On Aug. 8, 1974, President Richard Nixon announced his resignation.
On Aug. 8, 2022, former President Donald Trump's Florida home was searched by FBI agents.
However coincidental, the auspicious Aug. 8 timing is the type of symmetry America's eminent historian might wisely tie together in weighing the ways the presidency reflected — or led — the polarization that's only deepened over those 48 years. But unfortunately, that won't happen. Because in another chronological happenstance, on Monday — Aug. 8 — it was announced that David McCullough, chronicler of the American experience (and longtime host of the PBS series of the same name), had died in Massachusetts at the age of 89.
McCullough "was the gold standard of American historians," said Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor of history whose work gleams in its own right. Brinkley, author or editor on books about Watergate, Walter Cronkite, Gerald Ford and other consequential people and events, said that McCullough was "able to hold the lantern for the rest of us to see the past."
Such a lantern might have helped shed light on the meaning of the Mar-a-Lago search. Instead, instant (and infinite) internet hot takes inflamed, but didn't illuminate, lacking any degree of cool context that McCullough was known for.
Not that McCullough would have taken part, however: His method was exhaustive research on his historical subjects before bringing them and their eras to vivid life, including seven years of study for his best-selling biography of John Adams and a decade of education for his tome on Harry Truman. His historical distance from his subjects and his disinclination to become a pundit of the day's headlines helped him stay "true to his historical calling," Brinkley said.
McCullough was "loved at the George W. Bush [Presidential] Library and was friends with Barack Obama," Brinkley added. "McCullough transcended party affiliation. And that was a conscious effort on his part, to unify our country by our shared history."
On this Aug. 8, however, national unity was elusive, in part because many Americans increasingly don't coalesce around the same history, let alone the present, interpreting it to fit their partisanship.
That was glaringly apparent in the wake of the FBI search, as reckless rhetoric (including talk of civil war) from some Trump supporters spiked online. So did endless speculation about the event's political implications, even though no one even knew what the warrant was issued for.
"I've been around awhile," said Jon Butler, a longtime Yale historian who is now a professor emeritus of history at the University of Minnesota. Today's "Twitter culture" doesn't "lead to a very rich understanding of both our contemporary culture as well as our past because it takes time to figure out what's going on around us. And it takes time to figure out what went on in the past." And "so the difference between Twitter culture and what historians do in part has to do with length and breadth and, if I may say, sometimes thoughtfulness."
In fact, carelessness characterized comments from pundits more than thoughtfulness. Including from elected leaders who should try to cool the passions of a nation already riven with divisions. Leaders like U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who likened the federal government to the Gestapo, seemingly oblivious to the news that earlier that day (Aug. 8, naturally) it was reported that Trump, referring to the Nazi era, had asked his then chief of staff, John Kelly, "Why can't you be like the German generals?" Scott's fellow Floridian, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Trump belittled in the 2016 presidential primaries, said in a video regarding the Mar-a-Lago search that "this is what happens in places like Nicaragua. Where last year every single person that ran against Daniel Ortega for president, every single person that put their name on the ballot, was arrested and is still in jail. You can try to diminish it, but that's exactly what happened tonight."
No, it didn't.
No one is in jail, and the search was done with a warrant, which Trump could have immediately made public but didn't. Instead, Trump suggested the possibility that the FBI may be "planting" evidence — baseless charge that suggests the only planting being done is by Trump, who's sowing doubt about the outcome of the search and more profoundly about the integrity of an institution integral to the rule of law — all part of partisan claim-staking accelerated and amplified by the modern media-political industrial complex.
On Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said that the Justice Department had filed a motion to unseal the search warrant and property receipt related to the FBI's action. Hours later, the Washington Post reported that among the items sought were classified documents related to nuclear weapons.
The drama isn't anywhere near a dénouement, and there are likely twists in the chapters ahead. Which should prompt prudence, not impromptu conclusions like the impulsive missives from the three Floridians who each may seek to ascend (or in Trump's case, return) to the presidency, an office, as McCullough's biographies showed, that requires uncommon character and judgment to succeed.
"The instantaneous character of communication in modern life and modern politics is quite dramatic," Butler said. "The democratization of communication and news has really transformed politics," which are "not as elitist as it used to be." Instead, he said, politics is "wide open and at the same time it's almost strangely more closed because it confirms people's prejudice."
Brinkley, taking a historian's long view, said that "in order to really understand what's happened at the raid at Mar-a-Lago, you're going to have to wait some years, maybe even 25 years; it takes a long time for executive-branch documents to come out."
What McCullough understood, Brinkley added, is "to keep history in its own box." The country is "in the middle of a very big story, and it's nice to know that the referee's not in the middle of the game, and that's what McCullough offered."
As for the first rough draft of history, as journalism is sometimes called, Brinkley laments that "there are no current referees in American life" the way there was with Cronkite. "There is not one trusted source anymore due to the balkanization of media."
But keeping informed is essential, so Brinkley and all historians would urge current events be viewed through the prism of the past and suggested trusted news sources as fundamental as the Associated Press and "the great newspapers that are still doing real reporting and try to find where reliable information is coming from."
"It's hard," he added, "because we're not making it easy because we've created a lot of technology without thinking of the ramifications of it." Cronkite, he said, believed in teaching media literacy. But "we're not teaching [that] in schools, so misinformation is running supreme." And "until you can attack that cancer on the national soul and be able to have fact-based and trusted referees out there it's a Wild-West environment out there and it doesn't do our democracy any good."
Democracy has had its tough times before, Butler said. The vitriol visible in the immediacy of the FBI search reflects a "regrettably constant feature of American politics since the American Revolution." That's "something that historians can elucidate and try to explain," answering the key question: "What's the basis for that?"
With most historians, Butler said, the key question is the past and how it impacts the present. Yet they "don't try to predict the future — rightly so, I think. I don't think McCullough tried to predict the future. But he did say: 'Where do we come from?'"
Perhaps that's why McCullough, with thousands of thoughts available from his subject, chose to preface his 1,117-page "Truman" with this quote from the plain-spoken, but deep-thinking president:
"We can never tell what is in store for us."