Presidential Courage (by Michael Beschloss)

Of Myths and Men

President Theodore Roosevelt walked the talk,  carrying a big stick in his trust busting campaigns.
President Theodore Roosevelt walked the talk, carrying a big stick in his trust busting campaigns. (1902 / Underwood & Underwood)
Reviewed by Alan Wolfe
Sunday, June 3, 2007


Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989

By Michael Beschloss

Simon & Schuster. 430 pp. $28

It has become a cliché to point out that while academic historians write dense, imponderable tomes to get tenure, popular historians satisfy the public hunger with powerfully written and engaging narratives. This cliché could be disproved in two ways: Academics could write terrific histories, and popular historians could write dreadful ones.

Michael Beschloss picks the second option. Presidential Courage is boring, repetitive and badly written. It tells us nothing we did not know before. And it substitutes melodrama for the actualities of history.

The thesis of Beschloss's book is that presidents sometimes act courageously. Like one of his heroes, John F. Kennedy, Beschloss defines courage as the willingness to do the right thing rather than the popular thing. The rest of the book is devoted to offering examples of this not very stunning insight. Included are George Washington's support of the unpopular Jay Treaty, John Adams's willingness to break with extreme Federalists, Andrew Jackson's successful struggle with Nicholas Biddle and the Second National Bank, Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Teddy Roosevelt's trust busting, FDR's leadership during America's entry into World War II, Harry Truman's support for a Jewish state, John F. Kennedy's fight for civil rights, and Ronald Reagan's decision to ignore the hard-line anti-communists in his party to find common ground with Mikhail Gorbachev.

To tell his tale, Beschloss writes chapters that rarely exceed 10 pages. He is fond of paragraphs that contain only one sentence. With the possible exception of John Adams, none of the presidents he chooses is controversial or surprising. And what he says about each has been said many times before: Andrew Jackson was a man to whom honor was important, Teddy Roosevelt overcame his poor physical health, and Ronald Reagan liked to talk about his movie roles. It is as if Beschloss never wants to tax the minds of his readers. He taxes their attention span instead, for it is easier to read longer narratives filled with fascinating twists and turns than to work one's way through Beschloss's choppy, disconnected stories.

Once one of these stories has been told, moreover, one gets the point of them all. Where does courage come from? Let's try God. So despite the fact that America's presidents vary greatly in their faith commitments, Beschloss's presidents invariably turn to religion for reassurance. Jackson "drew strength from his religious belief and Bible reading." Lincoln was able to face possible political defeat because he "drew in part on his religious faith." Harry Truman "tried to be a serious Christian." Ronald Reagan "was in fact a determined Christian." Life rarely follows a script. Beschloss's lives of the presidents always do.

One of America's greatest historians, academic and popular at the same time, was Richard Hofstadter, and he turned to historical figures to teach his readers about the ironic and the unexpected. But Beschloss is not only predictable in the presidents he chooses, he is also completely conventional in choosing the acts of courage that define them.

Harry Truman offers one example. Truman defended the Jewish right to a homeland, even though he was warned by Secretary of State George Marshall about the potential strategic importance of the Arabs. As much as I am glad that Truman gave his support to Israel, how courageous was his action? It helped him raise money for his 1948 campaign, and he thought it might help him win New York, which in the event he did not. Given what we now know, it would have been more courageous if Truman had taken Marshall's advice more seriously. Greater balance in American foreign policy then might have led to greater security in the Middle East now.

Then there is the Ronald Reagan question. Reagan was once dismissed as an ignoramus, but now a significant number of historians have come to accept his greatness. No challenge to that conventional wisdom can be found here. Beschloss puts Reagan in his pantheon because he showed the courage to deal with the Russians. But Reagan's insistence on America's innocence prepared the way for the wild-eyed neo-conservative fantasy that became America's humiliation in Iraq. A more courageous president might have tried to teach his people about the complexities of the world. Whatever else he did, Reagan never did that.

Beschloss concludes his book by saying that some of his courageous presidents learned the art of leadership by reading about the past. Let us hope that no future presidents turn to this book in search of insights about how to lead. For if they did, they would learn more about how presidents can be turned into myths than about the actual decisions they had to make. ·

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and is writing a book about why liberalism matters.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company