Lessons for a President: A Conversation with Michael Beschloss

By Ferris, William R. | Humanities, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

Lessons for a President: A Conversation with Michael Beschloss


Ferris, William R., Humanities


HEN THE NEW AMERICAN president is sworn into office this January, he inherits an office that has transformed dramatically during the last century. From the focus on personality that has arrived with new media to the skills needed to negotiate international diplomacy, historian Michael Beschloss speaks with Chairman William R. Ferris about the changing powers of the presidency and how public perceptions have changed with it. Beschloss is the author of THE CRISIS YEARS: KENNEDY AND KHRUSHCHEV, 1960-1963 and other books on the Roosevelt, Eisenhower, ' Johnson, and Bush presidencies. WILLIAM R. FERRIS: If you had to give a job description for the president in 2001, what would it be? MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It would be a job that is very different from the job we have known for most of the last century. When I was growing up in Illinois I wanted to be an historian writing about presidents. I was about ten years old. This would have been the mid-sixties, when the president did things like send Americans to the moon and save the world from nuclear war and get everyone under a

program like Medicare, so a child would be excused if he thought that presidents were almost at the center of the solar system. That was pretty much true from Roosevelt through at least the beginning of George Bush. You had these very strong presidents.

By the end of the twentieth century, all the things that made the presidency that way had begun to evaporate. You no longer had a consensus for power flowing to Washington; you no longer had World War II or a Cold War; you no longer had the kind of trust in our system that you had during that period. The other important thing is that you no longer had a Congress that was willing to defer to presidents at crucial moments. The result of all of that is that whoever is president in the year 2001-even without the kind of political predicament that we just went through-would have been coming to a much weaker office than the one that most of us are accustomed to. That is going to mean that any president is going to have to demonstrate a lot more leadership and political skills than he would have needed to for most of the twentieth century.

The final thing I would say is that the ultimate job description for any president, whatever the century, is basically two things. He is needed when, obviously, there is a crisis like a war or economic catastrophe, God forbid. He is also needed when there is an urgent national need that he sees and other people sometimes do not. He has to have the ability to go to the American people and the Congress and say, "Perhaps you don't see this my way, but this is something that I feel is so important that it involves a sacrifice." That is what you had with Roosevelt, for instance, calling for preparedness in the 1930s or Kennedy and Johnson and civil rights, and that is the kind of thing that you can't really anticipate.

FERRIS: Since the 1930s, the size of the federal government has significantly expanded with the New Deal and, more recently, with the Great Society. How has that change affected the presidency?

BESCHLOSS: First of all, it has put a lot more burden on a president to be a strong executive. For instance, when Nixon came in, in 1969, he complained about the fact that the bureaucracy was filled with Democrats; one of the things that he felt that he had to do was to work the levers in a way that made sure that what he wanted to get done did get done. That would have been less of a problem for, say, Benjamin Harrison, because the Executive Branch was much smaller.

I think the other thing is, because the presidency during that period began to reach into so many other areas of American life that Americans had not seen before, the expectations were greater. If there was a recession, for instance, in the 1870s, yes, it was blamed to some extent on the president. Grant suffered. But at that time, people did not look at the health of the national economy as something that could be attributed to one person to the degree that you sometimes hear today. …

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