Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Trying to salve some wounds, by getting some historical perspective

The historian Michael Beschloss was in town, offering anecdotes about the qualities of presidential greatness. 

The presidential historian Michael Beschloss was in town Thursday to speak at the annual Dorsey law firm conference for corporate counsel, so I went to see him try to place President-Elect Donald Trump into historical perspective.

He ended up saying relatively little about Trump. But, with Trump toning down his persona on the day he met with President Obama to talk about the transition, Beschloss’ witty review of presidential history provided enough historical perspective to salve some of the wounds of recent days.

His highly anecdotal and surprisingly humorous talk was organized around the topic of qualities that make for better presidents, and he threw in a few anecdotes that seemed designed just to make us laugh about some of the characters who have presided over our republic. So, with your indulgence, I’ll to fill whatever crumb of attention you have chosen to spend here today with anecdotes about either presidential quirks or qualities of presidential greatness, and we’ll wait a while to see how this whole Trump thing develops.

For example, Beschloss told an old one about how some with tender sensibilities complained to Bess Truman about her husband’s frequent use of the word “manure.” (Apparently Truman used the word often literally, as in the gardening uses of manure, and often metaphorically, as a word referring to a certain lack of candor or respect for the facts among manure-spreading political speakers.)

Article continues after advertisement

Can’t you get him to stop using that rude word, some people asked Bess Truman? Heavens no, replied the First Lady. “It took me 15 years to get him to say ‘manure.’”

That’s an old one. Bechloss also told about Lyndon Johnson, in retirement, worrying that because of low attendance at his presidential library, near Austin, Texas, the government might cut its budget. There was a big football stadium near the library and he asked the public-address announcer there to always say, as halftime approached, that if anyone needed to get a drink of water or take a leak without having to wait in line, there were facilities across the street at the LBJ Library. According to Beschloss’ version, the LBJ Library soon shot to the top of the rankings of presidential libraries for attendance.

The Beschloss list of qualities to look for in a president was also illustrated with anecdotes. You want a president that has the guts to do what the country needs, even when it won’t be popular, Beschloss said. Unexpectedly, he illustrated that with an anecdote about George Washington.

Late in Washington’s second and final term (we can’t say “in the White House,” because that wasn’t built yet), tensions were high between the U.S. and Britain. The first opposition party was developing around Thomas Jefferson and others who, among other ideas, preferred a more Francophillic foreign policy, and tell those stuffy ol’ Brits to stuff it.

Washington feared that Britain might decide to invade to force its former colony to make concessions, a war for which the United States was ill-prepared, Beschloss said. Washington sent diplomat John Jay to settle the dispute and encouraged Jay to make big concessions, if necessary, to keep the peace and settle the remaining disputes left over from the War for Independence, and also to maintain good trading relations with both Britain and France.

The Jeffersonians, who were sometimes known as the anti-Federalists or the Democratic Republicans (seriously), led by Thomas Jefferson, opposed the treaty and accused Washington and Jay of weakness and worse.

Nonetheless, Jay closed the deal, which did indeed improve Anglo-American relations and avert a possible war (at least until 1812). But the Jay Treaty was so unpopular that effigies of Jay were burned widely. When Jay was asked if he was bothered by the reaction and replied no, he was now able to ride at night all the way from Boston to Philadelphia by the light of burning effigies of himself. 

The next anecdote was about the need for a president, when he has a good but not necessarily popular idea, to be able to make a logical, lawyerly argument that persuades the public. His anecdote was about Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

In 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had caused many slaves to run away from their owners and join the Union Troops in various capacities, believing that such a course was, among other things, a ticket out of slavery under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the proclamation also stiffened the resolve of the Confederacy against surrender.

Article continues after advertisement

There was no polling in those days, but the war-weary public in the north seemed drawn to the Democratic nominee, the ex-General George McLellan, whose party was suggesting that the war could be ended if the Southern states were offered peace terms that didn’t necessarily require them to rejoin the Union or give up their slaves.

Lincoln and his Republican team believed they would probably lose the election, and Lincoln was under pressure to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation and offer to let the South keep its odious institution if it ended the war and rejoined the Union.

If I understood Beschloss’ anecdote correctly, Lincoln argued that the best way to end the war was to push for final victory (which was closer than many in North realized). And the freed slaves who had fled were now fighting with the Union troops and helping greatly. They would have no incentive to do so, he argued, if they believed they were fighting for a country that was going to preserve the institution of slavery.

Beschloss’ third anecdote was about the need for a president to know how to persuade members of Congress. His example was Lyndon Johnson, who was legendary for his powers of persuasion and his persistence in using them until he got his way. Beschloss spent years apparently listening to phone calls that LBJ secretly recorded during his presidency, and became quite familiar with Johnson’s style of persuasion.

LBJ pushed through big civil rights bills in 1964 and ’65, relying on these methods, and he received vital help from Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, the leader of the Senate Republicans. (In those days, Senate Democrats were divided between northern liberals who were mostly strong on civil rights, and southern members who were strongly opposed, and nothing would have happened if Johnson had to rely entirely on Democratic votes.

Johnson was utterly shameless when he was laying on his sales pitches, and Beschloss recalled LBJ telling Dirksen that if Dirksen delivered the votes LBJ needed, future generations of  Illinois schoolchildren would be taught the names of only two great figures that their state had contributed to American History, Abe Lincoln and Ev Dirksen.

When Beschloss finally got around to discussing Trump, he took no position on what might come next, and only identified a couple of possibilities. It is possible to view Trump as an authoritarian with frightening dictatorial tendencies who is a danger to the future of American democracy and will abuse his power over the FBI and the U.S. military and other tools of executive power in ways that will shock and horrify us. We’ve seen signs and portents that Trump might be capable of that, mostly in things he says.

It’s also possible to believe that Trump, a natural showman with a reality TV background, grasped the potential that talking that way would energize a fed-up segment of the electorate and actually get him into the Oval Office, but that his real nature is less dictator and more deal-maker. He might even make moderate deals with middle-of-the-spectrum Democrats and Republicans that will absolutely horrify the right wing of the Republican Party he now leads.

Beschloss didn’t make a prediction of which or those two imaginable future might turn out to be the next reality. It reminded of another remark by a historian on a panel I heard years ago about the Tiananmen Square crisis of 1989. A member of the audience asked the historian what was going to happen next. Replied the historian: “We’re historians. We don’t know how to predict the future. We only know how to predict the past.”