Presidential Historian Reveals the Real Lives of Presidents

By Myra Saturen
April 19, 2013

The presidential became personal on April 18 at Northampton Community College's Spartan CenterMichael Becshloss as historian Michael Becshloss offered behind-the-scene glimpses at many of our country's chief executives.  Through anecdotes and analysis, he depicted many presidents struggling with great, critical decisions on the one hand and displaying common human traits on the other. 

NCC Presidential Ambassador Jaden Makovsky introduced Beschloss, who is the author of 9 bestselling books, including Presidential Power: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America and most recently Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy

Prior to his talk, Beschloss spent 90 minutes with NCC students, most of whom were in history, political science and criminal justice classes.  In a conversational style, he and they discussed historical events, and the students offered their views.  After meeting with about 65 students, Beschloss came away impressed.  "I wish everyone could have the opportunity I had," Beschloss said at his talk.  "The students I met were smart, articulate and they speak well for this college." 

He said, in fact, that one of his subjects, President Harry S. Truman, had a strong connection to community colleges. Born to poor parents, Truman was forbidden to engage in contact sports--he might break his thick glasses, and his parents could not afford repairs.  As a poor boy, his formal education ended with high school, but he read his way through his hometown library in Independence, Missouri.  One book that fascinated the future president was Great Men and Famous Women, a 4-volume tome ranging improbably from Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar to actress Sarah Bernhardt. 

"From the moment he became president," Beschloss said, "Truman remembered where he came from.  He has been called the "father of the community college system" for creating a commission that recommended expanding community colleges' role in education.   

Truman is only one of many presidents Beschloss has probed, thinking their thoughts to the point where he almost takes on their identities.  In understanding these presidents, Beschloss believes in patience and hindsight.  "You want to wait, to go back to material 40 to 50 years old," he said.  He gave several reasons for this delay: contemporaries often feel more comfortable revealing a president's traits after he is dead, and different interpretations emerge over time, along with previously unreleased documents. 

Hindsight confers perspective, too, Beschloss said.  Truman was criticized during his presidency for his salty language, especially for a pungent comment he made about Richard Nixon.  Today, he is recognized for his strategy for effectively dealing with the Soviet Union, a policy that ultimately led the Cold War to be resolved in the United States' favor. 

Decades later, Beschloss uncovered evidence of President John F. Kennedy's London meeting with Michael BecshlossBritish Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.  What did the statesmen talk about?    Contemporaneous newspapers reported them discussing the Cold War.  Meeting notes, made available to Beschloss a half century later told another story: they talked about bad press treatment of their wives.   

Beschloss finds presidential houses to be keen clues to their inhabitants' minds.  Thomas Jefferson's house, for instance, is filled with his domestic inventions, such as the swivel chair.  At Lyndon B. Johnson's ranch, he saw Lyndon Baines Johnson's amphicar, preserved by his hostess Lady Bird Johnson. (LBJ had died by that time.)  The car, which could run on land and water, served LBJ as a test of his aides' loyalty, according to associates.  Unaware that the vehicle could ride on water, an aide would step in for a jaunt.  As the car sped toward a lake head-on, Johnson would yell, "The brakes have failed!  We're going to die!"  Then he'd observe passenger's reaction: who did the aide try to save--the president or themself?

Beschloss spoke directly about Presidential Courage.  What qualities, he asked, make a great president? 

A willingness to do the right thing even when the consequences might be politically harmful. George Washington resisted great public pressure to attack the British in 1795, when English ships interfered with American ones.  Knowing that the British would win in another war with America, he instead sent John Jay to negotiate a treaty.  His decision preserved the fledgling country but came at a personal cost to Washington.  Once beloved, Washington heard cries of "Death to Washington." "He is a British agent."  Beschloss believes that the despondency Washington felt over this revilement may have hastened his death.

Ability to explain a tough decision.  By 1864, after three years of devastating civil war, some northern voters urged Abraham Lincoln to abandon the Emancipation Proclamation, in the belief that this stance would help him win re-election. Lincoln pondered this step but decided to press onward with his original plans.  "He had moral reasons, and he wanted to go down in history for freeing African Americans rather than merely preserving the Union.  He had faith in his ability to explain his position to northern voters," Beschloss said.  Lincoln framed his position as an issue of retaining the essential military support of African American Union soldiers.
A sense of history.  Just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, John F. Kennedy had read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August about the escalating fears and suspicions leading to World War I.  From this book, he had learned that in threatening times, neither side should signal to the other that it seeks war.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy took care that the U.S. did not send the wrong message. 

Ability to look at the other side.  "The Founders competed with each other, but at the end of the day they sat down together with a tankard of ale," Becshloss said.  Politicians used to be able to work across the aisle, a skill largely lost today.  As an illustration, Beschloss gave Lyndon B. Johnson's successful effort to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Knowing that southern Democrats would not support him, he turned instead to Republicans.  He used his close relationship with Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirkson and Dirksen's overweening ego to persuade Dirksen to support the bill.  Johnson told Dirksen, "If you're for the bill, it will pass and I will sign it.  A century from now the United States will have changed.  As a result, in one hundred years, schoolchildren will know only two famous names--Lyndon B. Johnson and Everett Dirkson."

After his talk Beschloss, answered questions from the audience.  He received a standing ovation from 800 attendees. 

The Beschloss talk was part of NCC's humanities theme for 2012-13, The American Presidency, made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  The NEH grant is among the largest the organization has ever made to a community college.   It earned NCC a "We the People" designation, placing it among a selective group of projects associated with an NEH initiative aimed at strengthening the teaching, study and understanding of American history and culture.  The lecture is made possible through the NEH grant, matched by generous donors and community partners.

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