NEW YORK -- David McCullough, worried about a president he calls "a cloud" on the American horizon, knows well the consolations of history.
"We've been through much harder times than we're in now," the Pulitzer Prize-winning author told The Associated Press during a recent telephone interview. "Yes, we have had problems and have had dishonest and evil people in positions of responsibility. But we have overcome those challenges and we're often better for it."
McCullough, who turns 84 in July, had for decades been nonpartisan in his public life. He has praised Democrats (John Kennedy) and Republicans (Dwight Eisenhower) and hesitated to directly criticize a sitting president. His history of the Panama Canal, "The Path Between the Seas," was cited by members of Congress from both parties as they deliberated over the Panama Canal treaties, approved in 1977.
"When I was a witness to the great debate over the Panama Canal treaties, I saw Congress at its best," he says. "I saw people crossing party lines when they realized it was the best thing to do."
McCullough's latest book is "The American Spirit," a collection of talks he has given over the past 30 years. Known for such best-sellers as "John Adams" and "The Wright Brothers," McCullough also is one of the country's most popular speakers, in demand at colleges, historical societies and political gatherings, including a joint session of Congress in 1989.
Like so many releases this year, "The American Spirit" was conceived well before Trump's election, but takes on new meaning because of it. McCullough, speaking in 2016 at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, praises the immigrants who helped build the capitol. In a 1994 commencement address at Union College, he warns against the "purists" who shun the "empirical method." At a conference in Providence, Rhode Island, not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he disputes assertions that "everything has changed."
"But everything has not changed," he says.
McCullough works hard on his speeches, spending days or more to find the right words for a graduation or occasion for national reflection, like his 2013 address in Dallas for the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. His talks have been mini-essays on the evolution of the presidency, the Declaration of Independence, his native Pittsburgh, the role of universities in public policy or the lives of congressional leaders he thinks deserve more attention, from Florida's Claude Pepper to Robert Taft of Ohio. An official at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, Laura McCulty Stepp, says McCullough came to Washington a few weeks before his speech for research and to get a feel for the actual location.
"He spent quite a bit of time touring the site," says Stepp, the society's vice president, membership and development. "He paid a great deal of attention to detail and to making sure everything he said was accurate. He never assumed anything."
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