The Heroic and the Crass

Case studies in American presidential backbone


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

Great presidents achieve their stature not by presiding over calm, unchallenging periods but by confronting historic turning points and choosing the right course regardless of personal or political consequences. Courage is difficult to define. Some presidential decisions, including those to go to war, seem courageous when they are made but prove to be massively flawed in their outcome. Some decisions that seem both unpopular and seriously questionable when they are made come to be viewed as milestones in American progress.

As John F. Kennedy wrote in Profiles in Courage: “The stories of past courage can define that ingredient—they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot provide courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.”

Historian of the modern presidency Michael Beschloss now offers his version of profiles in courage, focusing his attention on nine presidents who confronted epic choices. In every case, the decision made was against popular opinion. This is history as human endeavor, about governance in the gritty public arena, involving struggles behind closed doors among profane, egotistical, often self-consumed and ambitious careerists who were more concerned with their own political standing than with the long-term interests of the nation.

Surprisingly, Beschloss’s avatars of courage almost always did the right thing. More often than not, presidents—waffling under pressure from advisers interested more in the president’s career and popularity (and their own) than in enhancing the nation’s character—seek to avoid decision, hoping that procrastination will deliver them from the agony of resolution.

In virtually every case that Beschloss depicts, the virtue of courage is more apparent in retrospect than at the moment of decision. John Kennedy’s conversion to the cause of civil rights, Harry Truman’s minimalist but critical recognition of the State of Israel, and Ronald Reagan’s late embrace of détente and nuclear arms reduction—all resulted, in varying degrees, when these men were backed into a corner and forced to decide.

Beschloss has written popular history in the best sense of the word, readable and absorbing, humanizing and lacking in theory and abstraction. It is no less important or persuasive for being popular. Adorned with new information, it is history as portraiture. In his profiles, the descriptions of courageous actions of the earlier presidents—Washington’s endorsement of the Jay Treaty; John Adams’s support for the peace treaty with France (the Convention of Mortefontaine); Andrew Jackson’s veto of the Second Bank of the United States; Lincoln’s pronouncement of the Emancipation Proclamation; and Theodore Roosevelt’s battle with J. P. Morgan and the trusts—read much differently than do the descriptions of courageous actions of later presidents—Franklin Roosevelt’s battle with isolationist anti-war forces and those stories of Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan.

The difference seems to come from the material available to historians—they are able to use living witnesses and transcripts of secret Oval Office recordings for presidents in the current age but only official papers and written history for presidents in the past. The “historical” presidents appear statesmanlike, disinterested, and grander than the modern presidents, who seem crass, self-interested, and flawed. Examples abound. Adams thought his peace mission was “the most splendid diamond in my crown; or, if anyone thinks this expression too monarchical, I will say, the most brilliant feather in my cap.” Pressured by Zionists, Truman told his staff: “These Goddamned Jews are never satisfied. They’re always grabbing for more. We don’t need them in November. To hell with them!” Few in current times would deny that warts-and-all journalism, abetted by talkative staffs and advisers, has dimmed the aura of the presidency. (Historians might argue that presidents dim their own aura.)

There are exceptions, of course. One of Beschloss’s most moving scenes has John Kennedy, who had argued strongly against the civil rights March on Washington, listening to some of the speeches and songs from a third-floor White House window and saying to his black doorman, “Oh, Bruce, I wish I were out there with them.” Less than three months later he was dead.

Although almost all of Beschloss’s anecdotes are interesting, even fascinating, not all of them relate directly to the incidents of courage. Instead, many anecdotes are scene-setting and contextual: Washington renting the Morris house in Philadelphia; Adams wearing a brigade commander’s uniform, complete with ceremonial sword, during the XYZ Affair; Lincoln, while under fire, observing Jubal Early’s troops on Washington’s outskirts; the contentious relationship between FDR and Joseph Kennedy; and the sad demise of Clark Clifford, adviser to Truman (and later to Johnson). All are embroidery on the central sagas of courage, not central to them.

There are a few instances of uncharacteristically scrambled syntax—“As his carriage bounced along, nervous and underweight from months of worry” (John Adams) and “Frowning with his narrow lips” (Henry Clay)—to suggest haste in the composition of the otherwise fluent and scholarly Beschloss prose. These are minor considerations in gauging a work sure to attract a large audience. Presidential Courage demonstrates the great difference between thoughtful and brave, though sometimes reluctant, decisions, couched in a serious understanding of history, and those decisions foolishly made with indifference toward American history and little understanding of their inevitable consequences.

In a more perfect world, candidates for the American presidency would be scrutinized less for their fundraising ability and more for their exhibition of courage. Apparently finding this unlikely, Beschloss concludes with a negative description of politics from a man who would later become president: “so expensive, so mechanized, and so dominated by professional politicians and public relations men. . . . [Thanks to] the tremendous power of mass communications . . . any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protest.” That was John Kennedy, and the year was 1955.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Gary Hart is a former U.S. Senator and candidate for the presidency, and the author of The Courage of Our Convictions: A Manifesto for Democrats.


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