Daily Herald columnist Jim Slusher: How will future McCulloughs see our time?
The death this week of historian David McCullough has rekindled a line of thinking that I've dwelt on a lot recently. It follows from this question: "How will historians of three or four decades from now and beyond evaluate the Donald Trump era?"
Of course, that question could be asked regarding any president, but it is particularly intriguing to me relative to Trump because so much of his aura centers on the disparagement of traditional institutions, especially newspapers -- sometimes informally regarded as "the first draft of history."
That reference implies that what appears in newspapers and other contemporary news media are descriptions of the events -- the raw materials, if you will -- that will evolve in the public consciousness through serious reflection, additional research and analysis to define how society ultimately thinks about prominent individuals or occurrences. But it could be upended if historians were to presume those raw materials were corrupted -- or, in the vernacular of the former president, "fake news."
I have a strong interest in American history, and I've read numerous works by McCullough, ranging from well-known titles like "John Adams" and "The Wright Brothers" to less-often mentioned books like "The Greater Journey," "The Johnstown Flood" (my favorite, by the way) and more. But I never got a hint in any of these accounts of what McCullough's own political views are.
I have come to believe that biographers spend so much time getting to know their subjects intimately that they tend to render generally favorable portraits of their subjects, try though they might to stand apart from them (see, for example, John Meacham's definitive biography of a deeply flawed human being "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House"), and I'm sure McCullough faced some similar challenges. (Notably, for example, he is said to have glossed over the controversy over the decision to drop two nuclear bombs in his highly regarded biography of Harry Truman, which I have not read.)
How will men and women like him portray the time in which we are living now? Are our politics and our reporting on them so contaminated now that future writers won't have trustworthy sources to evaluate as they seek to portray our times? How will they use the materials published, broadcast and tweeted today to formulate accurate pictures of our time? How, specifically, will they form impartial views of Donald Trump based on a media environment of his day that he reviles as unreliable? Will they view it similarly? Will historians be as divided in assessing the 45th president as Americans and our media are today?
These are problems all historians must deal with, to be sure. Anyone relying on the newspapers of his day to form an opinion of Thomas Jefferson, for instance, could be hopelessly misled. And, of course, just as even the most devotedly objective news media have the affliction of being produced by imperfect humans, historians, too, are and will be influenced by their experiences, loyalties and biases. Nor, is it correct to assume that history has one verdict of past events -- there are some 15,000 books on Abraham Lincoln, for instance, and they can't all represent some form of hero worship. As for the aforementioned Harry Truman, there are countless reliable histories offering critical as well as supportive portrayals of his decision to use the bomb.
Still, I regret that I won't be around to read a history of the Trump era produced in 2050 or '60 or beyond. And I'm really sorry David McCullough won't be around to write it.