In an earlier media age, historians didn't have to worry about matters such as voice and personal appearance. They could sound like a rusty hinge and resemble a troll and it wouldn't matter, because the only people who saw and heard them were librarians at musty archives. But thanks to PBS, history experts are now expected to appear on camera or speak behind it -- and those who are invited to do so are generally august but accessible, erudite yet succinct, and as smooth and reassuring as an aging priest in a Hollywood fable.
No current figure pulls these characteristics together more adeptly than David McCullough. Narrator of The Civil War, McCullough looks like a silver-haired anchorman and is blessed with a vocal delivery that's casually authoritative -- much like his writing style. As evidenced by Truman, a study of President Harry Truman that earned McCullough a 1993 Pulitzer, his narratives are cleanly drawn and highly readable despite the impressive scholarship behind them. Moreover, McCullough, unlike peers such as Howard Zinn, consistently casts his subjects in the best possible light.
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That's certainly true of John Adams, McCullough's latest book, in which he masterfully rehabilitates the image of the second U.S. president. His protagonist never captured the popular imagination as did other founding fathers: Washington has a monument, Jefferson has a memorial, but Adams? However, McCullough undercuts the perception that Adams was puritanical and vainglorious by playing up his accomplishments while giving virtually equal time to his wife, Abigail, who's portrayed as feisty and unexpectedly modern. If someone this fascinating loved Adams, McCullough implies, why shouldn't we all?
The intelligence and integrity detailed in John Adams can't help but make our current leaders seem like mental midgets by comparison. But McCullough's presentations are so skillful both on the page and in person that he could probably make even George W. Bush or Al Gore look good. Talk about revisionist history.