On Monday evening, Michael Beschloss ’77 gave a speech to a packed audience on the MainStage at the ’62 Center entitled “Presidential Leadership Past and Future.” Beschloss was the inaugural speaker in this year’s James MacGregor Burns Distinguished Speaker series. The speech focused at length on Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus Jim Burns ’39 and his relationship with Beschloss. Burns was also in the audience.
The lecture was hosted by the Class of ’71 Public Affairs Forum on Elections 2012, as well as by the leadership studies program. Beschloss, who Newsweek has called “the nation’s leading presidential historian,” was introduced by Nicole Mellow, associate professor of political science and chair of the leadership studies program. In her introduction, Mellow briefly spoke about Burns, who taught at the College for over 40 years. Burns has held many occupations since his graduation from the College, including serving as a reporter from the Asian theater in World War II, running for Congress and penning over 20 bestselling books.
Beschloss himself has written eight books on American presidents and is the official presidential historian for NBC News. He is a regular contributor to PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Beschloss began his speech by celebrating Burns, who taught him while he was at the College. “Outside of my family, Jim Burns is the most admired person in my life,” Beschloss said.
He praised Burns’ biography of Roosevelt, Deadlock in Democracy, and another of his books, Leadership, which he called “prophetic” of the now-common subject of leadership studies.
Beschloss extolled Burns’ integrity, citing an occasion when Burns criticized then-Senate candidate John F. Kennedy for his unwillingness to sacrifice his political career for larger causes.
Burns had gotten to know Kennedy while the two were running for the House of Representatives and Senate, respectively. Burns collected material that he later used for a biography published in the midst of Kennedy’s presidential campaign. After he sent a manuscript to the Kennedys, “a lot of pressure was put on Jim to change the book,” Beschloss said. However, Burns chose to keep the biography intact despite such pressure.
Burns also knew former President Lyndon B. Johnson personally and thought of him as uninteresting. Beschloss, who has edited two volumes of transcriptions of Johnson’s conversations, called this “one of the rare instances that Jim Burns was wrong,” instead calling Johnson “one of the most captivating presidents.” He also underlined that despite deeply negative issues such as Vietnam, Johnson’s Great Society and civil rights achievements were significant.
Beschloss then told several anecdotes illustrating the importance of the passage of time in understanding presidents. Truman’s approval ratings were apparently low because he was not as refined as Franklin Roosevelt, whereas now “whether he said ‘manure’” seems trivial compared to the Truman Doctrine, according to Beschloss.
Beschloss then spoke specifically about the personality and presidency of Johnson. Johnson’s presidential library in Austin, Texas, has become one of the most well-attended presidential libraries despite low approval ratings when it opened. This is partially because Johnson opened its doors for bathroom breaks during the halftime of University of Texas football games, which were played across the street. Beschloss also told of Johnson testing the loyalty of his new aides by pretending to crash his “Amphicar” into lakes and rivers, without telling them that it worked as a boat.
He also spoke of the “dark side of [Johnson’s] legacy,” such as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which Johnson declared despite his uncertainty. Additionally, Beschloss said that Johnson “didn’t think he could win” in Vietnam as early as 1965, which “cast a shadow” on his presidency.
Beschloss then spoke about “what makes a great president.” His first criterion was the willingness of presidents to sacrifice their political careers for more important matters, citing Washington signing the unpopular but necessary Treaty of London in 1794. His second criterion was that the president must have the skill to “persuade Americans that he’s doing the right thing,” using Lincoln couching emancipation as a war measure as an example. Thirdly, the president must have a “sense of history,” like Truman. Finally, the president needs “the ability to not only work with the other side, but to understand the other side’s point of view,” Beschloss said.
He referenced Johnson’s technique for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an example: Johnson told Dirksen, who was the leader of the Senate Republicans at the time, “100 years from now, American schoolchildren will know only Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen,” which was enough to convince him to vote in favor of the Civil Rights Act.
Beschloss then switched gears, suggesting that some of Burns’ predictions regarding presidential races went unheeded. Burns apparently warned in 1974, when George McGovern won the Democratic nomination through the primary system, that primaries would make money a larger part of politics – a prediction that certainly has come true over the past few decades.
Expanding on this theme, Bechloss said that Barack Obama was only able to compete with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary race because “he was able to raise as much money as Clinton.” Now, lamented Beschloss, “the quality required most to win the presidency is being able to raise a ton of money,” which is “not a very healthy thing for the system.”