Michael Beschloss Knows His Presidents

Historian Michael Beschloss hasn’t become known as one of the country’s leading presidential historians by accident. Since 1980 his eight books on U.S. presidents include the 2002 best-seller "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945." A registered independent and regular on PBS’ "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Beschloss has a new book, "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989," coming out in May. I talked to him by telephone Thursday from his office in Washington:

Do you have any sense that we are living in an important historic era?

How could you not have that sense? This is the time when tectonic plates are changing in the world. Oftentimes you don’t quite appreciate how historic a period is until much later on, but if you apply almost any measure to the time that we are living through, it couldn’t be more dramatic.

Is there a single event that will be looked back at?

If you want to use 9/11 as a tipping point, you certainly could not do better than that because here’s a case where leadership really does make a difference. George W. Bush at the time that 9/11 happened, reacted by saying, “This is a wake-up call to us Americans. Terrorism is a problem that has been festering and we’ve never dealt with it frontally. I’m going to declare a war against terrorism and rip this scourge from the face of the Earth — which could take decades.” Many other people who might have been president at the time might have dealt with this very differently by saying, for instance, “We’ll use the FBI” or “We’ll have retaliatory strikes” or “We’ll limit ourselves to diplomacy.” A lot of things that have happened in history since 2001 have flowed from that one decision.

George Bush is getting a lot of criticism for staying tough on Iraq. Thirty years from now, will this be seen as courageous?

I think it will be definitely seen as courageous, no matter what happens, because you have a president who is willing to fly in the face of public opinion … and that is nothing but courage. The other element is whether it turns out to be wise in the eyes of history, and that’s the kind of thing that takes 20 or 30 years. George Bush is the first one to say this. He knows that his decisions on Iraq will be measured by historians of the future through the lens of whether the war in Iraq and the general war on terrorism worked.

Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum?

Nowhere. I’m not a member of a party. I’m a registered independent. I do that for a couple of reasons. One is that because I am writing histories of presidents, I think that what I do well in life is evaluate presidents in the rearview mirror. I don’t think I have the same expertise in current events. And I think the other thing is that this is not a case like some journalists who have passionate ideological opinions and they suppress them to be professional journalists and do not take a position on what they do. As a historian, I passionately believe that you can really only be sure about presidents 20 or 30 years later. We are watching them in real time — and we all have to do it as citizens because we have to vote and we have to evaluate them. But at the same time, I always keep my critical eye in check with the knowledge that presidents usually look very different 30 years later than they do at the time.

Who would you rank as the top three or four presidents?

Pretty close to what other historians would. Probably Washington and Lincoln at the top. Franklin Roosevelt perhaps a notch down. But what I tend not to do is evaluate the 42 presidents in rank order — you know, Thomas Jefferson and Lewis & Clark are better than George H. W. Bush and the Americans With Disabilities Act. I just think the periods are so different.

Who would be your worst presidents?

Even that’s hard to do. I’d put Warren Harding at the very bottom, whom I think was both an ineffective president and also ran a scandalous administration.

What makes a great president?

A number of things, but I think the most important ones are the vision to understand where to take the country and the skills to move the American people to that vision. All of this as blessed by historians and the American people of a later generation.

There’s a lot of persuasion in there.

Sure. Woodrow Wilson had a wonderful vision in many ways but at the end of his administration he didn’t have the skills to get the Senate to approve the League of Nations, so the result was he fell short.

They say there is a bias by historians in favor of wartime presidents and activists. Is that fair?

With wartime presidents, it depends on the war. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson both fought a war …  yet the fact that they were war leaders, per se, doesn’t help them because the war in retrospect doesn’t seem to be very wisely fought. In the case of a Franklin Roosevelt or an Abraham Lincoln, we all say it was necessary for the North to fight the South — at least most historians do. And most historians say it was necessary for us to stand up to Hitler and the Imperial Japanese, so Roosevelt looks good.

You wrote a book about Eisenhower, who I don’t think would be called an "activist"…

I guess I would call him an activist because I define activism a little bit broadly. It’s not just submitting a civil rights bill or moving the American people toward World War II,  both of which I think were very good things to have done. But Eisenhower was an activist in a way that was less well known at the time and in a way it sort of demonstrates what I’m saying — that oftentimes you really do have to wait to understand a president.

At the time, as you well know — we both do,  Eisenhower was seen as someone who was very inactive and passive and not particularly interested in being president. In retrospect, you can take one example among others: Eisenhower was able to keep the defense budget down in the late ’50s. He was badly criticized for that by people like John Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller. They said he was allowing a missile gap to result. We now know that Eisenhower was behind the scenes enormously active in making sure that our intelligence showed that the Soviets were building up at a much slower rate than Nikita Khrushchev was claiming.

Eisenhower felt it was very important for this country to have a balanced budget and to have that balanced budget, we shouldn’t be spending one more dollar on the Pentagon than necessary. So as a result, Eisenhower was hugely active in making sure — both in terms of intelligence and also just in general in running the executive branch — that our defense budget was necessary but not excessive. As a result he had the last balanced budget until the 1990s. I would call that activism.

We libertarians would look at the great trend of hisatory and see no hope of ever seeing a smaller, weaker, more constitutionally oriented federal government again. I guess those days are over.

Well, not necessarily, because there still is a great passion among many Americans for that, including among Democrats who run for president. Jimmy Carter, long after the 1980 debate against Ronald Reagan, told an aide, “One problem I had debating Ronald Reagan was that Reagan kept on saying that he was for smaller government and I had a hard time disagreeing.”

Is there any historical fact or amazing thing that you found out in the last year or two that all Americans should be aware of?

(Laughs) If you put it that way, no. I wish there were something that dramatic.

When you look at the batch of  2008 presidential wannabes, do you see any good presidential material?

I try to stay off of doing opinion on current candidates, mainly because I am so wed to the idea that you can only do it in retrospect. But one thing I will say is this: One of the wonderful things about our system is that when we have got enormous problems and when there are issues at stake, it’s almost been consistently true that the American people get it and they choose people who are up to the challenge. You could go through 200 years and I could give you 20 examples of that.