David McCullough Painting with Words The Dazzler

David McCullough & The Dazzler

Just the other day, as part of a “getting to know you” exercise at work, I was asked to name my favorite author, and without hesitation, I wrote “David McCullough.” There is not a book of his I missed in his long-tenured career, and rare is the video clip or narration that I have not sought out. 

McCullough’s work was a fixture in my life from around the age of nine or ten. It was at this time that I began to imbibe in heavy doses episodes of his programs for Smithsonian and PBS’ American Experience, as well as his narrations for Ken Burns

On lazy Fridays when, in his words, he’d “just about given up,” Mr. Wiegers, my fifth and sixth grade history teacher, would show episodes of McCullough’s program. While my classmates snoozed at their desks, I sat rapt as McCullough visited the 7 Wonders, or traipsed the grounds of Monticello. I saw his common way of explaining his surroundings as germane to my own understanding of the world around me: at once plainly historic and ripe with future’s potential.

A result of my early fandom and at the behest of my father, also a McCullough fan, I made a point to endure the 800-page tome Truman at the age of 11. Living in Missouri, raised by natives of Missouri and Illinois, I came to view Truman’s story as an aspirational but relatable one, and McCullough’s book has been credited with changing the population’s perception of ol’ Harry. Here was a one-time haberdasher who rose through the American political machine to its highest levels simply by being good.

Hard work and persistence were hallmarks of Truman’s life from boyhood all the way through his time in the Oval Office, a position thrust upon him in the midst of some of our country’s most trying times. For those wishing to delve deeper into McCullough’s Truman, it’s worth seeking out this hourlong presentation on C-SPAN from 1992 at the National Press Club, as well as his interview from the same time period on C-Span’s Booknotes.

In high school, my father took me to see McCullough speak at a local university, and later while hosting a morning radio program at my college, I was granted thirty minutes with the man. As transfixed as I was by his then most recent offering, John Adams, I found myself asking him questions I’d had since first discovering his work as a TV host. 

It was at this time that I first learned of “The Dazzler,” a letter penned by the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dillon Ripley that was printed with calligraphy on parchment and acted as a kind of free pass allowing the Smithsonian to film on the grounds of some of the world’s rarest sights. 

It was several years later, while living in Brooklyn that I encountered Painting with Words, a short HBO documentary meant to accompany the release of the miniseries adaptation of John Adams. In the documentary, McCullough recounts the story of the Dazzler in much the same way he had on my radio program, (minute 24 in Painting with Words).

For years, I’ve regaled all who will listen about the virtue of having something like the Dazzler in your life, and countlessly, I’ve forged versions of the Dazzler for myself and others with the hopes that access be granted to that which should rightly have been granted. For a time, I even posed as my own assistant in order to gain access to certain businesses or people that would’ve been inaccessible to little, ol’ me without appearing as more important than I am. It’s an important reminder that we’re all in this together, and the great subjects covered by Smithsonian World are testament to that. Were it not for the Dazzler, can you imagine how lifeless the stories McCullough and company would have appeared?

So, in light of his recent passing, as others suggest rediscovering the great writings of David McCullough, might I suggest that yet another legacy be crafted in his honor, that of the Dazzler. When you find a barrier to entry, do as McCullough and I have done: devise your own Dazzler.

David McCullough has Died (NPR)

David McCullough’s New York Times Obituary

“Remembering David McCullough” in The Atlantic