Last Tuesday night, I attended a lecture on the Constitution by David McCullough at the Capitol Visitors Center. (He’s the one on the right in the photo.) The event was sponsored by The Constitutional Sources Project, an online site that aims to make available all the relevant information about the drafting and ratification of the Constitution and amendments. It is the brainchild of the redoubtable and impressive Lorianne Updike Toler (in the center, above).
I enjoyed McCullough’s talk — with that voice, he could read a menu and be entertaining — but the highlights were outside his official remarks.
Most fun was the chance to chat with him ahead of time. As the photo suggests, we became animated (well, I became animated) over the discovery that we share an enthusiasm for Elmore Leonard‘s novels. We reached consensus that Leonard distilled the key to good writing when he counseled, “Leave out the parts that people skip.”
But the question period was also interesting. McCullough became quite passionate about the deplorable state of history education in our schools. He said that today’s seniors at elite colleges could not pass the American history tests that were given to Harry Truman in the eighth grade in Independence, MO.
Equally interesting was an observation by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont (there were at least a half-dozen senators in the crowd): That during the debate on the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977, every senator had on his desk a copy of McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, about the building of the canal. Pretty gratifying for a writer.
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