Final thoughts, Michael Beschloss

By Alexandra Kukulka

With the G8 summit moving to Camp David, the Illinois primary on March 20 and the Republicans campaigning for electoral votes, politics are in the spotlight. Columbia is staying on the trend with its last event in the 2011–2012 Conversation in the Arts series hosted by the school of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Presidential historian, author and political commentator Michael Beschloss discussed presidential courage March 8 at the Conway Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.  Beschloss focused on using history to understand current events and how it helps us consider the qualities of past presidents when choosing candidates for the highest office.

Beschloss began by explaining that the problem with being a presidential historian is becoming obsessed with one president. He cited his own example of writing two books about former President Lyndon Johnson, based on tapes of Johnson’s private conversations with his wife and advisers.

According to Beschloss, Johnson’s Texas expressions were difficult for him to understand at first. He noted a moment on the tape in which Johnson said “Pakistan ambassador,” but his accent made it sound like “a pack of bastards.”

“Part of it was, on [Johnson’s] tapes you get to about 5 o’clock in the afternoon and you hear these ice cubes in the background, and his accent starts to get thicker and thicker,” he said.

According to Beschloss, the role of a presidential historian is to go through old records such as Johnson’s tapes, diaries and press releases to present the president in a three-dimensional way.

When voting for presidents in this day and age, Beschloss said he uses his knowledge of past presidents to look for qualities he wants the next president to have. He suggested that all Americans should vote in this manner.

Beschloss’ reached back to 1795 and George Washington’s term in office. According to him, Washington had a feeling that the British were going to invade the country, so he signed a treaty with them. Because of this, Americans called Washington a British spy and wanted him impeached.

This was the first time Washington was not well-received by Americans, which upset him because he “loved to be loved,” according to Beschloss, who said Americans have to look for presidents who will make tough decisions that are best for the country but may cause them to be unpopular.

“Washington, in making that decision and enduring that kind of pain, I think was essentially saying, ‘You Americans should look at future presidents and say, “Is this someone who is going to do the right thing, or is this someone who is intoxicated with popularity?”’” Beschloss said.

Beschloss also spoke of Abraham Lincoln’s ability to persuade an audience. After being told he would probably lose reelection and Illinois, Lincoln was urged by advisers not to go through with the Emancipation Proclamation because his goal was to reunite the North and South. Lincoln ignored their advice and announced the Civil War wouldn’t be over until slaves were freed.

Lincoln ultimately decided he needed to distance himself from the Emancipation Proclamation, however, because his successor would continue the war if he didn’t win. He was worried this would lead to a permanent split between the North and South. As a lawyer, Lincoln convinced Americans to see his logic.

“What you want is someone who is going to make the right decision like Washington but also have the skills of persuasion to be able to go on television and say to Americans, ‘I am going to make an unpopular decision. You may at first think it is the wrong idea, [but] let me try and persuade you,’” Beschloss said. “That is what Lincoln did with the Emancipation [Proclamation].”

Another quality that a president should have is knowledge of history, Beschloss said. He has spoken to previous presidents who told him that some issues were so complex they made a decision based on instinct even after listening to both sides of the argument. Beschloss said he believes history can help with these decisions.

“It does help to know that if you are facing a tough decision, maybe the wheel hasn’t been invented this time,”

he said.

The ability to work with the other side is one more quality a president should possess, Beschloss said. According to him, the current polarization of Congress is poisonous, unlike the open dialogue that took place in the past.

The night ended with a Q-and-A session on topics such as the current election season, relationships between presidents and vice presidents, foreign policy and political action committees.

“The decision was made to go with Beschloss because we had heard him speak before, and he is an absolutely wonderful speaker and a presenter,” said Eric Winston, vice president of Institutional Advancement. “We felt also that [because of the] political season that we are in now that he would have some things to say.”

Beschloss also introduced Kristine Condon, his former first grade teacher’s daughter who is now a history teacher at Kankakee Community College, and who had come to hear him speak.

“I think Michael is a wonderfully gifted presenter,” Condon said. “He keeps an audience’s attention [and] he has clear passion for what he does. This is who he is.”