A Troubling Sort of Courage

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Review of Michael Beschloss, Presidential Courage

I had high expectations of Michael Beschloss’ Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, but must say that I was disappointed. I had expected stirring narratives of cases where presidents stuck to their guns in the face of criticism and opposition. That’s more or less what’s here, but still, I found the book more like a snack than a meal. Beschloss is a commentator for the Lehrer News Hour on PBS and for NBC News. Now, those aren’t necessarily great credentials for a historian — the most famous news broadcast historians, like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose are best known in academic circles not for their ground-breaking research, but for their plagiarism. Outside of academia, though, they’re known for books that are fun to read. I expected more or less the same from Beschloss, but somehow he didn’t deliver.

My first complaint with the book might be seen as overly picky. Basically, I just thought the narrative was distracted and ill-constructed. You would think I had written it or something. Beschloss retells the stories of how a handful of presidents flew in the face of popular opinion and powerful adversaries to do what they saw as the right thing. Sounds good, but typically fails to build toward a dramatic moment. In a large number of cases I reached the end of the chapter and thought, “Oh, I guess that was the act of courage.” Meanwhile, there are what seem to me to be a lot of asides because they are interesting factoids, not because they drive a compelling story. In other words, I had to work to finish this book, but a long, boring plane flight saw me through it. That said, who really cares? I’m an academic and the one sin that is easily forgiven in academia is being boring. So though I think Beschloss could really tighten his stories, it’s not a mortal sin by any means.

What I found most troubling about the book is the unstated premise. It is not merely about presidents who stand up to their adversaries, risking their reputation in order to do what’s right. It is specifically about presidents who acted so and then were judged correct by history. So what’s wrong with that? Simply this: it creates the impression that it is a good thing for a president to do what he sees as right even when there is overwhelming opinion to the contrary. So though we hear about Kennedy pushing for civil rights (albeit after a long period of foot-dragging), we do not hear about Herbert Hoover failing to act in the face of bank failures and growing Depression. Hoover did not fail to act because he was was utterly incompetent, but because he was a Coolidge Republican who believed that the market was self-regulating and should be left alone. History has judged that harshly, but wasn’t his inaction an act of presidential courage? I remember reading a book by the founder of Delta Force who praised Jimmy Carter for the courage he showed in planning the hostage rescue in Iran and dealing with the aftermath of its failure. Carter is, of course, pilloried as the very picture of the bumbling president and so his act of courage is inconsequential.

So what’s wrong with the selection Beschloss makes? Well, we happen to be living under a president now who has made some very unpopular decisions in the face of great opposition and criticism. Of course, it is shameful how little criticism there was of those decisions early on, but that’s beside the point. Bush shows great courage in staying the course. Reading Beschloss, we would assume that every courageous but unpopular president is eventually vindicated. By implication, we should perhaps stand by George Bush because history will vindicate him? I don’t think so. Beschloss never mentions Bush, his terrible environmental, diplomatic and military policy, or the war in Iraq, so the unwritten message of the book might slide by unnoticed, but it’s dangerous. Yes, strong medecine is often as unpopular as it is necessary. But the fact is that poison is also pretty unpopular. The argument that it is laudable for presidents to fly in the face of popular opinion is, I must say, a troubling one for a democracy.

Finally, Beschloss looks only at one case where a president makes an unpopular decision to avoid war (Washington’s unpopular treaty with the British). Up against that are the decisions of three presidents to choose the path of war and conflict (Lincoln, Roosevelt and, I would say, Reagan who is profiled for his bellicose stance against the Soviets). Were these bad decisions? Not necessarily, but again, I think the unsaid message is that presidents who lead us into war end up being vindicated by history. So that would include, presumably, Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush? I don’t think so.

Overall, I find it troubling that Beschloss writes in a climate that mirrors those he writes about, and yet he reflects on it not one bit. Is it in hopes that we won’t notice? Maybe. So I leave this comment here in hopes that if anyone reads the book (maybe you’ll like it more than I did), at least you can be aware of the subtle undercurrent that drives the narrative.

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