Review

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989

by Michael Beschloss

Michael Beschloss is probably America's most widely respected
historian of the Presidency. His field of historical vision has
always been a wide one, but up to now his books have concentrated
on Presidents of the past 60 years. In PRESIDENTIAL COURAGE he
casts a wider net, starting with George Washington's battle for
approval of the controversial Jay Treaty after the American
Revolution and ending with Ronald Reagan's decision to deal in good
faith with the Soviet Union rather than simply damning it as a
sinister enemy and reflexively opposing it at every turn, a course
strongly advocated by many of Reagan's advisers and a large segment
of Americans in general.

There are nine names on the author's rollcall of courageous
Presidents: Washington, John Adams (for avoiding a needless but
widely anticipated war with France), Andrew Jackson (for his
crusade against the Bank of the United States), Lincoln (for
issuing the Emancipation Proclamation), Theodore Roosevelt (for
attacking the predatory practices of Big Business); FDR (for
realizing the danger posed by Naziism and nudging the country into
the fight against it), Truman (for his recognition of Israel);
Kennedy (for his belated but strong stand on civil rights) and
Reagan (for his willingness to talk turkey in earnest with the
Russians).

All of these choices are at least understandable, but some seem
more logical than others. Was not Truman's decision to use the
atomic bomb more far-reaching in its effect and just as courageous
as his recognition of Israel? And what about Kennedy's masterly
handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, or the courage shown
by Texan Lyndon Johnson's sponsorship of landmark civil rights
legislation? If, as they say, a cat may look at a king, perhaps a
mere book reviewer may quarrel here and there with Michael
Beschloss.

Beschloss has always been a lively writer, and this book bears that
out once again. His approach is chatty and anecdotal rather than
pedantic. If a good story comes along, whether or not it is
strictly relevant to his topic, he includes it. This is history for
the general reader, not merely for the academic archives.

Several themes bind the nine Presidential stories together. One is
the fierce opposition that all the subjects faced from political
enemies. Beschloss gleefully quotes many of the picturesque insults
flung at his heroes (when John Adams lost the Presidency in the
election of 1800, one newspaper chortled that he had been thrown
out of office "like polluted water." Lincoln was called in print an
"obscene ape.").

Several of the nine Presidents felt that, by making the decisions
they did, they were signing their own political death warrants.
Lincoln was warned that by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation he
would lose the support of voters serving in the Union army (he
ended up winning it by 80 percent). Truman and Kennedy both voiced
the sentiment that it was better to do what one felt was right and
go down honorably than to simply bow to public pressure. Reagan
felt the same way about his dealings with the Soviets. Beschloss
implicitly raises the issue at the end of his book --- can this
sort of thing still happen in this day of poll-driven politics,
spin doctors and focus groups? He seems to doubt it.

Another major theme that runs through this book is the human
weaknesses and frailties of even such resolute Presidents.
Beschloss seems to go out of his way to emphasize, for example,
Harry Truman's private denigration of Jews while then giving him
credit for recognizing Israel over the strident objections of
people like General George Marshall. He treats Kennedy in much the
same way, first giving a detailed description of his political
timidity on civil rights before acknowledging that he finally came
out strongly for the cause after the pressure became too great to
resist.

Beschloss cuts off his narrative at 1989, giving it a neatly
rounded 200-year reach from Washington's time to our own. This
tactic also saves him from the historical minefield of comment on
more recent events that are still hotly debated. But the parallels
are intriguing: John Adams's willingness to talk to the French
(people most Americans regarded as enemies), Franklin Roosevelt's
quiet toleration of warrantless wiretapping, the belief of both FDR
and Theodore Roosevelt that sometimes it may be necessary for the
good of the nation to bend the Constitution ever so slightly. When
future historians take up these hot potatoes, one hopes they will
do so with the grace and eloquence of Michael Beschloss.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 19, 2011

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989
by Michael Beschloss

  • Publication Date: May 8, 2007
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0684857057
  • ISBN-13: 9780684857053