David McCullough: The famed biographer speaks to a crowd of hundreds and later discusses the library





David McCullough spoke Wednesday in Independence to help observe the Truman Library’s 50th anniversary.

McCullough’s biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams have won Pulitzer Prizes. His years introducing “American Experience” on public television, as well as his narration of the landmark Ken Burns “The Civil War” documentary, have made him perhaps the county’s most recognizable historian.

About 400 people attended his speech Wednesday, which he delivered on the library’s front steps. Before that speech, he answered a few questions.

Q. Would Harry Truman be pleased with the Truman Library today?

A. He would be immensely pleased. … He wanted this to be a classroom for democracy, and I think he would be particularly pleased with the library’s program (The White House Decision Center) of bringing students and teachers here, which is one of the best of all the presidential libraries.

Q. Your biography of Truman appeared in 1992, and it was a great success. It soon was made into an HBO movie, starring Gary Sinise in the title role. It was about the same time the Truman Library Institute began raising funds for the library’s $22 million upgrade, completed a few years ago. Do you feel your book played a role in the success of that campaign?

A. I hope it played a good part. It certainly brought the story of Harry Truman to the country. I feel my own participation in trying to raise that money helped. The Truman Library is a national treasure, but it is also an important civic and cultural amenity for Kansas City and the surrounding area.

Q. Is it wise to continue to build presidential libraries across the country?

A. I just had someone in New York say to me the other day, ‘Hasn’t this presidential library craze gotten out of hand? Do we need all these presidential libraries all over the country?’

Well, we do. I don’t believe that everything ought to be in Washington. But I also know that it is valuable for anyone trying to understand the life of a particular president to come to the place that produced that human being, where his memory is part of the story of that place. This is where (longtime Truman Library research room staff member) Liz Safly introduced me to many people in the community who were invaluable to my understanding of Harry Truman, because they knew him or worked with him or watched him as we walked down the street.

None of that would have been possible had I been in Washington working in another big government building.




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