TOPICS > Politics

New Book Details History of Presidential Courage

May 17, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Judy Woodruff talks to Michael Beschloss about his new book on presidents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Standing up for principle. Throughout the history of the United States, there have been moments when American presidents have stood for principles that were not popular at the time. Michael Beschloss, historian and NewsHour regular, looks at nine presidents in his new book, “Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989.”

I talked with Michael recently in front of the Lincoln Cottage, a one-time retreat for Abraham Lincoln, on the grounds of what is now the Armed Forces Retirement Home here in Washington.

Why did you want to write this book?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Because I wanted to go through American history, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, and look for places where we were crucially dependent on having a president who was willing to say, “I should do something important, and that something important may mean that I risk my political career, but I feel so strongly that it’s in the national interest that I’ll do it anyway.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how did you choose who and the moments to write about?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, a lot of it was, you know, you look for moments where, for instance, we were dependent on Abraham Lincoln making sure that the slaves were freed or John Kennedy bringing civil rights, or the first one I wrote about, George Washington trying to stop the British from invading and ending this country before it even began. Those were turning points where, if you had not had a president stepping up to the plate, if there wasn’t a story like that, we would not be here.

Lincoln's fight against his party

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're talking to you here at the Lincoln summer cottage. This is where Abraham Lincoln stayed during his presidency. He's a central figure in this book.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He is. He spent about a quarter of his presidency with his family in this house. They went up here during the summer because it was too hot in the White House.

And this is one of the stories I tell in the book, because in the summer of 1864, right in this room over here, Lincoln was sitting alone. His family was all on vacation except for him. His campaign managers came to him and said, "Mr. President, you're going to lose re-election this fall, and the reason is because you insist on this Emancipation Proclamation of yours." They said, "Many northern voters were willing to fight the Civil War to bring the South back, but not to free the slaves. If you want to be re-elected, get rid of that thing."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what got Lincoln through that? Because you write about how he was buffeted on all sides. He wasn't just fighting the Confederacy; he was fighting people on the left and the right in his own party.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And even his own wife, Mary. A lot of these stories are the stories of marriages and families and friends, because, in her case, turns out she had run up a lot of clothing bills, big clothing bills behind his back. She was terrified that he'd lose the election, those bills would come due, and they'd be in real trouble. So she was pushing him hard, "Do anything you need to do to win."

And Lincoln was tempted. You know, he was not just a saint. But, you know, after thinking, "Well, maybe I can legalistically walk away a bit from the Emancipation Proclamation, help myself politically," he realized in the end -- and it was right in this house -- it was a crisis of the soul.

He said to himself, "I could do that, but I would no longer be Abraham Lincoln." He said, "My place in history is going to be as the liberator of the African-American race, and that's more important than my re-election." I wish more presidents made decisions like that.

Washington's unpopular treaty

JUDY WOODRUFF: George Washington, what was it about what happened with him? This was several years after the revolution, and the British are stirring up trouble, and he's facing opposition, I think, that a lot of people who think they know American history don't really remember.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yeah, I didn't even know as much. He was worried that the British would invade and take over this country and basically stamp America out in the 1790s when he was president. So he did a treaty with England called Jay's Treaty.

It was hugely unpopular. Jay, John Jay, who negotiated it, was burned in effigy. There were assassination threats against George Washington. He left office very unpopular. His wife, Martha, thought that the whole ordeal brought on his premature death.

Washington didn't like being so unpopular. He was used to everyone saying, "Here's the hero," but he knew that it was for a larger cause, and he wanted to send that message to later presidents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I know you've studied so many presidents over your career, but, Michael, did you realize how much pressure they had on them, not just from their obvious enemies, but from within their own political parties, their own families?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You don't really experience it until you tell it as a story. Harry Truman, for instance, in 1948, faced the decision to recognize a Jewish state. And on one side his secretary of state, George Marshall, was saying, "If you do this, I might resign and blast you." Truman's own wife, Bess -- I hadn't known this before -- did not even let Jewish people into her house in Independence, Missouri.

And on the other side, it turned out, Truman had this old business partner named Eddie Jacobson, who was Jewish, who came just at the crucial moment and said to Truman, "Harry, I've never asked you for a favor in my life, but my people are suffering. You've got to recognize a Jewish state." That had a lot of influence on Truman in doing that.

A culture that prevents courage

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it always the case that there's something inside these great leaders that pushes them, pulls them over the line when they have to make these tough decisions? Is there something...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It always has to be, because you have to have some way of resolving all of these cross pressures. In Truman's case, oddly enough, I found that, when he was a kid, he had read a book with the politically incorrect title of "Great Men and Famous Women," from Nebuchadnezzar to Sarah Bernhardt. It had a big influence on him.

He read the tale of Cyrus the Great, the Persian king that brought the Jews to Zion. And in the end, he thought, you know, "If I recognize a Jewish state, I'm going to be just like King Cyrus. I'll go down in history."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think it's gotten easier over time to be courageous to do what these great leaders did or harder?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it's gotten a lot harder. Andrew Jackson stood up to the Bank of the United States, this corrupt, all-powerful bank that threatened to dominate every citizen of the United States. He was able to conquer it, although they threatened to destroy him. But he was able to do that because he didn't have to raise $50 million to $100 million to run for president.

Had he had to do that and have pollsters and polls, focus groups, my guess is that he would have been much less likely to do something unpopular. And that, I think, is the central problem that I try to raise in telling these stories in the book, which is, if you look back through 200 years and you say, "We wouldn't be here without these moments of courage. We wouldn't have people with civil rights or win the Civil War or keep the British away in 1800."

What if we had a culture that prevented these presidents from being courageous? And I worry now that we have a system that makes it very hard to choose people who would make the same choice. And I guess what I would say is, in this next campaign, take a look at the people who are running. If they don't remind you of the people in this book, do not vote for them.

Risking holding onto their offices

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does one look for? What is it that these men have had in common?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: More than anything else, there was something in their lives beyond just politics. They didn't want to hold onto the presidency at any cost.

Lincoln was able to say, you know, "It will make me very unhappy if I lose the presidency, but I'm committed to larger things." If you look at candidates and say this is someone who can be happy to go back to their family or they have larger convictions. Franklin Roosevelt jeopardized his presidency by telling Americans in 1940, "We might have to fight Hitler." He loved being president, but he loved defending freedom more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think those are things that are knowable before one is elected president?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Hard to know, and especially hard for us to know who are just voters looking at these people on TV. But we sure have to try, because, without it, this country could come to an end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, thank you. The book is "Presidential Courage." We appreciate it.