Pop Presidential Biographer Shakes Up American Pantheon

Pop Presidential Biographer Shakes Up American Pantheon John Adams , by David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, 751 pages, $35.

Last November, in the waning months of the Clinton administration, an unfamiliar man approached the White House claiming to be the President of the United States. He was wearing a powdered wig and insisted that it was the year 1800, but still he was granted entry and allowed to roam the complex at will, unguarded. A dangerous security lapse? A creative pardon-seeker’s ruse? No, just an actor impersonating John Adams, hired to liven up the 200th anniversary of the White House.

Of all the giants of early American history, Adams might be the easiest to impersonate, for the simple reason that few of us remember what he looked like. That will change soon. With this ambitious biography, his first since Truman (1992), David McCullough is sure to reconfigure the American pantheon one more time. Truman, readers will recall, launched an unabashed revival: Suddenly, liberals and conservatives were wild about Harry (both camps hated him in his prime). To this day, the Truman Show is going strong. The Man from Independence is routinely included in the “great” or “near-great” categories, a fact that would have sent Eleanor Roosevelt running for the smelling salts, and still drives Gore Vidal crazy.

David McCullough is our most venerable historical commentator. He’s not an academic, though he holds 27 honorary degrees. He personifies a centrist approach to American history that mixes highbrow themes with popular formats-think Ken Burns with good hair. Telegenic looks and soothing pipes make Mr. McCullough a natural for TV, and he has not squandered the opportunity. From 1988 until recently, Mr. McCullough hosted The American Experience on PBS, and he has narrated countless other projects, including his own popular books on tape. In so doing, he has become something unique-the literal voice of history to most Americans.

In 1993, Mr. McCullough came across Joseph Ellis’ excellent biography, Passionate Sage, and ruminated on a new project on the friendship between Adams and Jefferson-the greatest epistolary relationship in American history. In so doing, he was anticipating a mildly disturbing trend in which 20th-century Presidential biographers lurch backward in time as they troll for new material (TV historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss are doing Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt biographer H.W. Brands just wrote on Franklin). What’s next, Edmund Morris’ Dutch Too: An Intimate Portrait of Peter Stuyvesant?

Despite his popularity, Mr. McCullough is a serious researcher. And as he pored over the manuscripts, he made two discoveries, both of which are important, and one of which he trumpets. First, he fell in love with John Adams. It is easy to see why. The Adams papers are a historian’s dream, their 608 spools of microfilm coiling across five miles, candidly unveiling an extraordinary family’s innermost doubts and demons as its members proceed from one triumph to the next. And Adams himself, for all his crankiness, suits Mr. McCullough’s fondness for contrarians. He’s Truman in knee breeches-a hard worker, overshadowed by glamorous personalities, who cusses out his enemies and doggedly follows his homespun instincts to do what he thinks right.

Second, Mr. McCullough fell out of love with Thomas Jefferson, who has a stench about him these days. It’s not just the unpleasant Sally Hemings business. Mr. McCullough also discovered that Jefferson, for all his greatness, was a vacillating, deceptive politician whose luster dims when you peek into the nooks and crannies of his career. Mr. McCullough is too courtly to broadcast the fact that he dumped Jefferson, but his disappointment is noteworthy and comes through in more than a few sections of the book. Famously, Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of independence, and Adams’ last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Jefferson still survives, but his reputation will not be enhanced by David McCullough’s new book.

There’s plenty in the life of John Adams to sustain a long biography. It’s a great story, filled with all the ingredients of a sizzling historical novel. Our hero prevails time and again against incalculable odds. As “the Atlas of Independence,” Adams argued more forcefully than anyone else for the almost unspeakable act of separating from England, knowing he would be hanged if the weak American army failed to hold off the redcoats. As envoy to Europe, he secured independence with crucial loans and recognition, though he was temperamentally unsuited to the subtleties of diplomacy and was undercut by his fellow Americans, including Ben Franklin. As the first Vice President, he buttressed a fragile government with his loyalty to Washington and his imperviousness to bitter partisan attack (members of Congress lampooned him as “His Rotundity,” and one wrote a poem attacking “Daddy Vice” for carrying an “ass-load” of pride). As President, he navigated the lethal shoals of extremism dividing Jefferson and Hamilton and preserved American neutrality between France and England. And as ex-President, he retired to his modest home (which he called Montezillo, to spoof Jefferson), where he achieved intellectual elegance as a great letter-writer and interpreter of the history he himself had created.

It’s also a love story. Mr. McCullough was captivated early on by the correspondence between Adams and his wife, Abigail, and draws heavily on it. Adams began writing to “Miss Adorable” when they were courting, and throughout his life she served as his close political confidante, even during the long years when they were separated by the Atlantic. Through their correspondence, we get all the daily anxieties that accompanied the great deeds. There is simply nothing like it for any other founder. Abigail wrote, “[W]hen he is wounded, I bleed.”

Finally, it’s a book about family, in the great tradition of Dynasty and Dallas. Like Roosevelts and Kennedys, Corleones and Sopranos, the Adamses offered each other a protective cocoon that made everything else possible, even when they wanted to throttle each other. During one of his unhappy periods abroad, Adams wrote, “I make a little America of my own family.” This book may pick up mileage because of the historical rhyme that a Presidential son is again occupying the White House, and the Bushes will encourage the comparison. But Mr. McCullough’s portrait of John Quincy Adams as a sensitive, preternaturally intelligent offshoot who spends far too much time thinking about foreign policy pokes a few holes in that theory. This is not exactly a portrait of the W. as a young man.

Mr. McCullough’s great strength is his accessibility, but it can also pose problems. At times, his writing has a lapidary quality, and it’s difficult to escape the strange feeling that you’re hearing his voice reading every word, as if the book were already blaring from the tape decks of a million minivans. In its breezy, novelistic tone, it resembles the popular histories that were written two generations ago, like Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia or Carl Van Doren’s Benjamin Franklin. Mr. McCullough lacks a deep interest in what used to be called the life of the mind, and skips quickly over Adams’ writings and the intellectual underpinnings that drove his relentless push toward independence. He could probe more deeply into character flaws, including Adams’ emotional distance, even from the wife and children he loved.

But that would mean a very different book, with less popularity, and therefore less impact. To his credit, Mr. McCullough succeeds in conveying a great deal of the drama of the Revolution and early Republic -drama that we too often forget as we cast a bored glance at the familiar portraits of the founders, all blending together in powdered pomposity. Readers will learn how many petty jealousies simmered alongside the noble gestures. They will be moved especially by Mr. McCullough’s ability to paint a vivid scene. The description of the first meeting between George III and Adams is wonderful, as the former adversaries trembled to find the right words to convey their new situation as something like equals. Quite a few other details are unforgettable: Franklin’s French paramour wiping up her dog’s urine with her chemise; Jefferson and Adams on holiday in England, scraping wood chips off Shakespeare’s chair like besotted tourists; and, of course, the day Adams and Jefferson met their Creator, and America mourned and exulted in their exquisite timing.

If Mr. McCullough succeeds in boosting Adams to a higher level in the founders’ circle, it will be entirely in keeping with his iconoclastic career and his particular fondness for the battle-scarred underdog. Adams, with his bilious temper, his clumsy dancing and his unpresidential appearance, fits the mold perfectly. Just last week, the decision of the Kennedy Library to honor Gerald Ford for pardoning Nixon was universally praised. One of the authors of that proposal was David McCullough, who lobbied for Mr. Ford with Caroline Kennedy.

These historians’ pirouettes have consequences, especially in Washington, where war monuments can quickly turn into battlefields. While Bob Barr, whose very presence in Congress justifies Adams’ skepticism toward Jeffersonian idealism, clamors for more and gaudier monuments to Ronald Reagan, Mr. McCullough is quietly building bipartisan support for a John Adams monument. When asked about the impact of the French Revolution, Chou En-lai famously replied, “It’s too soon to tell.” If Mr. McCullough’s book stimulates the debate it should about the relative merits of the founding fathers, it may prove, yet again, that the American Revolution is far from finished.

Ted Widmer is the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, and the co-author, with Alan Brinkley, of Campaigns: A Century of Presidential Races (Dorling Kindersley).