After all we’ve done, think how much more we can do

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In his keynote address at the PBS Annual Meeting, June 22, 1997, David McCullough celebrated the value of history, the joy of collaboration in making films and both the achievements and promise of public TV. McCullough, a celebrated historian whose biography of President Truman won a Pulitzer Prize, has narrated many documentaries, including Ken Burns’ The Civil War and hosted the PBS series American Experience for 10 years.

Did you know that if you were a flea, you could jump as high as Rockefeller Center? And, furthermore, you could do it 30,000 times without stopping?

McCullough speaking at the PBS Annual Meeting, 1997

McCullough at the PBS Annual Meeting, 1997

I learned that from Miriam Rothschild, who is the world’s leading expert on fleas. She mentioned it as we were sitting on bales of hay in a field at her family’s old estate north of London that was once Polebrook Field, during World War II. It’s the place where the B-17 bombers took off on their raids against Germany. Yes, she is one of the Rothschilds, but she is also a world-renowned scientist. She was once part of the Bletchley Group, which cracked the German code, and she remains one of the most fascinating human beings imaginable.

I got to meet her because I was then the host for the Smithsonian World series, my first full-time role in public television. I had worked with Ken Burns on several films before that, but this was my first chance to be involved with a full production and on a regular schedule. The very creative, spirited executive producer was Martin Carr and I’ll never forget when Martin and I first met for lunch to talk about the possibilities in the project — the chance to bring the wonders of the Smithsonian to television. At one point he said, “Think how much we’re going to learn.”

And so it’s been, with his series and for ten years now with executive producers Judy Crichton and Margaret Drain on The American Experience. It has been a continuing adventure for me, and I hope for the audiences who have seen the programs.

With Smithsonian World, we traveled much of the world. We went 2,000 feet below ground, and out under Lake Erie, to film a proton decay experiment. We were at the top of Mt. Hopkins in Arizona, to do a piece on the multiple-mirror telescope. We filmed in the so-called Tower of the Winds at the Vatican, where a hole in the wall casts a beam of light on a calendar laid out on the tile floor, which determined long ago the calendar we live by. Same hole, same floor, same sun. We filmed in England, Scotland, in the Galapagos, Egypt, Mexico. Those were mainly, if you will, geographic adventures.

In The American Experience, we’ve been moving about in time, in our own story as a nation.

We all hear and read a great deal about how wealthy we are as a nation. We’re told our productivity is ahead of everybody else, that more of our people are educated than any other population, that we live longer, have better retirement funds.

But I wonder how often we stop to realize — and appreciate — how rich we are in story.

The privilege of being able to tell the story of our country for a large television audience is so rare, and so full of possibilities, and such a responsibility, an honor beyond anything any of us who work on the series can possibly express.

I’ve had the chance to work with the best documentary filmmakers of our time and in many cases on their best work: David Grubin’s “LBJ,” Charles Guggenheim’s “D-Day,” Tom Lennon’s “Battle of the Bulge,” Austin Hoyt’s “Carnegie,” Ric Burns’ “The Donner Party.”

I’ve also had the chance to work with people who are doing stories about less well-known events and figures: Ed Gray and Janet Graham’s marvelous “Orphan Trains,” a fine example of film-making that resulted in genuine historic discovery, scholarly groundbreaking.

There was Sam Pollard and Joyce Vaughn’s powerful “Going Back to T-Town,” about the race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma — again an example of first-rate scholarship, investigation, interpretation. The interviews done for our films, the research in film archives and still photograph collections, have again and again turned up important new history, things that have not been said or seen before.

I thought I knew more about the Johnstown Flood than anybody alive — I’d spent three years researching and writing my book about the flood — but when Charles and Grace Guggenheim made their film on the same story, they discovered an extraordinary set of photographs that no one knew existed. They were all of life at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club — the summer colony in the mountains above Johnstown, built beside the dam and lake that caused the disaster — and of greatest value in telling the story.

Carl Charlson, with whom I worked on Smithsonian World, and with whom I later did a Nova hour about the Panama Canal, produced a film for The American Experience about the murder of the 19th century architect Stanford White, “Murder of the Century,” which I think tells that story better than it’s ever been told in any form.

The pleasure, the stimulation of working with so many very talented people, is what I like best about having a role in public television.

It’s nice, of course, to have people recognize you on the street or in airports. When it happens I sometimes wonder, Do you know me because of The American Experience? Or is it because of my books? Not long ago my wife Rosalee and I pulled up in a rented car to the front of a hotel in Philadelphia and the doorman, a strapping, handsome fellow, opened the door for Rosalee. I popped the button for the trunk, for the bags, and got out on my side. And as I walked around to the back, he looked up and with a big smile said, “Oh, Mr. McCullough! Welcome to Philadelphia! It’s wonderful to have you here!”

And I said, “Thank you, but if I may ask, how do you know who I am?”

He said, “Oh, the tag on your suitcase.”

Most people who watch television have little idea how hard those in television work. I’m talking about the crews — how hard they work, how good they are at what they do. When those credits roll — and by the way, they roll much too fast — every name is someone who took part in a way that mattered, who cared about the final production. It’s working with people with that kind of attitude that I like best. To work with cameramen like Bob Elfstrom and Greg Andracke, or with Larry LeCain who films the introductions I do for The American Experience. Sound people like Bob McCausland or Roger Phenix. And great editors, like Sandy Bradley, Geoff Bartz, and Sam Pollard.

Attitude is everything. One of the best people I know is Fred Rogers, who as I expect many of you know, is both a trained child psychologist and an ordained minister. As Fred often says, he is the protege of the distinguished child psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, the late Margaret McFarland. She liked to say that in teaching what counts above all is the attitude of the teacher. And that attitude isn’t taught, it’s caught. If the teacher is enthusiastic about her material the children will be, too. If the teacher’s being kind and considerate and prompt and honest, the children get that. And its the attitude that infuses the productions I’ve had the chance to take part in that means more to me than anything else about public television. Except for the possibilities.

We’ve done a lot of good work in public television. PBS is truly “the best television on television,” as is said. But think of what we have still to do. Think of all we haven’t yet done.

One night at dinner here in Dallas I sat next to one of the wisest men I know, Stanley Marcus, creator of the great Neiman-Marcus retail empire. I said, “If you could wave a magic wand and solve just one problem in our country, improve just one aspect of American life, what would it be?”

He thought for a minute and said, “I’d try to do something about television.”

I asked, “Why that?”

“Because,” he said, “If you could do something about television, think how far you could go to solve all the other problems.”

We have that opportunity. Not just to solve problems but to open new windows. Think of the opportunity that stands waiting, for example, to create a great program about books. There is no book program on public television, which to my mind is unthinkable. And there is every guarantee that a book program would reach an immensely influential, grateful and important audience.

We have two wonderful public institutions in our country — both in place, both respected, both popular — which, if they could ever join forces, could create a whole far greater than the sum of the parts: public television and our public libraries. We must bring the public libraries to television, and we must bring public television to the libraries.

I wonder if you realize what a “franchise” the public libraries represent? There are more public libraries in the United States of America than there are McDonald’s. I wonder if you realize that public library attendance is up, that use of the public libraries is greater than it’s ever been, that there are more children taking part in public library summer reading programs nationwide than there are in the Little League.

The public libraries have so much to give to public television, and public television has so much it can do to bring others into the many worlds of the libraries who aren’t yet taking that advantage. And the great thing about the public library system, as with PBS, is that it’s free. Still, free. Free to the people for the advancement of learning, as it says across the front of the Boston Public Library.

That’s what we, all of us here are involved with: the advancement of learning. Learning of all kinds.

Robert Hughes’ new series on American art has the enormous advantage of having a point of view. We need more of that, much more. Let’s not let what we do become so homogenized, so sanded-down by the so-called experts, that our programs have no bite, no flavor or character.

There are three projects in the works that I’m personally very excited about. Two are by David Grubin: a big production about Abraham Lincoln and another on Napoleon. The third is Ric Burns’ major series on New York City, to be broadcast in the fall of 1998. Our greatest, largest, most protean, most creative city is going to be the subject of 10 hours of television. What a thrilling, defining event that can be on public television, focusing not just on the problems of the American city, but on what gives a city life, what it is about a great city that we must understand and appreciate if we’re to have a society of expanding vitality.

I think we ought to have a program on public television where the intellectual challenge is higher than anything else on the air. With all the dumbing-down of the rest of television, what a chance it offers to do something genuinely stimulating, hard to keep pace with, like the crossword puzzle in The New York Times. I don’t know what it should be, I don’t know whether it should deal with mathematics, or health, or be some kind of puzzle. But I’d like to think of it as the sort of program where, the next morning, you’d see a friend and say, “Did you watch last night? Did you get it?”

How exciting it could be. And even if it failed, we’d find out something, learn from our mistakes. We have to be ever inventive, take chances. The only people who don’t make mistakes are people who don’t do anything. We have to be careful about getting stale, about lazily, timidly falling back on formula.

We have to bring in the best talent possible. What if we went to the National Endowment for the Humanities and said, “Look, instead of sitting waiting for proposals to come in, why not go to the best playwrights in the country and say to them, ‘Is there something you would really love to do on television? And how much would you need, financially, to be able to give a year to that?'”

During World War II when General Marshall wanted a film made to explain to the troops why they were in the war, he didn’t wait for proposals to come in. He went to Frank Capra and said make a film about why we fight. “Why We Fight” was one of the most outstanding films ever funded by the United States government, and itself an event in history. Why can’t we encourage those in Washington and at the foundations who have the resources to take the initiative in that way?

Why can’t we raise questions more often on television, instead of always feeling we have to have the answers? (Notice I put that to you as a question.) That’s what great teachers do, and it’s also what great playwrights do. It’s good storytelling to create questions, mysteries, even the kind that don’t have answers.

One of the hardest things to do in writing history or making films about history is to get across the idea that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. We are so often presented the past as if everything was once on a track: this followed this, followed that, followed this. (“And you’d better get that clear, because it’s going to be on the test on Wednesday.”)

But nothing was ever preordained. It was never preordained that there be something called public television. Or that it would be any good. And it’s certainly not preordained that public television in the future is going to be even better. That’s up to us. And aren’t we fortunate in that? Who has more important, better work to do than we do?

I went to a public school in Pittsburgh called Linden Avenue School. We had a formidable principal, Miss Caroline D. Patterson. As I remember, she was at least 7 feet 2. She wore those big, black, laced shoes of ladies of the day, and when she came down the hall and you heard those footsteps, you positively froze in your chair, in abject terror. She was, as we say, a “disciplinarian.” But she also taught us that we could do more, be more than we had any idea. She was a visionary: she helped found something new and untried called WQED, the pioneering public broadcasting station.

So I feel I’ve been a part of public broadcasting since I was about six. And I feel very strongly that we in public television are involved with the education of the United States of America and we better live up to that. It doesn’t mean that education can’t be entertaining. It ought to have the very quality that Margaret McFarland talked about: attitudes aren’t taught, they’re caught. If we are excited about what we’re doing, if we care about what we’re pouring our hearts and energies and intelligence into, we needn’t worry about the audience. They will catch it, too.

I salute all of you. I applaud what you’re doing. I have had the chance to be in many of the stations in the country. I know how important what you’re doing is to the communities where you live. I know what the Montgomery, Alabama, station is doing on Alabama history. I know what’s happening in Cleveland and in Rochester, where they have the marvelous Homework Hotline.

The sky is the limit. I have about 10 things I would love to do in public television. We’ve had Alistair Cooke’s America. How about David McCullough’s England?

Do you realize that more American history took place in France than any other country in the world except our own? Two hours, five, a series on France and America, going all the way back, before we even were a country. Think of what’s happened in France, the two wars we fought there, the period when Edith Wharton and the ranks of other American writers and painters were there, when black Americans were going to France after the war, the influence of French culture on America, or the influence of France on our technology, which nobody talks about. A great book could come out of it, and grand evenings on PBS.

I would like to conclude just with one point about the future of public television and all of us who work in it: Think how much we’re going to learn.


American Experience website.

Profile of McCullough in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2001.

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