Presidential courage: This wasn't it

June 03, 2007|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

Presidential Courage

Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989

By Michael Beschloss

Simon & Schuster / 430 pages / $28

Published in 1956, John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage became a national best-seller. The book celebrated the uncommon courage of eight politicians who risked their careers by taking principled, but unpopular, positions. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for "teaching patriotic and unselfish service to the people."

Profiles in Courage is the model for Presidential Courage. Michael Beschloss, an independent historian and contributor to The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, celebrates nine presidents who "made courageous decisions for the national interest although they knew they might be jeopardizing their careers." His heroes are "not saints, but anxious, self-protective politicians." But their caution, he implies, makes them all the more admirable for taking risks on the abiding issues of their time.

A talented storyteller, Beschloss packs Presidential Courage with interesting anecdotes. Thomas Jefferson, we learn, coined the term "war hawks," while John Adams popularized "terrorist;" Bess Truman refused to entertain Jews in her home; Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a whispering campaign about Wendell Willkie's mistress; and Nancy Reagan slept with her husband's shirt while "The Gipper" was in the hospital.

But Beschloss' claims for presidential courage are not credible. He argues, for example, that by prosecuting J.P. Morgan's Northern Securities Company for violating antitrust laws, Theodore Roosevelt risked re-election in 1904 and the possibility that his enemies would "destroy his character." But plans to prosecute the company were initiated before Roosevelt took office. And Roosevelt balanced his "trust-buster" image, which enhanced his popularity, with assurances to corporations that "extreme care" must be taken not to interfere with the mechanism of modern business "in a spirit of rashness or ignorance." Nor were Roosevelt's renomination and re-election ever in doubt. Morgan, Beschloss acknowledges, donated $150,000 to his campaign. And Roosevelt won in a landslide.

Beschloss' account of John F. Kennedy also selects, shades, simplifies and skips evidence to fit his thesis. He documents Kennedy's lukewarm record on civil rights. Angling for the vice-presidential nomination in 1956, Kennedy declined to endorse the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. A year later, he voted to weaken an already weak civil rights bill. As president, Kennedy made every effort to avoid sending federal troops to ensure that James Meredith was admitted to the University of Mississippi. He belatedly sent a minor voting rights bill to Congress - and did not lobby for it.

Kennedy had a change of heart when George C. Wallace blocked the doors to the University of Alabama in 1963, Beschloss insists. Kennedy's televised address to the nation "was the boldest of his presidency. No longer did he offer a muzzled apology for enforcing the law." Although he thought intervention might prove "his political swan song," the president told his brother Bobby, "If we're going to go down, let's go down on a matter of principle."

Beschloss takes this rhetoric at face value. He fails to note that behind Kennedy's forceful, eloquent and unequivocal endorsement of racial justice were Northern liberals demanding that he act decisively. The president knew that he risked as much - or more - by remaining silent as he did by speaking out. Despite his rhetoric, moreover, Kennedy continued to vacillate on civil rights. Getting legislation through Congress required an all-out effort, and he hesitated to spend political capital on what he thought a lost cause. Kennedy's predictions that civil rights might cost him the election of 1964, biographer Robert Dallek suggests, were calculated to persuade activists to drop provisions for the desegregation of public accommodations. And Kennedy did everything possible to get the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to cancel the March on Washington. After King's historic oration, Kennedy told civil rights leaders that the event would have no impact on legislators. He suggested that they concentrate instead on educating their children. Along with most historians, Dallek concludes that Kennedy could have made - and did not make - civil rights "the one great domestic moral cause of his presidency."

Historians, in fact, will take issue with many of Beschloss' presidential profiles in courage. Would John Adams have won re-election by playing "front man" for Federalist warmongering against France? Did Andrew Jackson really think he might die - or have his presidency toppled - if he vetoed the charter of the Bank of the United States? Wasn't Harry Truman's recognition of the State of Israel motivated more by domestic political considerations than by a determination to risk the resignation of Secretary of State George Marshall and do what "he was sure was right"?

Courage is a morally loaded term. We tend to forget that when it's exercised in behalf of causes we don't like, we call it stubbornness. All the more reason, then, to hold our biographers to high standards when they ask us to draw inspiration from our "brave" leaders.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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