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November 6, 2007

Historian: How to judge a president

NORMAN, Okla. — Historians often judge presidents differently from their contemporary public, and presidents would do well to learn from history, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Beschloss and University of Oklahoma President David Boren led an informal discussion with about 100 OU students Monday.

One of the key roles of a historian is to hold current presidents accountable not to repeat history’s mistakes, Beschloss said.

“If you’re making mistakes, make sure they’re your own mistakes,” he said.

A President’s Associates dinner and keynote address featuring Beschloss followed the discussion. At the dinner, he spoke of the important role of courage in presidencies, most notably that of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and John Kennedy.

Beschloss is the author of eight books, his most recent the New York Times bestseller “The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945,” and this year’s “Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989.”

Beschloss serves as NBC News presidential historian and appears regularly on NBC and PBS programs.

He is an alumnus of Williams College and also holds an advanced degree from the Harvard Business School. He has been a historian on the Smithsonian Institution staff; a senior associate member at Oxford University, England; and a senior Fellow of the Annenberg Foundation in Washington, D.C. He holds honorary doctorates from Williams College, St. Mary’s College in Maryland, and Lafayette College.

Despite such distinction, Beschloss seems to excel at making history accessible to a broad audience, Boren said.

Beschloss admitted it’s easier to write about history than current events, primarily because there is so much more perspective and information available later.

For example, at the time Dwight Eisenhower was president, the public thought he was weak and ineffective. Years later, when government documents were unclassified, historians discovered Eisenhower had diffused many dangerous situations based on classified intelligence.

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