A Conversation With Michael Beschloss

Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss visits Colonial Williamsburg and shares his views on the changes technology brings to politics and the presidency, and ruminates on the importance of place.


Untitled Document

Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Today it’s our great honor to welcome renowned presidential historian and author Michael Beschloss. He’s joined us as part of our occasional series on modern leaders and how we think about the legacy of the founding generation and the evolution of democracy. Michael, thank you for being here today.

Michael Beshcloss: It’s a pleasure, Harmony. Great to see you.

Harmony: When you think about the job of the president, from the first to the 44th, do you think that the nature of the job of the president has changed: the essential job of the president?

Michael: Has in a lot of ways, but if you had to think of one it would be this. When George Washington was president, when he had to make a decision, he had a little time. For instance, in 1795 when he was thinking what to do about the danger that the British might come after us and try to extinguish this country -- which caused him to send John Jay to London and do a treaty that would keep the British from doing that -- he had some time to think about what was the right thing to do and what the consequences would be.

Nowadays, because a President is always in the public eye and is expected -- because of things like Twitter and the internet -- to be, you know, responsive all the time, Presidents oftentimes find themselves having to make much more instant decisions than perhaps they’d like to, or perhaps in some cases are good for the country.

Harmony: What a fascinating thought. So I guess it’s a matter of opinion to say whether that is an improvement or a downfall of modern technology that would force you to make decisions more quickly.

Michael: It’s a good thing in terms of the fact that the founders wanted presidents to be very responsive to public opinion. But you know, one way of looking at it is, 1962 President Kennedy had to decide what to do about missiles in Cuba. We now know that if he had done what his instant reaction was, he would have bombed and invaded the island, would have led to a nuclear war that could have led to 40 million dead. Because he had a week to think about it, he actually did something much more moderate that averted that catastrophe.

Harmony: We were talking about whether the presidency has changed, where maybe the essential job of the President has changed. What do you say the essential job of the President is?

Michael: At this moment, the most core purpose of the president is to preserve the security of the people who live here, if you had to just think of what the absolute bedrock foundation of what a president does. Because of threats from terrorism and because of all sorts of new kinds of threats, a president spends an awful lot more of his time thinking and worrying about those things than he did perhaps even 15 years ago.

Harmony: And what about in terms of giving the nation a sense of security, of having a foundation, as sort of a moral leader? Do you think that’s as important as the Commander in Chief duty?

Michael: Yes. Presidents are in our face much more than they were for most of American history. If Grover Cleveland was not a particularly good speaker -- and he wasn’t particularly -- and if he was not a particularly compelling personality, you know, that wouldn’t bother you too much because your main exposure to Grover Cleveland would be you might read his speeches in the newspaper. Perhaps your ward boss would come and tell you about him, but you wouldn’t be watching him on TV or on the internet or reading about him perhaps on something like Twitter. Now a President is just there all the time, is with you almost always, and so therefore the personal aspect is more important than perhaps sometimes it should be.

Harmony: One of the reasons we love Lincoln so much is that he was a writer. Nowadays, presidents have speechwriters and strategists and pollsters. Do you think something is lost in the immediacy and the intimacy of writing for yourself even though it might take longer, it’s somewhat more removed?

Michael: No question, because one of the good things about writing if you’re a political leader is that you sit down, you think about a problem and if you’re writing about it you’re going to think about it in a different way than if you’re just chatting about it, you know, making a speech off the cuff.

So if you have someone like Abraham Lincoln, who thought hard about the most important issues and wrote about them beautifully, that’s something you’d want from that period. Nowadays, because presidents as I’ve suggested are supposed to be on stage all the time and oftentimes speak in sound bites, in a way it would almost be counter-productive. And that’s sad.

Harmony: One of the questions I wanted to talk to you about was whether technology has changed the presidency, but it sounds like you’re already telling me, “yes.” So from photography, to radio, to television and now Facebook and Twitter, how have those things changed with each sort of era? How have those things opened up the Presidency or changed it and changed the way that citizens relate to the president?

Michael: Well the people around the President are, if they’re doing their job, they’re very sensitive to the fact that one image can do a lot to undermine a Presidency. For instance, in the fall of 1979, Jimmy Carter, when he was President, was in a marathon race in Maryland near Camp David. It was a hot day and he had not drunk enough water and he actually collapsed. And there’s a picture of that.

At the time, that became very damaging to Carter, because people said, “This is a symbol for the general state of his presidency. There are prices that are getting too high and the Soviets are much more aggressive than we think that they should be and he’s not doing enough about energy.” So that one picture did a lot of political harm to him. The result is that nowadays, people who advise a president in some cases spend 24 hours a day making sure that there is not an image like that that can do similar harm.

Harmony: Imagery seems like one of your hobbies. When I look at your Times column, when I look at your Twitter feed, there’s such a fascination in the images that you dredge up from the depths of these archives. What is it about photography and these moments that’s so engaging for you, that makes history so relatable?

Michael: Well, we’re living in a more visual society nowadays and I am not an expert in brain chemistry, but I think people are much more able to and inclined to take in visual information and think it tells them something important. So that when you see, for instance, one image I’m actually sort of interested in is there’s an image of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in November of 1960 just before the election. And they’re at an airport and Johnson is shouting and pointing and Kennedy is trying to restrain him.

And you look at that, and it’s interesting you wonder, “What’s going on here?” But you look at that through the lens of what we now know about later history and it almost looks as if Kennedy is trying to restrain an aggressive LBJ from getting the nation involved deeply in the Vietnam War. I think in politics now we’re so almost trained to look at commercials and, in many cases, make political decisions on the basis of what we see rather than necessarily what we read and think. That speaks very powerfully.

Harmony: These images that you find are more than just handshake moments. You must spend hours…

Michael: …which would be very boring to me…

Harmony: What do you look for in an image? You seem to have an incredible knack for finding these hidden moments, these very personal moments, that say so much about people in their natural state.

Michael: Well I think something that tells you something about the person or people who are in these images that is first of all spontaneous. Because remember I was just talking about these people around presidents who were on guard to make certain there’s no negative image that appears. The result is that presidents and candidates nowadays are so completely unspontaneous that people are bored by politics; its one reason why a lot of people check out.

So you’re looking for something that is spontaneous. But also since I deal with historical imagery, you know, to the extent that I’m looking at pictures, I’m looking for things where not only is it a spontaneous image, but something that tells us something larger about the historical moment I’m dealing with.

Harmony: We’re looking ahead to a presidential election, and a lot of people are thinking about what kind of qualities the next president will need to have to lead the country.

When you think about the presidency, what qualities do you think are going to be most important and personally what qualities do you hope for most?

Michael: Well if you’re a presidential candidate, you’re going to be surrounded by people who are telling you to play it safe. Here’s what the polls tell you, here’s the speech you should give that’s going to offend the smallest number of people and that’s natural. But we as Americans, what you want is a leader who will take all that in, but use that information and say, “All right, well, if I’m going to take a hit on something with my poll ratings this is the issue where I want to take an unpopular stand and move people along.” You want somebody whose instincts are in that direction.

And at the same time, you were talking about personal skills, you don’t want someone who’s just going to say, “All right, I don’t mind losing the election and taking an unpopular stand.” You want them also to have the skills that will allow them to explain to people why it’s the right thing to do.

For instance, Abraham Lincoln in 1864 was very unpopular in certain quarters because he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Many Northern Americans were saying, “You know, we’re fine with the Civil War to reunite North and South, but now it’s a war to free the slaves and we didn’t sign on for that.” Lincoln stuck with it, but at the same time he said, “I think I can explain this to you in a way that you’ll support.” And so he said, “I know that you may be unhappy with the Emancipation Proclamation, but look at it as a necessary war measure. When I declared it, 100,000 African Americans came from the South to the North. They’re now working in our Union war effort. If I cancelled it, they might go back. We might lose the war.” The two sides is what you want in a leader.

Harmony: You’re here today to help us mark the naturalization ceremony of some new citizens. As you think about immigration and naturalization and citizens coming to us from other countries what strikes you about the importance of that process to the American citizenry?

Michael: Well, we’re all immigrants. When Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution during his second term he began with sort of a joke, you know, “Fellow immigrants,” which at the time was considered quite daring because these were descendants of the original Americans. But they knew that they had come from immigrant families, too, although it had been a while. But if you look across American history, all sorts of reasons why we are a unique country. One of them is that in every single generation we’re a society that others want to join and that’s one of the secrets of our success. If we ever cease to become that way, in a way we’ll be ceasing to become the United States.

Harmony: Why are we a society that everyone wants to join?

Michael: Mainly our political system, and that has made us vital through all sorts of changes that in many cases have defeated other countries. And that’s why it’s so important, you know, coming back to here we are in Colonial Williamsburg: the ideas that went into that Constitution. Sometimes we forget about it, but it’s just astonishing that that Constitution serves us so well here in the 21st century which is so different from the period that the founders were living in.

Harmony: It gets us into a bit of trouble, too, when we think about our international policy, whether this democracy that works for us so well can be translated into foreign nations. Do we get into some hot water when we presume that the democracy that works for us can be exported to other countries? Do we have any right to try to involve ourselves?

Michael: That’s one of the oldest arguments in American history. George Washington left with his Farewell Address warning against entangling alliances. He’d be very unhappy about that. Thomas Jefferson who was his first term Secretary of State, of course, was the one who wanted the contagion of democracy spread around the world. So in the first four years of the first president you had this debate, you know, within between the president and his own secretary of state; same thing we’re dealing with right now.

Harmony: History is preserved in memory, in writing, in images, but you’ve been thinking today about the importance of place. What is the impact of being in the place where history happened, for example, here in Colonial Williamsburg?

Michael: Well, here we are in a society that sadly, and I know this because of the profession I’m in, our historical memory is shrinking every hour. I wish I could say otherwise. Americans are not as aware of history as they probably were 20 or 30 years ago. One case in point: 1940 Franklin Roosevelt gave a radio address about the danger in Europe and he said, “Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our society been in such danger.” And I think despite the excellent efforts of everyone here at Colonial Williamsburg including myself, you know, I like to think I’m allied with what is being done here. I think probably a lot of Americans know about Plymouth Rock, probably fewer do know about Jamestown now than perhaps they did in 1940. That’s the kind of thing that we’re dealing with.

So the point I’m making is, that if you have something like Colonial Williamsburg or Mount Vernon or Monticello, not everyone is going to read a history book, but you can get them to attend a place like this and to go through these streets and see the way the people related to one another and it’s almost impossible not then to be curious about the political ideals and ideas that made a place like this possible.

Harmony: This discussion of the diminishing awareness of American history kind of begs the question, “What can we do to improve it? Do we start with students? Do we reach out to adults? How can we make history as interesting as it for people?”

Michael: Well I think my view is that you have to work pretty hard to make American history boring, but at the same time a lot of people do work pretty hard and manage to do that.

But a lot of the problems are, for instance, here we are at a time with diminishing budgets and public schools are getting less money and history is being less and less taught and perhaps taught less and less well. And that’s because state legislatures think that they can cut history programs without getting very much political penalty for it.

 And so I think, you know, it’s not going to happen overnight, but all of us who care about this have to make the point that if you want the society to exist in the future one of the things that is absolutely crucial is Americans have to know about their history. I mean if they do not know about the idealism and the sacrifice that went into the revolution and managed to found this country in the first place, hard to see how you can get through some of the bad times.

Harmony: Michael Beschloss, it’s been a pleasure and an honor to have you here with us today. Thank you for coming by.

Michael: Me too, Harmony, thank you for asking me.


  1. Great message that we need to be aware of our history.
    I remember great summer vacations as a kid with my parents to Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, DC, battlefields, etc. To this day, I still love reading about American history, visiting historic sites, and talking about it. And, I’m continuing the tradition with my kids today.
    “That the future may learn from the past”

  2. I’m sure that this is not the proper way to reach you but I shall give it a try. I have read presidential biographies up to Bill CLINTON and I now want to read one about George W Bush. What would you recommend as the definitive biography of him.
    I have seen you many times on televisio, so I have the foolish notion that I know you.

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