David McCullough: An Author and Historian Like No Other

Photo credit: Vineyard Gazette

Did you know that if not for the fog, George Washington and his troops may have been captured by the British in 1776? Where would that have put the future of 13 colonies?

That is one of many anecdotes uncovered by David McCullough, one of America’s greatest historians and authors, in my favorite McCullough book, 1776. Today, I feel like I have lost a friend. McCullough died Sunday (August 7) at 89.

While I traveled through his books, he was my guide. I imagined each word through his gentle voice that enthralled millions who listened to his work as a television and motion picture narrator.

His non-fiction works read like novels. He immersed himself in research that uncovered stories that other books about his subjects missed. Reading about history has never been so entertaining and informative.

He won a pair of Pulitzers and more awards than I can list here. I read his books before I started this blog; thus there are no McCullough book reviews on Books and My Backpack.

Another of my favorites was The Path Between the Seas, which chronicled the building of the Panama Canal. And if you think you know about the Wright Brothers, you don’t, unless you have read his book about their journey into the sky. Truman and John Adams set a high standard for biographies about American presidents. There are many more great stories that began on sheets of paper in his manual Royal Standard typewriter.

McCullough died just two months after the death of his wife, Rosalee Barnes, who was his editor.

What is your favorite McCullough book?

Carl Bernstein: An Improbable Beginning

You are a newsroom manager at the Washington Post, interviewing a man barely in his 20s who yearns to write news stories for your paper.

The nervous youth fidgets as you review his background.

College dropout, not just once, but several times. Started in the business as a paper boy when he was 12. Copy boy (thanks to his father getting him an interview) at your rival paper, the Washington Evening Star. Dictation staffer at the Star. Brief stint as a reporter at the Star, later demoted because he had no college degree.

You also know that the kid, as a prank, invented an obituary so convincing that the Post published it as the lead obit for the day.

What you don’t know is the young man who you now look in the eye will blaze a path in journalism that will make him one of America’s greatest newspaper journalists of the 20th century. He will team with Bob Woodward at the Post to write a series of stories exposing a White House scandal leading to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Bernstein and Woodward will write two of the most compelling political books of the 20th Century, All the President’s Men and The Final Days.

In Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom, Carl Bernstein recreates his youthful years at the Star in a book that will appeal to journalists and just about everyone interested in a compelling life adventure story through the 1960s and early 1970s. Balancing high school and college classes with full-time newspaper work, Bernstein began as a copy boy, snapping to attention each time an editor yelled, “Copy!” His job included a long list of mostly low-status tasks critical to publishing a newspaper. His next position was at the phone bank, taking dictation from reporters in the field decades before wireless technology.

Bernstein was an opportunist and editors soon sent him into the field to observe events and type summaries for reporters to add to their stories. He witnessed the Kennedy inaugural parade, presidential press conferences, civil rights demonstrations and much more, with a keen eye and ear to anecdotes that enriched the Post’s reports. He was bitten by the bug that causes some newspaper reporters and editors to say they “bleed black.” The kid just didn’t see the point of college classes.

Like Bernstein, I was a paper boy and later had a short stint as a copy boy at a medium-sized Southern California newspaper (the Oxnard Press-Courier). I worked my way into the sports department at 15, taking dictation from coaches about their teams’ games. Like Bernstein, my typing class paid dividends and my typing speed impressed my bosses. Within months, my byline appeared above stories about local high school sports. I soon added my own biweekly sports column to my job that morphed into full-time position during my senior year in high school.

Unlike Bernstein, I did not live next door to a U.S. senator and my parents were not civil rights activists. And even a deep love of newspaper work could not derail me from my goal to be the first college graduate in my family history. But I continued to bleed black, staying in journalism during much of my college and 31-year teaching career.

Like Bernstein, I authored books, two distance trekking adventure stories. Unlike Bernstein, my work met modest success, falling short of his mark by thousands (millions?) of copies. Like Bernstein, my first newspaper would not survive the decline of the world of black ink and newsprint.

Chasing History leaves off when Bernstein begins his career at the Washington Post. I was sad to see it end even though I knew the rest of his story. Or maybe it was just hard to see him go, leaving a youthful life that captivated me and closely paralleled many moments of my own beginnings in newspapers.

Perhaps my melancholy was rooted in the knowledge that the jobs that gave Bernstein and me our beginnings in newspapers no longer exist in the digital world. I remain hopeful, though, that kids like Carl Bernstein are out there, itching to strengthen democracy through their work in black ink.