Historian David McCullough receives SMU Tower Center Medal of Freedom

David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer often called “America’s greatest historian,” received the Medal of Freedom from SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies Nov. 18. The award is given by the Tower Center every two years to an individual or individuals who have contributed to the advancement of democratic ideals and to the security, prosperity and welfare of humanity.

(l. to r.) President George W. Bush, David McCullough, First Lady Laura Bush, SMU trustee Jeanne Tower Cox and her sister, Penny Tower Cook.
(l. to r.) President George W. Bush, David McCullough, First Lady Laura Bush, SMU trustee Jeanne Tower Cox and her sister, Penny Tower Cook.

President and Mrs. George W. Bush presented the award during an event held at the home of Kelli and Gerald J. Ford. The Medal of Freedom Committee, chaired by Gene Jones, raised nearly $800,000 to benefit the Tower Center. Platinum sponsors for the event included Berry and SMU trustee Jeanne Tower Cox ’79, Kelli and SMU trustee Gerald J. Ford ’66, ’69, trustee Gene and Jerry Jones, and trustee Sarah ’83 and Ross Perot Jr. Guests at the Medal of Freedom event enjoyed a featured conversation between McCullough and his longtime friend, former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY).

The Tower Center, part of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, supports teaching and research programs in international and domestic politics with an emphasis on global studies and national security policy. It also educates undergraduates in international relations, comparative politics and political institutions.

Past Tower Center Medal of Freedom recipients include former Secretary of States James A. Baker III and Colin L. Powell; U.S. Senator John McCain; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as former First Lady Laura Bush ’68.

McCullough also spoke to the SMU campus community at a question-and-answer session earlier in the day moderated by Tower Center Scholar Sara Jendrusch in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Theater.

McCullough, who said he had “always been impressed with SMU,” quizzed his audience of SMU students, faculty and staff and expressed approval that taking history is an SMU graduation requirement. “I was stunned to learn that something like 80 percent of colleges these days don’t require it,” he said.

The historian said he has about 25 more book ideas he’d like to see in print. He credited much of his success to the editing skills of his wife, Rosalee, “my editor-in-chief for 50 years.” He spoke lovingly about the craft of writing and confessed that he still composes his work using technology now consigned to history for most people – a 1960s typewriter.

And history, McCullough said, is how you make life matter.

“It’s not a series of chronological events. It’s human,” McCullough said. “That’s why Jefferson wrote, ‘When in the course of human events …” in the Declaration of Independence.

In researching his many subjects, including U.S. presidents, McCullough said that one of the best ways to judge a person, especially a potential leader, is how he or she handles failure. “For some people who get knocked down, they whine and whimper and blame others,” McCullough said. “For others, they get up, assess what went wrong, then learn from it and move forward. How someone handles failure can tell a lot about his or her character.”

McCullough has twice won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book award.” His 11 books include the Pulitzer-winners Truman (1993) and John Adams (2001), which has become one of the most widely read American biographies and spawned an HBO mini-series. His newest book, The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster, 2015), is a New York Times bestseller about aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright.

He has received the United States’ highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his “lifelong efforts to document the people, places and events that have shaped America.”