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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, some perspective on the job of secretary of state. Madeleine Albright left today on her first trip to the Middle East in that position. It is a path well traveled by American secretaries of state not only to the Middle East but to other places in the world to make their places in history. We look at some of that history now with NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Alonzo Hamby, Professor of History at Ohio University, author of “Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman.” Doris, have their been secretaries of state who on their own have made a difference in history?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Without a question. I mean, I think what you look for is somebody who’s able to exercise leadership, as opposed to simply stewardship. For example, John Quincy Adams and those three founding father characters, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, they had a personal stamp on their times. Now, maybe it was easier in the earlier days when diplomatic letters could be written by candlelight and you only had a few pigeonholes in a desk to hold the correspondence. Now, you’ve got too millions of buildings and letters and just stuff and thousands of employees.
And it’s very hard for a secretary of state to get control of that. But I look at the 19th century and Seward is another example of somebody who started incredibly inauspiciously with this most famous probably diplomatic letter to the President, where at the beginning of Civil War, when Ft. Sumter was happening, he suggested that he could control events in a way that Lincoln wasn’t. And he provoked a war with England or France in order to get the attention away from the South–I mean, probably never has a secretary of state taken such a bold action. Lincoln answered it very tactfully. And after he took command of the situation and said, “I’ll do what needs to be done,” a very fruitful relationship developed between the two, and Seward was really responsible for keeping Great Britain from recognizing the Confederacy, which was critical.
And then he bought Alaska. And so he got all of Alaska with us. And then you look at the 20th century Marshall–not only the Marshall Plan, but beginning to move after World War II to the new policy that would come after the war–Atchison. And I suppose you’d have to stick Kissinger in there for at least putting a personal stamp on the secretary of stateship, even if you don’t agree with what he did.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, is it your reading that the founding fathers had this in mind, in other words, there were going to be members of the cabinet, but the secretary of state was special and more important than all others?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: That’s the way it turned out. Congress established the Department of State and the secretary of state–the job of secretary of state only in mid 1789–just during George Washington’s first year. But because of that seniority, the secretary of state was at the top of the cabinet. And in later years, especially during a time of crisis, for instance, when John Kennedy was killed in November of 1963, Lyndon Johnson had a cabinet meeting that evening, Dean Rusk is the senior member of the cabinet, secretary of state, spoke for the cabinet, saying that they were going to give Johnson full support. But I think the thing that turned out to be a surprise was that you’ve had secretaries of state in history who operate with a good deal of independence of the President.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. That’s what–was that the intention, do you think?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No. That’s something that really evolved and came mainly from America’s being a superpower in the 20th century. You look at a case like Dean Acheson in the late 1940’s, innovated a way for the United States to deal with the Soviet Union. And Henry Kissinger, as Doris mentioned, is another example, someone who took the opportunities in the late 60’s and the early 1970’s to develop a new relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and China. Those are the kind of secretaries who get at least a lot of attention and oftentimes very high points from historians.
JIM LEHRER: Prof. Hamby, I’m sorry you’re having to hold the phone up there, but you can hear me all right, right?
ALONZO HAMBY, Ohio University: (Athens, OH) I can hear you fine. There’s nothing like the miracle of 50-year-old technology.
JIM LEHRER: Absolutely. Absolutely. At any rate, Dean Acheson, did President Truman say, go out and run foreign policy, or did Acheson’s strength come from his own vision, his own desire to do things? How did that work? What was the relationship?
ALONZO HAMBY: Well, we have to remember maybe, to begin with, that Dean Acheson was Harry Truman’s fourth secretary of state, and he was No. 4 in part because Truman had had difficulties with the first three to one degree or another. He would have been happy to have George Marshall continue, nonetheless. Acheson succeeded Marshall. Acheson was a brilliant, strong secretary of state, but he worked in tandem with a strong president. And that’s maybe the important lesson. It does take a team. The secretary of state has to take care of the day-to-day details of American foreign policy, but a President has to be engaged. The President has to be the ultimate authority. Acheson understood that. He and Truman were enormously loyal to each other, practically devoted to each other.
JIM LEHRER: So, he was a little bit of both, he was a leader and a steward, to use Doris’s configuration, right?
ALONZO HAMBY: Well, he was certainly a leader in many ways, but he understood and demonstrated time and again that he realized Harry Truman was the American foreign policy chief and Dean Acheson was his representative.
JIM LEHRER: Would you agree, Haynes, in more modern–since Acheson that the President is the one who decides who has the power?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Absolutely. Well, the President is the constitutional figure in our government whose policies his stewards are supposed to follow out. But it’s certainly true, as everyone’s been saying, Michael, Doris, and the professor, that it makes a difference who that person is as secretary of state. I mean, it wasn’t bad to start out with Thomas Jefferson, for instance. That’s not a bad beginning, even though there were only six people in the State Department at that time.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, my goodness.
HAYNES JOHNSON: It was Jefferson, a chief clerk, three clerks, and a translator, and that was it. But you go from that part to the superpower world, and as Doris and Michael were saying, this thing has changed enormously. But you do have to work for your President. And if you’re a great secretary, you could help move history. You could help shape the policies, but it has to be in tandem with the President.
JIM LEHRER: Would you–if you had to make a list of great secretaries others have mentioned, who would you put on yours?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Jefferson, Monroe, Adams, clearly, John Quincy Adams. I mean, if you look at that period, how the Monroe Doctrine came out of that period of time, incredible. I think jumping into the present time I would say Acheson and Marshall–I would put them together because they helped forge the Cold War period, whether you argue about whether the policies were right or wrong, they made a tremendous difference. I would put–now this is interesting–we’ve got some arguments about this–John Foster Dulles under Eisenhower–because of–I think there were a lot of mistakes made but he was a strong secretary of state, working with President Eisenhower and his brother, John Foster Dulles, for covert operations, enormous influence on the way American’s role changed in the world.
JIM LEHRER: Doing his own things or doing Eisenhower’s thing?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think the Dulles brothers were missionaries. We can very much believe that there was a moral–the domino theory and all of that–a lot of heartbreak, and I think a lot of mistakes were made.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One item on this is that this points to something that’s very important, and that is that oftentimes in real time we don’t really know what the relationship really is between a President and secretary of state and also which really has the power. In the 1950’s, most people thought that John Foster Dulles was to a certain extent President for foreign policy and Eisenhower ratified, rubber-stamped what Dulles did but was barely aware of what was going on. Only 20 years later, after we got to see the private documents, the secret documents of the Eisenhower period, did we find that Eisenhower really oftentimes hid behind Dulles’s skirts, let Dulles make all sorts of speeches that were very antagonistic to people and allow Dulles to take the heat.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Doris, on Madeleine Albright’s trip specifically, as I said in the intro to this, that is a well-traveled path to the Middle East. Why do so many secretaries of state go to the Middle East?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it’s like it’s the Moby Dick of being a secretary of state. It’s the one problem that’s been around for such a long period of time. If you could ever crack it, you’ve got your legacy. And she’s needed to be there right now. The situation has deteriorated. And even though the expectations really low, I think it’s very smart of her to go there. I know Henry Kissinger took a long time before wanting to go there because he didn’t want to fail. And he knew how many had failed before him. But I think what Madeleine has going for her, first of all, she’s outspoken. Most of the secretaries who have not made a legacy have been too cautious.
For example, Dean Rusk, when he was chosen under JFK, they really wanted Fulbright, but Fulbright was opposed by blacks and by Jewish groups, so they ended up with Rusk, partly because he had never said a controversial thing in 30 years. Well, he was a secretary of state who didn’t a controversial thing because he didn’t speak up. We’ve already had examples of Madeleine Albright saying it’s not cahonies, it’s cowardice, not cahonies, all these things that I don’t even understand that she says, but they’re controversial and great. So I think going into this maelstrom right now is a very smart thing for her to do. She may not get a lot of thing done this time, but she’s establishing relationships. And her warmth and her personality is going to take her somewhere where more cautious characters could never go.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Professor Hamby, your reading of history, that cautious secretaries of state don’t make very good secretaries of state?
ALONZO HAMBY: Well, caution probably tells you something about their personalities, their forcefulness, and ultimately their effectiveness. Of course, rushing into the Middle East is something that is–someone as late as Dean Acheson never would have thought of doing. The jet plane in the 1950’s revolutionized travel by secretaries of state and made it possible for them to do these sorts of things. I’m not altogether sure it’s a good idea, myself, but it’s something that exists and it’s been built into contemporary expectations.
JIM LEHRER: That’s really true, is it not, Haynes, the jet plane–
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: Secretaries of State. They just get on airplanes and go anywhere.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The jet plane and this television camera, so you can be seen in the world arriving shuttle diplomacy, Kissinger, and all the rest, personal diplomacy, as well as secret diplomacy if the world is shrunk and the secretaries of state can take advantage of that. But one thing about the Middle East, just one quick thing, it’s also the cockpit of the world. I mean, we are an oil-based economy. It’s the place where tensions for 2,000 years have existed. And if you’re going to deal with foreign policy, that’s where you’ve got to deal.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I do. And two other things. The times when secretaries of state have really operated fruitfully in the Middle East have been when there’s been a new situation created that reshuffles the cards. Henry Kissinger only really got involved in shuttle diplomacy after the Yom Kippur War, after there was a change in the power relationships between Israel and the other countries. Jim Baker in 1992 was responding largely to the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War and the election of a Labor Party government in Israel in mid 1992. And I think there’s been a feeling since then that this could be a moment that one day could vanish and Americans had better take advantage of it.
JIM LEHRER: But the–it helps, does it not, Doris, if whatever your job is–if you’re representing the most powerful nation on earth, and that secretary of state, whether it’s Madeleine Albright or whatever, gets off of the airplane with that in his or her pocket, right?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: There’s no question about that. In fact, the end of the Cold War, which has created now a transitional period for the world at large, has given America enormous power, even more than it’s had in a long period of time. And her arrival at that time is really a statement that America has a role again to play and a critical role. There’s also a sense that time is running out on Clinton’s presidency. And the problem is it’s a lame duck presidency in a sense, and you don’t know how long she’s going to be there. The other side of it is that he wants that legacy too. So she doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around and saying, well, maybe I’ll go to the Middle East in the sixth term of my secretary of stateship, unless of course she gets kept on. So I think it’s wise to start this process now.
JIM LEHRER: All right. You’re still negative on it, Professor Hamby?
ALONZO HAMBY: I think the Middle East has all the potential to be a quagmire even for a person with the great personal resources and extensive preparation that Madeleine Albright has. She–
JIM LEHRER: Well, Professor, I’m going to have to stop you there, Professor Hamby. Thank you very much. And, again, you’ve done great work with that newfangled device you have in your ear. Maybe we’ll use it again sometime. Doris, gentlemen, thank you all.