If they still do not get the message, McCullough is happy to be more clear: Stand up to President Trump.
“I recommend that people in public office stand up and speak out, and particularly in the halls of the great Congress of the United States, that absolute acropolis that we’ve created on Capitol Hill,” McCullough said in a 40-minute interview this week.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the biographies Truman and John Adams is most definitely not a fan of Trump’s presidency. He believes the former reality-television star and real-estate mogul is devaluing the dignity of the Oval Office through his actions and misstatements about basic facts.
“It’s as if we put someone in the pilot seat who’s never flown a plane and who doesn’t seem to know where we’re on our way to, and who frequently tells us either inaccurate or grossly misleading information about how the flight is going,” he said. “Irresponsible words matter, and it cannot be permitted to go on.”
But the historian is in some ways more upset with members of Congress, particularly Republicans, for not forcefully reining in their president. There is precedent for a greater show of leadership, in his view: a speech delivered in 1950 by then-Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, which happens to be the final subject of his new book.
Smith spoke out against Joseph McCarthy, the senator from Wisconsin whose attempt to root out communists had gripped the entire nation. Smith accused her fellow Republican of “character assassination.”
In an address that the Senate Historical Office now calls “A Declaration of Conscience,” Chase spoke for 15 minutes, with McCarthy looking on, of the Senate’s debasement to “a forum of hate.”
“Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” she said. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.” She asked her fellow Republicans not to ride to political victory on the “Four Horsemen of Calumny – Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
McCullough said he appreciated the tenor of a recent speech on the Senate floor by Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona denouncing Trump with a simple “enough.” But the author noted that it was a retirement announcement – and that Flake was “not going to stay for consequences.”
“She wasn’t about to retire. She was a freshman,” McCullough recalled of Smith, who would go on to serve 24 years in the Senate. “It wasn’t supposedly her turn to speak out, and she spoke out against Joe McCarthy in a way nobody had, and it changed the course of history.”
Like many of Trump’s critics, McCullough struggles with the question of just what can be done beyond strong denunciations that so far appear to have little effect on the president. But he believes that showing outrage could help: “Stand up, show courage, show what you stand for, what are your principles, what do you believe?”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.) is a fan of McCullough’s work. This week, he helped distribute some copies of The American Spirit to other senators as a board member of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. A former history professor himself, Blunt thinks McCullough’s previous subjects would find today’s political environment quite familiar, particularly John Adams, whose loss to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 ranks among the most bitter presidential elections ever.
“That was probably the most analogous time to now, what people say about each other,” Blunt said. “The newspapers were clearly Republican or Federalist, they made no bones about it. It was like MSNBC and Fox everyday, and you got the paper you wanted to read.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), who now holds Smith’s seat and considers her an idol, considered taking Flake’s route and that of Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), another fierce Trump critic not seeking reelection next year. But Collins said the weight of the issues in Washington led to her decision to stay in the Senate rather than run for governor.
“Some people feel that they can be more effective in bringing about change from the outside, and I respect that view, but I don’t share it,” she said.
Collins has not been as outspoken in her Trump criticism, but she has done so with her votes, notably in opposing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in July.
McCullough views faint criticism of Trump from Republicans as evidence of a larger regression of the entire Congress over the past few decades. The paralyzing partisanship that has set in, he believes, suppresses the instinct to speak out on principle if it means crossing a member of one’s own party. It also makes it vastly more difficult for the body to function – to pass laws and run the government.
“As an institution in the aggregate and the whole, it is bad,” he said, “because we’ve lost the capacity to bridge the divide between political parties with friendship and respect.”
In the late 1970s, after writing a book about the Panama Canal, McCullough moved to Washington to essentially lobby on behalf of the Panama Canal Treaty, which faced fierce criticism. He considers Howard Baker, the Republican leader at the time, a hero for supporting the treaty and rounding up the votes for it.
It’s a good thing that McCullough’s next book does not involve Washington, given his feelings for the current state of its institutions. He’s writing about Ohio and its unique role in history, including its early days as part of the Northwest Ordinance. Its founders demanded three guarantees: freedom of religion, free education and no slavery.
“I’ve always wanted to write a book about people you’ve never heard of, who did something noble, who did something admirable,” he said.
That does not meant that he has entirely given up on today’s leaders. One reason, perhaps, stems from how much time he has spent studying the history made on Capitol Hill. “I still have faith in Congress, as strange as that may sound in this moment,” he said.
In 2016, while accepting the Freedom Award from the Capitol Historical Society, McCullough closed out a speech by pointing to the statue of Clio, the Greek muse of history. He was standing in Statuary Hall, which served as the first chamber for the House. Clio sits atop an ornate clock that was in the chamber then, helping mark time but also marking history.
“What you say today will be remembered and recalled, and will count for or against you in the future, in what is called history,” McCullough said in the interview. “She’s saying how do you want to go down in the history of our country, what kind of record do you want to leave? And I think that’s something that everyone who serves in Congress ought to always have in mind.”