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Stanford Report, November 5, 2003

Understanding presidential character requires benefit of hindsight, scholars say But Michael Beschloss asserts that Bush is taking ‘a huge historical gamble’ in Iraq war


Pundits may enjoy throwing barbs at the White House during Sunday morning talk shows. To be fair, though, they really ought to wait a few decades before passing judgment on the president's character, two prominent historians told a standing-room-only crowd in Kresge Auditorium Oct. 28.

Speaking at least week’s Aurora Forum, history Professor David Kennedy, right, said the key test of a president’s character is “clarity.” KQED’s Michael Krasny, left, moderated the discussion. Photo: Matt Sayles

"We know what George Bush says in public, but we don't know what he says in private," presidential historian Michael Beschloss cautioned during the first Aurora Forum of the academic year, titled "The American Presidency: Character and Crisis." Until the president's private letters and classified documents are released many years from now -- and until we know the outcome of his war on terrorism -- it is hard to say whether Bush's actions reflect a leader of great character. "What we need is hindsight," Beschloss said. "Presidents often look different 20 or 30 years later, because when you wait that period of time you know what was important and what was not. You know how the story turned out."

Beschloss, a frequent television commentator who has written extensively about American presidents in times of crisis, was joined onstage by Stanford's David Kennedy, the McLachlan Professor of History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Their discussion was moderated by Michael Krasny, host and senior editor of KQED Radio's award-winning program, Forum.

Before the United States entered World War II, for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was so anxious to help Great Britain defeat Nazi Germany that he secretly undertook actions that defied America's neutrality laws. If that had been revealed at the time, Beschloss said, isolationist members of Congress very likely might have instituted impeachment proceedings. "They would have said the president is lying to the American people and knowingly doing things against the law. But with hindsight, we now know that Roosevelt had to do those things so that we would be prepared," he said.

Similarly, Beschloss said, President Bush is taking "a huge historical gamble" in Iraq. "You can be sure that some people around him said, 'You're crazy to declare a worldwide war on terrorism. It will take a long time. We might not win. It might make you very unpopular.'" Yet Bush chose to send troops to Iraq anyway, and now his future reputation as a president rests on the outcome. "Right now we have no idea whether it's going to work out," Beschloss observed, "but 30 years from now we will know the answer."

In Beschloss' opinion, one of the things that made Roosevelt a particularly great president was his willingness to swim against the political tide during a time of crisis, even if it meant he might lose re-election to a third term. He said President John Kennedy showed a similar strength of character when it came to civil rights. "People don't remember that between June 1963, when the Civil Rights Bill was sent to Congress, and the time Kennedy went to Dallas in November, his poll ratings had dropped by about 25 points," Beschloss said. "Had he lived, he may have lost the 1964 election because he had taken a risk to advance the cause of civil rights."

For Professor Kennedy, the key test of a president's character is "clarity" -- clarity of conviction, clarity of principles and clarity of communication. Roosevelt passed on all three counts, Kennedy said, while Richard Nixon failed miserably. "Nixon didn't know who he was," he explained. "He didn't understand where he stood in history -- what possibilities and limitations faced him -- and he was lousy at communicating with the American public."

Agreeing with the assessment, Beschloss recalled the 1968 presidential campaign in which Nixon gave the impression he had a secret plan for ending the war in Vietnam. "A lot of Americans who voted for Nixon did so because they thought he would be more likely to get the country out of the war, whereas those who voted for Humphrey thought he would continue Johnson's policies." As it turned out, "Nixon was elected under absolutely false pretenses," Beschloss said, and the war continued for years.

Another disappointing presidency, from a historical standpoint, was that of Bill Clinton, the scholars said. "The conventional wisdom about his presidency is that it was a great squandering," according to Kennedy. "Here was a prodigiously gifted politician, a person with clear, unambiguous communication skills," yet for a complicated set of reasons and character flaws, he never fulfilled his promise. Beschloss traced Clinton's downfall to the midterm elections of 1994, when Democrats lost control of Congress. Before that, he said, the president showed some real acts of political courage, including his efforts on health care. But afterward, he said, Clinton clearly "tired of being a martyr" and started following the polls instead.

Both historians fret that in the future it may be more difficult to get a handle on presidential character, partly because people don't write the way they used to. Even though the White House is producing more paper than ever -- Clinton's future library in Arkansas will have about 400 million items, compared to 15 million in FDR's library -- White House staffers are less in the habit of keeping journals or revealing personal letters. "The White House counsel tells people that it's in their interest to keep as minimal a paper trail as possible, to avoid possible subpoenas," Beschloss said. "Someday we may have to write history from press releases."

Aurora Forum programs are free and open to the public and are held at 7:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium, unless otherwise noted. For a full schedule of events, panelists and topics, visit the web at Audio recordings of past forums are also available on this website.

Following is a list of upcoming forums:

Saturday, Nov. 8. Town Hall Meeting with Presidential Candidate Dennis Kucinich, 1 to 3 p.m. Kucinich, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, the largest caucus of Democrats in Congress, will meet with community members to discuss matters of public concern.

  • Monday, Dec. 15. An Evening with Thomas Jefferson. The author of the Declaration of Independence was also a philosopher, educator, naturalist, politician, scientist, architect, inventor, pioneer in scientific farming, musician, writer and the foremost spokesman for democracy of his day. In this program, actor and scholar Clay Jenkinson resurrects the founding father and discusses current affairs.
  • Monday, Jan. 26. The American Soul: Founding Ideals and the American Dream. In his recent book, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, Jacob Needleman says we must "remythologize the idea of America." But how? Join Needleman and Stanford's the Rev. Scotty McLennan, dean for religious life, as they explore this and other questions concerning the American soul.
  • c Monday, March 1. True Colors: Myth, Magic and the American Flag. In 1989, University of Pennsylvania Professor Carolyn Marvin stood in front of her free speech class and, without speaking, set fire to an American flag. The action sparked fierce criticism that led Marvin to a decade of research on the history, myth and magic of our nation's banner. Stanford's Hans Gumbrecht, the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature, will join Marvin in a conversation that probes the various powers and purposes of this key American symbol.
  • Wednesday, May 5. Talking Right and Left: The Language of American Politics. In recent decades, political debates have often come down to struggles for control of the language: "choice" and "life," "diversity" and "preferences," "class warfare" and "corporate welfare," "support the troops" and "quagmire." How does language shape and reinforce our political perceptions? Two linguists well known for their writing about the language of public life, Georgetown's Deborah Tannen and Stanford's Geoffrey Nunberg, will assess the state of political language and where it is headed.

Michael Beschloss