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David McCullough talks up 'The Great Bridge'

Published:Sunday | May 20, 2012 | 12:00 AM

NEW YORK (AP):Walking briskly across the Brooklyn Bridge, smiling under a splendid morning sky, David McCullough is in the mood for telling stories, like the time he had a chat with James Cagney.

Readers may think of McCullough as the chronicler of upright presidents and patriots in John Adams and 1776, the histo-rian who abandoned a biography of Picasso because he couldn't stand the artist's private behaviour. But McCullough does have an impish side, and it has something to do with the Brooklyn Bridge.

McCullough is celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Great Bridge, which New York City historian Kenneth T. Jackson calls "the best study of any bridge anywhere". Ranked No. 48 on the Modern Library's list of the best 100 nonfiction works of the 20th century, The Great Bridge has just been reissued with a new introduction by McCullough.

And the book is very much a narrative of sin, the kind that made Adams despair for democracy. Along with the vision and persistence of the bridge's father-and-son designers, John and Washington Roebling, you have some of the more low-minded fellows of 19th-century municipal politics: the corrupt contractor J. Lloyd Haigh, New York City Comptroller Richard 'Slippery Dick' Connolly and that gluttonous Manhattan kingmaker, William Magear 'Boss' Tweed.

beloved bridge

The 78-year-old writer is feeling springy. He doesn't loosen his tie or toss his dark blazer into the East River. But he does hasten across streets against the light on his way to the bridge. He sings a little calypso, swears mildly and, with acknowledged bias, likens the nearby Manhattan Bridge - a sleek, steely contrast to the Brooklyn Bridge's heavy stone - to an erector set.

"That brilliant, golden triumph of an achievement rose up around one of the most corrupt eras of our history," he said, adding that the bridge very much holds a message for today. "Just because it was a time of rampant corruption, greed and selfishness, inequality and all the rest, it doesn't mean that great things can't still come out of it. We don't all have to be crooked real estate or financial people, or self-serving people with no conscience. We could do that."

The Great Bridge was his second book, but it's the start of a long run of narratives about success. His debut, The Johnstown Flood, came out in 1968 and told of the 1889 disaster that killed more than 2,000 people. The book did well enough that McCullough feared being labelled 'Bad News McCullough'. He considered the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the chance to highlight the qualities he admires - courage and accomplishment.

McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes, among many other awards. His books have sold millions of copies, raised the standing of John Adams and Harry Truman and inspired many readers to learn more about the American Revolution. Presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama have enjoyed his company and asked for his wisdom.

McCullough, who lives in Boston, walks the Brooklyn Bridge at least once a year and knows the highlights as well as any tour guide. Midway between Brooklyn and Manhattan, he stops and takes in the view - the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano Bridge, New York Harbor. From the bridge, you can see where George Washington's troops escaped at night after the devastating Battle of Brooklyn, a turning point featured in 1776.