NORMAN — Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian David McCullough said much can be learned from President Harry Truman’s character, courage, common sense and the ability to not let an ego get in the way of governing.
“He had the courage and the conviction to stand up for what he thought was right, no matter what,” McCullough told a dinner audience Monday night inside the Oklahoma Memorial Union.
Truman, he said, was judged mostly on the surface. No college degree. No political pedigree. It was his high school teachers in English and history that instilled in Truman his commitment to learning.
McCullough’s talk was the capstone on the University of Oklahoma’s second Teach-In. This year’s day-long event featured seven lectures and panel discussions on the Great Depression and World War II.
OU President David L. Boren said the evening dinner speech was the largest audience at a dinner in the university’s history. The 2014 theme will be the Civil War, Boren announced.
McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient for his books “Truman” and “John Adams,” said Truman’s preserved letters and speeches were great material for the book.
“There was no ambiguity and he never tried to be like anyone else,” he said.
McCullough said he studied Truman’s early business and political troubles.
“Take a look at how they handled failure in their life, because if you’re going to be president, you’re going to have failure.”
He expressed concern that young people today are not learning about Truman or that period in the nation’s history.
“Don’t assume that these wonderful young Americans know history,” he said.
At lunch, Pulitzer prize winner David Kennedy delivered a noon address analyzing the key elements of American WWII strategy in an address titled “A Tale of Three Cities: How the U.S. Won World War II.”
Kennedy compared Rouen, France, Stalingrad, Russia and Washington, D.C., to establish how the United States’ reliance on strategic air raids was the innovative secret to success.
Joking that his students describe history as “one darned thing after another,” Kennedy said, “I want all of you today to understand that for the U.S., WWII was hardly ‘one darned thing after another’ but a series of very shrewd decisions that ultimately won the war.”
Kennedy also analyzed the importance of sage leadership in WWII, juxtaposing Hitler’s and Churchill’s reactions to Pearl Harbor to indicate the respective shortsightedness and accurate perception of the United States’ military potential.
“An eyewitness reports that Hitler expressed excitement that Germany had an ally in Japan, whom he said had not been defeated in 1,000 years. Churchill writes in his memoir that he went to bed that night knowing the U.S. would join the war and slept the sleep of the saved,” Kennedy said.
To solidify his attribution of the U.S.’ victory to its ability to harness resource and strategy to forge new tactics and technology, Kennedy closed with a metaphorical image of a rudimentary Japanese balloon bomb passing a fleet of U.S. bombers — each with thousands of horsepower — in the jet stream.After lunch, inside the Paul F. Sharp Concert Hall at Catlett Music Center, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman discussed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s relationship with the Supreme Court.
He said Roosevelt’s gathering of industry, labor and financiers in an attempt to repair the economy was controversial. It afforded tremendous power to the president.
“Critics said that was fascism but, of course it wasn’t fascism,” Feldman said.
When the Supreme Court didn’t back Roosevelt, he sought to pack the court with his like-minded appointees, even to the point of adding justices.
Feldman was joined later in a wide-ranging panel discussion with McCullough, David Wrobel, Christina Romer, Kennedy and H.W. Brands. The panel discussed and took questions about the transformations of the 1930s and 1940s in America.
McCullough said he remains fascinated with discoveries in American history.
“We hardly know the half of it,” he said.
He admitted he approaches books like he does a journey.
“I have never undertaken a book about a subject I knew a lot about,” he said. “I look at a book as a kind of journey.”
Wrobel, who began daylong Teach-In with a discussion on John Steinbeck’s writing, said the Depression forced intellectuals and artists to rediscover the suffering of ordinary people. He said that doesn’t seem to be happening in more modern times.
All of the panelists discussed their favorite authors and extraordinary presidents, like Roosevelt, who presided during periods of significant changes.
“The person who seems right for the job isn’t and the person who doesn’t seem right is,” McCullough said. “We have to remember exceptional presidents are the exception and they don’t happen very often.”
Transcript Staff Writer Caitlin Schudalla contributed to this report.