By Julianna Parker
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.
One student brought up similar arguments when Beschloss asked students if they thought President George W. Bush would be viewed by historians as a success or a failure.
The student said no one can really know until they know the intelligence Bush knows.
Beschloss said historians often judge war presidents by how they brought the United States into war. If they were honest, as Franklin D. Roosevelt was, then historians laud them, he said. If they were dishonest, as Lyndon B. Johnson was, historians crucify them, he said.
Boren said he thought Bush pushed for an Iraq invasion because he wanted to finish what his father started.
But he told the American public they were going in for weapons of mass destruction, Beschloss said. If he really believed that, history will understand, he said. But if he only used that as a pretext, historians will judge him.
“Only President Bush knows that, and that’s why we have to wait 30 or 40 years,” Beschloss said.
Beschloss described what he considered presidential courage, using examples of Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Both were seeking reelection and advisers told them to change policies they believed in. Roosevelt stuck with his campaign of national defense, but convinced the public it was necessary. Lincoln eventually stood by his emancipation proclamation.
“He flirted with doing the wrong thing and was too great a man to do it,” Beschloss said of Lincoln.
Beschloss admitted he could be biased, because he grew up in Lincoln's Illinois.
When asked by Boren who the greatest president was, Beschloss said he’s changed his mind after recent study.
Washington is neck and neck with Lincoln for greatest president, if not a bit better, he said.
“So much of this presidency has to do with the precedents Washington set,” he said.
Boren agreed with Beschloss’ judgment. Boren said he recently read the foreign policies of Washington and wished more people adhered to them.
John Adams, who learned foreign policy from Washington, said something that applies to the U.S. war today, Beschloss said.
“Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war,” he quoted.
“Let us hope a historian in the future doesn’t use that to describe Iraq,” Beschloss said.
If this conversation had happened in 2000, Beschloss said he would have said Vietnam was so painful that the country has learned lessons it will always remember. Now the same mistakes are being made, he said.
“It is supremely heartbreaking and depressing for me in my profession,” he said. “… We have not learned those lessons and it makes me think people in my profession are not doing their job.”
After the dinner, Beschloss answered a question about what future historians would use to write presidential history if the first advice from a presidential lawyer is to not put anything in writing.
“This is going to be a problem,” he said.
Julianna Parker writes for The Norman (Okla.) Transcript.