Presidential biographer gets presidential medal
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WASHINGTON -- At first glance, the East Room of the White House is a stirring example of presidential power and opulence: three Bohemian cut-glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, classical pilasters line the walls, and a full-length portrait of George Washington gestures gracefully toward visitors.
But David McCullough, one of the most celebrated biographers of American presidents, looks beyond the facade, seeing two centuries of rich history.
"That's where Abigail Adams would bring her wash out to dry," he said.
Yesterday, it was where Mr. McCullough and nine others received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest award for a civilian and a career-crowning achievement for the Point Breeze native and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
"In person and on the printed page, David McCullough shares the lessons of history with enthusiasm and insight," President Bush said during the ceremony. "The nation owes a debt of gratitude to a fine author and a fine man."
Mr. McCullough, 73, beamed as the president fastened the white star around his neck and his family watched from a small audience. Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush sat in the front row.
When he took his seat again, the silver-haired historian winked at a fellow awardee, blues legend B.B. King.
"There's nothing to compare to the feeling of being honored by your country," Mr. McCullough said afterward. "I've been the recipient of literary awards, honorary degrees. But there's nothing like this feeling. It's thrilling. It's humbling."
Regarding Mr. King, the president said: "One of America's unique gifts to the world is a music called the blues. And in that music, two names are paramount -- B.B. King and his guitar, Lucille."
The world-renowned, 81-year-old musician-vocalist dubbed his instrument by that endearing name in the 1950s, and since then, there have been many incarnations of his custom-made Gibson ES-355, but just one, inimitable Riley "Blues Boy" King, a model for superstars from Eric Clapton to U2's Bono.
This year's other medal recipients were Paul Johnson, a conservative British historian; Natan Sharansky, Russian rights advocate and author of "The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror," the late Negro League baseball star John "Buck" O'Neil, geneticist Joshua Lederberg, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, New York Times columnist William Safire, literacy advocate Ruth Johnson Colvin, and Xavier University President Norman C. Francis.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1933, Mr. McCullough attended Linden Avenue Grade School and Shady Side Academy, and his father and grandfather were the founders of the McCullough Electric Co. He's still friendly with his history teacher from the academy, Walter Jones.
In 1961, Mr. McCullough took a job with the U.S. Information Agency in an office near the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Through his work there, he came across pictures in the Library of Congress from a huge flood that occurred in his home state. The pictures peaked his interest. His first book, "The Johnstown Flood," came out in 1968.
Since then, Mr. McCullough has written histories of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal and three hugely popular presidential biographies. His books on Harry Truman and John Adams both won Pulitzer Prizes.
Last year, his most recent work, "1776," had a first printing of 1.25 million copies, well beyond the run of a typical history book.
Mr. McCullough has been recognized for his engaging narrative style and his detailed portrayal of the daunting challenges that confronted, and nearly defeated, some of America's greatest leaders. His recent works have sparked a renewed public interest in the country's early years.
"Solid, unpretentious narrative history like '1776' satisfies the healthy human thirst for a ripping good story," Washington Post columnist George F. Will wrote last year. "McCullough's two themes in '1776' are that things could have turned out very differently, and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations."
Indeed, the book depicts George Washington as a sometimes-bumbling commander who faced a string of early defeats, seeming less like a founding father and more like the 22-year-old who blundered through the woods of Western Pennsylvania two decades earlier, as an inexperienced British officer in the French and Indian War.
During his career, Mr. McCullough has known six presidents and has visited the White House more times than he can remember. His first trip came in 1977, when he advised then-President Jimmy Carter on the future status of the Panama Canal. He has since returned to give lectures and attend dinners.
Yesterday held a special significance. Mr. Truman, the subject of Mr. McCullough's 1993 book, created the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the end of the Second World War.
Mr. Bush said during the ceremony: "For those who question the importance of history, David likes to quote Harry Truman, who said, 'The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.' "
As the audience applauded for Mr. McCullough, the president leaned toward him and whispered in his ear, "You really deserve this."
Following a brief reception, Mr. McCullough strolled with a few of his five children and his wife, Rosalee, through Lafayette Square, the small park across from the White House. Unlike some of the other awardees, Mr. McCullough continued to wear his medal.
"This is the big one -- the occasion, the pomp, the circumstance," said his son, David Jr., 48. "We're very proud of him."
First Published December 16, 2006 12:00 am