Historian Beschloss talks past, future

By Alexandra Kukulka

When children are young, their parents tend to take them on trips to museums or parks to help their growth and development. As an 8-year-old, Michael Beschloss, today one of the best country’s most noted presidential historians, visited the Lincoln sights in Springfield, Ill., where he discovered his passion for presidents. By age 10, he knew he wanted to write history books.

Now, years later, Beschloss has written nine books, eight of which were bestsellers, and become a TV correspondent for NBC. He will be giving a speech at Columbia on March 8 as the last speaker for the 2011–2012 Conversations in the Arts series.

The Chronicle sat down with Beschloss to talk about his speech, his book and the future of the country.

The Chronicle: Why is the topic of your speech presidential courage?

Michael Beschloss: It’s actually the title of my last book. The reason I am talking about it now is that it is one of the biggest questions I think you can ask of the presidential candidates. Is this someone who, if he were president and had to make a decision for the national interest that might make him unpopular, would he do it or would he follow the polls? I think that, as we are looking at these candidates this year, that is one of the most important questions we can ask.

The Chronicle: How do you define presidential courage?

MB: I think it is having an idea of where the nation should be and feeling so strongly about that vision that even if it means that you might not get re-elected or it might mean that your polls go down, you are going to pursue it.

The Chronicle: Who is your favorite president and why?

MB: I’m not saying he was the greatest president in history, but I am awfully interested in Lyndon Johnson. I did two books on about 400 hours of Johnson in private conversation on tape. It’s a very good example of a president who has aspects that were absolutely great and other aspects that were, in certain ways, awful.

The Chronicle: In the book, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy,” how were you able to obtain her notes and recordings?

MB: She had talked into a tape recorder for eight hours, three months after her husband was assassinated. Her idea was that these tapes would be locked up for 100 years, and her daughter Caroline decided about two years ago it was time to open them early, so it was her decision to open it.She contacted me and asked if I would edit them and foot the conversations, so I did.

The Chronicle: Why did you choose to write about the political side versus the war tactics of World War II in your book, “The Conquerors?”

MB: At the time, I started to write this book about 20 years ago, an awful lot of books had been written about World War II.  One question that was interesting to me and which is what the book is about was, when a president is fighting a war that is one problem he has: At the same time as he fights the war, he also has to plan what happens when he wins. In Roosevelt’s case, what kind of planning did he do during the war to make sure that if we conquered Germany, that there would never be another Adolf Hitler? As it turned out, Roosevelt did spend a lot of time thinking about that and planning. Another question I had was, why Roosevelt did not do more about the Holocaust?

The Chronicle: What is next for you?

MB: I am now working on a book about presidents and war, from the War of 1812 to the present. It’s essentially how presidents get into wars and how they run them.

The Chronicle: What do you think will be the outcome of the GOP primary race?

MB: From everything we see now, it is more likely than not that Mitt Romney will be the nominee, and if he is nominated he will almost have to take a Tea Party running mate. He will run on a platform that is probably a lot more conservative than he is. The result is that even if he is nominated, he might find it a very challenging experience.

The Chronicle: What is your hope for the future of the country?

MB: I hope that we can get over the poisonous antagonism that there is now. I think the Founding Fathers would be horrified to come back and see that so many people in Congress do not speak to people on the other side. I’d like to see that change, but I am doubtful that it will happen soon.