MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: If I could pick up an earlier thread, one thing we're talking about is the degree to which we're all very sophisticated these days. We have also become a lot more sophisticated about how character flaws can really end in tragedy. Vietnam is one example, Watergate is another. And I think --
JIM LEHRER: Do you think both of those happened as a result of character flaws in the Presidents involved?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think Americans tend to look back and see that in the case of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon that these were characters with enormous threads of greatness but also strands of tragedy woven with them that led to two cases, Vietnam and Watergate, that have had an enormous negative impact on our history.
And I think as a result in the future, Americans are very sensitive to any sense in a potential President that there might be some thread in that potential President's personality that might have the same result.
JIM LEHRER: David McCullough?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: I would like to ask a question of all of you, what does -- do each of you think is the most common misconception about the President that you've worked on or feel that you really know?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: About Eisenhower?
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Yes, around the room.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: The one that I get constantly is tell us about Kay Sommersby. And nothing happened. There's no story there, but people want a story there.
JIM LEHRER: For people who haven't even heard that name before, what was the allegation?
STEPHEN AMBROSE: Kay was his driver and secretary during the war and the allegation was that she was his mistress all through the war.
TOM WICKER: There's a case you say where people wanted him to have a mistress.
STEPHEN AMBROSE: That's right. Bring him down a little bit off that pedestal.
TOM WICKER: I find a lot of people who say that Richard Nixon was an evil man. And I just -- I don't agree with that. I think he was a man who cut a lot of corners and in many ways -- certainly a disagreeable man, but whether he was an evil man, I would -- I would find that very hard to agree with. But many people believe it.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: In the 1992 campaign many people made the argument that Presidential character in terms of admirable qualities did not matter very much in George Bush, because he wasn't exercising political leadership on, especially domestic problems and, therefore, character didn't matter.
I think one thing George Bush is going to benefit from historically in the future is people are going to look back at how well he filled that role of Chief of State with all those elements of character that had a lot to do, I think, with ending the cold war in a way that was favorable to America and also prosecuting the Persian Gulf War, both of which I think he will be very much admired for.
JIM LEHRER: Rick Hertzberg, misconception on Jimmy Carter?
HENDRIK HERTZBERG: Well, it's a very concrete one. -- uh -- it is the misconception that Jimmy Carter blamed his own troubles and failings on a national malaise, when, in fact, he -- if anything he made the opposite mistake, he engaged in such an excoriating degree of self-criticism that -- that he inevitably disappointed people when he was unable to remake himself. But it is certainly a misconception that he -- that he whined and blamed others for his troubles.
JIM LEHRER: Peggy Noonan, President Reagan?
PEGGY NOONAN: I think the primary misconception with President Reagan was that he was what Pat Brown called him when he first -- when Reagan first entered politics. Pat Brown called him an affable dunce. -- uh -- Reagan was an affable gentleman, but he was deeply read in on the philosophical bases of his political views.
He knew what he thought and why and he knew what he thought in a very serious way. I think a second -- a second misconception is probably that he was the tool of his staff and controlled by his staff and told what to do by his staff. If that was so, it is remarkable that he fired so many of them. You know, he gave them a lot of -- you know, he really knew how to pull the plug when he was tired of you.
He gave them a lot of authority, he gave them a lot of power, that was how he was used to operating as a professional. You do your job, I do my job. He gave you a lot of authority. But if you didn't come through or you caused too much trouble, you were out and sometimes very unceremoniously. So, he could be -- he was a sweet man and affable, but he could be very tough. He was not a tool.
JIM LEHRER: Ben Bradlee.
BEN BRADLEE: Well, I think the assassination of Kennedy makes that question almost difficult to -- he didn't -- he wasn't around long enough to be misconceived. I agree with you the misconception of all Presidents is that they're in control. They're not. There are so many things that force their hands and external events and -- they're not in control -- and we think they are and, therefore, we think they have powers that they can't exercise.
JAMES CANNON: The most common misconception about Ford is that there was -- there was a deal to pardon Nixon. Certainly Nixon wanted a deal and sent Haig over to ask for a deal and Ford listened to their proposal and then turned it down. I don't think there was a deal. I could find no evidence of it. And as Barry Goldwater told me after the fact, Nixon couldn't make a deal, he had nothing to deal with.
JIM LEHRER: David McCullough.
DAVID MCCULLOUGH: Well, I think the most common misconception about Truman was that he was sort of a simple, ordinary plain fellow, kind of a hick. This was a very well read man, a man who knew music, serious music, who would go to the National Symphony and if they were playing one of his favorite composers, would take the score with him. Who loved poetry, went to the National Gallery to look at paintings, particularly portraits for pleasure not for photo opportunity.
And I think that the fact that he didn't let the country know that... was a failing on his part. I think he thought that maybe they wouldn't see him as kind of good old Harry from down home in Missouri in quite that way that he wanted. But -- though he was the only President not -- of our century not to go to college, he was one of the best read and a very thoughtful person -- uh -- in his way, off stage and -- and complicated. We're all more complicated than we seem, but he was considerably more so.
ROBERT DALLEK: I think the greatest misconception that the American people have is that these Presidents are miracle workers. They think that they can transform the world over night and it's a hell of a hard job. [LAUGHS] They can't do all that much. It's just terribly difficult.
And what we need to do, I think, is for people in this country to think in longer term segments rather than this notion that overnight, you know, we're going to cure poverty or we're going to get to the moon or do something spectacular. There's just much too much of that kind of thinking.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One thing we have to always to caution is that Americans who are trying to assess candidates and assess Presidents. These guys look so different so much later on both in terms of personal qualities and also in terms of leadership qualities. I think we have to be awfully modest in the judgments that we draw in real time.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you all very much. From Colonial Williamsburg, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and Good night.