The heroic and the crass: case studies in American presidential backbone.

Author:Hart, Gary

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 - Book review


PRESIDENTIAL COURAGE Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 By Michael Beschloss Simon & Schuster $28

Great presidents achieve their stature not by presiding over calm, unchallenging periods but by confronting historic turning points and choosing the right course regardless of personal or political consequences. Courage is difficult to define. Some presidential decisions, including those to go to war, seem courageous when they are made but prove to be massively flawed in their outcome. Some decisions that seem both unpopular and seriously questionable when they are made come to be viewed as milestones in American progress.

As John E Kennedy wrote in Profiles in Courage: "The stories of past courage can define that ingredient--they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot provide courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul."

Historian of the modern presidency Michael Beschloss now offers his version of profiles in courage, focusing his attention on nine presidents who confronted epic choices. In every case, the decision made was against popular opinion. This is history as human endeavor, about governance in the gritty public arena, involving struggles behind closed doors among profane, egotistical, often self-consumed and ambitious careerists who were more concerned with their own political standing than with the long-term interests of the nation.

Surprisingly, Beschloss's avatars of courage almost always did the right thing. More often than not, presidents--waffling under pressure from advisers interested more in the president's career and popularity (and their own) than in enhancing the nation's character--seek to avoid decision, hoping that procrastination will deliver them from the agony of resolution.

In virtually every case that Beschloss depicts, the virtue of courage is more apparent in retrospect than at the moment of decision. John Kennedy's conversion to the cause of civil rights, Harry Truman's minimalist but critical recognition of the State of Israel, and Ronald Reagan's late embrace of detente and nuclear arms reduction--all resulted, in varying degrees, when these men were backed into a corner and forced to decide.

Beschloss has written popular history in the best sense of the word, readable and absorbing, humanizing and lacking in theory and abstraction. It is no less important or persuasive for being popular. Adorned with new information, it is history as...

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