When 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.
The other thing is that—when you see the presidency as so central, as we did particularly during the period that I'm talking about—people tend to see our political system in a distorted way. They tend to ignore the role of Congress and the courts and even the role of individual Americans.
What has happened is that as the pendulum has swung back from the period you are talking about, people are getting a more realistic view of what this job is, and a view that is much more in line with what the founders wanted.
Ferris: If we look back on presidents in terms of their having a military career and how that helped their candidacy, we see that FDR was secretary of the Navy, Grant was a successful Union general, Eisenhower was a World War II general, and Nixon, Kennedy, and Bush were naval officers. Do such careers help a candidate or help a president in their work?
Beschloss: I think they sure helped a candidate in the twentieth century. For instance, if someone ran in the wake of World War II and did not have a war record, and preferably a heroic one like Kennedy's or Bush's, it was something of a detriment. In 1960, John Kennedy tried to use against Hubert Humphrey the fact that Hubert Humphrey was not involved in World War II for health reasons. Fortunately, now, we're out of that period and that is not so much the case.
In terms of how it helped some of the presidents, I think it probably helped in a couple of ways. One is that if you are a president calling on Americans to go to war, it probably helps if you've been through the experience yourself—both in terms of your decision-making and also just your moral ability to do that, as Bush did and as Kennedy might have, for instance, if the Cuban missile crisis had flared up.
In terms of whether it improves your leadership, that is probably a little more questionable. If you look at the generals who have been president, there is not a huge correlation between ability as a military leader and ability as a political leader. Look, for instance, at Grant and Zachary Taylor. Eisenhower's case is probably a laboratory version of this: in a way, Eisenhower's virtues and flaws corresponded to his military experience. As I look back on Eisenhower, I think one of the best things about his presidency was his willingness to make a decision without regard for his political career.
In the late 1950s, there was huge pressure on Eisenhower to expand the military budget because of what political critics were calling the 'bomber gap' or the 'missile gap.' They were saying that Eisenhower was letting the United States go undefended and the Soviets were roaring ahead of us because of his determined commitment to keep a balanced budget. Now, Eisenhower, particularly because of private intelligence information he could not confide to the public, knew that he was spending exactly the right amount. He knew he was taking political hits for it. His advisers and his pollsters were saying, “Look, you're really suffering for this. Even if you don't feel it's right, why don't you expand the defense budget to get these people off your back,” and Eisenhower said, “I'm not going to do that.” So this is someone for whom, because of his military training—just like George Marshall—it was in his genetic code to make a decision on the merits and not on the basis of where the political winds were blowing.
The other thing that I thought was wonderful about Eisenhower— and this, again, goes back to his military training and experience—is that he was wonderful at dealing with the bureaucracy. This is something that we didn't know much about in the fifties. I was born in 1955, so I didn't know very much about it at the time at all. Only later, when we got access to National Security Council documents and so on, did we see the degree to which Eisenhower was wonderful at manipulating the levers and maneuvering around people without there being a hint on the surface. That's exactly what you learn as a general.
The downside of all this with Eisenhower was that, as a general, what you really do not learn is how to deal with public opinion and to shape the way people think about important subjects. Eisenhower's speeches and press conferences were notoriously vague. If he had to depend on making the case for an important one of his policies, he would have had a very hard time. In fact, the case I mentioned earlier, where Eisenhower was keeping the defense budget down—both not to overheat the Cold War and also to balance the budget and make sure there wasn't inflation—he could not articulate to the public why he was doing that. A leader who had perhaps not been so confined to the military for most of his career would have been more talented and would have been able to keep that controversy under control.
Ferris: Americans seem to like their politicians to be common men. They shy away from overt intellectuals unless they can somehow.....
Beschloss: They sure have demonstrated that.
Ferris: Woodrow Wilson, for one, held a Ph.D. in political science. Could you imagine the American public electing an obvious intellectual now?
Beschloss: I think so. We've come pretty close since Wilson. Kennedy was not an intellectual—if you define intellectual, as I do, as loving ideas for their own sake—but he was a reader with a very fine mind and a respect for being in command of the social science findings of the time. For instance, Kennedy was enough in touch with what social scientists were saying about poverty in 1963. That was a big influence in his desire, at the time he was killed, to start what Lyndon Johnson later called the War on Poverty. That really began with Kennedy, and it grew a lot out of his reading. For instance, he was reading Michael Harrington's The Other America the last year of his life. So not quite an intellectual, but at least a reader.
Nixon again—I would say almost like Kennedy—a very active reader. Perhaps not as in touch with what social scientists were saying at the time, but at least in touch with the general trends. I think I'd say the same thing about Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
So it comes close. I think it is not so much that people would reject the idea of an intellectual as president. I think what they would feel uncomfortable with—and this is one of the problems with Wilson—is someone who is so involved in the life of the mind that he cannot connect to them and communicate with them and perhaps live the life of the activist as well. That is probably the biggest rap on Wilson—he was so theoretical and in some cases inflexible that he was unable to make the kind of compromises, for instance, that would have allowed a settlement of World War I that would not have led to World War II. Also, he was so much enmeshed in theory that he didn't have a very good reading of people. I think as long as you have people skills and communication skills, people would respect the fact that their president was a world- class thinker. But you are right, it hasn't happened very often.
Ferris: As we look back and see situations such as FDR, who used a personal relationship with Churchill to relate to World War II, in which realms of policymaking do you think that the president has more latitude, in domestic or foreign affairs?
Beschloss: Nixon always said—and this shows so much about his time—he said that domestically, you don't need a president. The only thing you need a president for is foreign policy. During the period of World War II and the Cold War, presidents had much more leeway in international affairs because essentially the American people and Congress said, “We're in a time of a national emergency, and when the crunch comes, if the president feels strongly about something, we're essentially going to give him leeway.” You saw that in all sorts of ways, Truman being able to fight the Korean War without a war declaration. Even the moon-landing program in 1961— Kennedy essentially said, “You Republicans in Congress and Southern Democrats”—and that coalition made up the majority, as you know—“you may not feel that it's important to spend perhaps $20 billion or more to land a man on the moon by 1970, but I attest to you that this is essential to win the Cold War.” They were skeptical of that, and they were right, because it really wasn't essential to win the Cold War, but they said, “If the president tells me this is essential, I'll swallow my doubts and vote for it,” which they did. Eisenhower, with the interstate highway system, justified that as a national defense highway system, saying that this is really almost a foreign policy measure. At least in those days, the presidents had almost unbelievable leeway in foreign policy. The best example of this, obviously, is the Vietnam War being conducted for almost two decades without a war declaration. That has changed enormously.
If you look at this in terms of domestic policy, I would say that during the same period as presidents were almost omnipotent in foreign affairs, Congress tried to hold back presidents' power in domestic policy—so in those days I think they were weaker.
Since 1991 and the end of the Cold War, Americans have been unbelievably indifferent to foreign affairs. If you look at the polls of Americans that ask, “What kind of things are you concerned about?” foreign affairs is very low on the list, especially if you compare that to 1960 or 1940, when war and peace would have been at the absolute top. The bizarre result is that because the public is in general not terribly engaged, presidents for the last ten years have had more leeway in foreign affairs than they would have if the public was intensely interested and divided.
Ferris: One subject people are always very interested in is the economy, and presidents love to take credit for strong economies and economic growth.
Beschloss: You said it.
Ferris: Conversely, they are held accountable for economic problems. Hoover was blamed for the Great Depression even though it was caused by the world economy plummeting. Does a president really have anything to do with the economy, and how has the president's role changed in regulating our national economy?
Beschloss: The fascinating thing is that the eagerness of presidents to take credit for economic success, in a way, I think, has been a basic reason in the long run not only for the decline of the presidency, but also for the decline of trust in our system. What I'm thinking of is this: there was a postwar boom for the United States economically from 1945 until the late 1960s, for a lot of reasons— one was that Europe was devastated, so was much of Asia, and we were the only industrialized economy left standing—and we didn't really have competitors, so there was this artificial boom that lasted for almost twenty-five years. At least implicitly, all the presidents, from Truman at least until Lyndon Johnson, suggested to the American people that they were responsible, as well they might. That is something, when you're running for office, to say, “Here I am, I've given you the great economic boom of the last four or eight years.” It would be a natural thing to do.
Then you get up to the early 1970s, the time of stagflation, when that boom is ending because Germany is back on its feet again, so is Japan. There are other real competitors. Also, we had gotten a little bit lazy from lack of competition. Americans were shocked by the fact that suddenly in the 1970s we were no longer the economic Goliath that we once had been. Since Americans were in the habit of being told by their presidents, “The reason why our system is so robust is because of these wonderful presidents you've got,” as soon as everything began to sag, it was very natural for them to say, “Well, if they got the credit for the boom of the last twenty-five years, there must be something fundamental in our system that's breaking down.” So in the 1970s there is terrible unemployment and roaring inflation and the kind of economic situation we haven't seen for many years. Not only did that bounce against presidents, but I think in a general way it bounced against the system.
Above and beyond all that, I think there is genuine credit that you can give to presidents, at least at the margins. For instance, probably the most basic question that historians are going to be asking about Bill Clinton is, how much did he have to do with the boom of the 1990s? That is something I think we won't know for thirty or forty years. But I think one thing he will always get credit for is that very courageous bill of 1993, the budget bill, that probably had a lot to do with costing the Democrats the Congress in 1994, but at the same time at least prepared the foundation for the boom of the 90s.
Ferris: Voter participation has declined from about 90 percent in the 1890s to around 50 percent at the beginning of the millennium. Why the change? Are people not interested? And are the parties doing or not doing a good job of engaging the voters?
Beschloss: I think the party system had a lot to do with the fact that there used to be such high participation. You had these big mechanisms that reached down into every precinct. I can say this growing up in and outside Chicago; I had firsthand experience of it. They came to your house and they made it seem almost unpatriotic if you did not participate. Those organizations are obviously gone.
The other thing is that, in recent years, there are a lot of competitors to reach individual Americans on matters of national policy. If you were a voter in the 1890s, let's say, in northern Illinois, one way you would learn about public issues and the candidates would be by reading your newspaper. An equally or more important way would be by being approached by your precinct captain or a local worker. Today, the local worker is probably not working anymore because of the decline of the parties, plus there is the competition from ninety cable channels and the Internet and other forms of information, so that it all gets diluted and causes the parties to decline.
We've become a society of spectators in many ways. We feel that the political system does not have as direct an effect on our lives as we might have felt in 1960 or 1940. In 1940, who would be elected president had to do with whether we would go to war against Hitler or not and what kind of world we were going to live in. Or in 1960, whether we would be able to hold off the Soviet threat or not. Or in 1980, when there was a recession, the very different views of Reagan and Carter about economics—whether we could be living in a depression in four years or living in a time of prosperity, and which candidate would cause that.
It is a natural thing for turnout to surge when people think that the system is working and when there is an urgent national need. In a year like 2000, when people are frustrated with many aspects of the system and there is no overwhelming crisis or urgent national need, it is probably not surprising the turnout is down.
Ferris: Let me ask you, in a different direction, Michael, how the advent of radio changed the presidency.
Beschloss: It allowed presidents to reach Americans directly in a way that they had never been able to before. When Benjamin Harrison gave a speech, the text probably would have been reprinted in many newspapers, but not all Americans read and not all of them read newspapers; whereas when radio began to expand, Herbert Hoover could go on and reach more Americans than would have been the case forty years earlier.
The more important thing, though, is that it began to turn people's attention to the importance of personality in politics. To take the Benjamin Harrison example, you might read a description of what kind of a human being Benjamin Harrison was, and it might have been of some interest to you as a voter, but it probably wouldn't have had too much influence on the way you voted. Just take a look at this last campaign and the amount we heard about the importance of whether one candidate was likable or not, whether this is someone that you would like to watch on television for the next four years. Radio was the beginning of the process by which an important part of the judgment we make in choosing a candidate is, “Is this someone I feel comfortable with?” If I feel comfortable with him or her, I'm likely to give him or her the benefit of the doubt when that candidate comes to me for support on questions that I don't know very much about.
Ferris: You led me into the next question. The 1960 debates between Nixon and Kennedy were the first televised debates. Can you elaborate a little on the impact of television on presidential elections?
Beschloss: Kennedy always said that he never felt he could have won the 1960 election without television. In an election that close, I think he has to be right, along with probably twenty other things, because, just like 2000, in an election that close, the margin can depend almost on anything. But in the early days, television was an enormous weapon for a president. Let's take the Kennedy example. Any time Kennedy gave a press conference, it would have been aired live on all three networks, and there were only three. They were usually during the day, so if you were at home watching television, you had to watch the press conference, and therefore Kennedy would be able to reach you. The same thing was true when Kennedy gave a speech. If he wanted to give a speech, automatically the networks would say, “Yes, we'll air it.” Not only was the president able to reach almost everyone who was watching television, but he was presented in a way that there was some majesty: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.” He came on and said his piece; then he was off. There was no instant analysis. So if you're talking about the ability of a president to affect the American mind, that was a weapon the presidents had then and do not have now.
Just advance the clock to the year 2000. Bill Clinton gives a press conference. It might be on some cable channels. It probably won't be on the on-air networks that get the largest audience. If he wants to give a speech from the Oval Office, he has to make the argument that this is important enough to be aired and not political. Oftentimes ABC, NBC, and CBS have said, “We just don't think this is important enough to take off ER” or another program; so he might be on cable networks, but those have relatively small audiences. The more important thing is that, compared to the Kennedy time, a president now on television is just one voice among many. Even if the nets put him on, he'll be followed by instant analysis by talking heads, including, I guess, occasionally myself.
Beschloss: Well, thanks. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, I guess.
But also by a leader of the opposition party, which did not happen during the Kennedy time. By that evening on Nightline, you'll have three senators going on saying why they thought what the president said was silly. The result is that the president may be a slightly louder voice because he is president, but we know a lot more of what individual members of Congress have to say.
One thing that gave presidents power, for instance in the time of Kennedy, was distance and awe. You saw Kennedy in press conferences or when he gave an Oval Office speech or when he was in a ceremony, but you didn't know too much about his private life. Now, needless to say, we know just about everything about a president's private life largely because of that twenty-four-hour-a-day news cycle. That has shrunk presidents.
Ferris: Do you think that we demand more of our candidates today in terms of image and poise than nineteenth-century Americans?
Beschloss: Totally. In the nineteenth century, it mattered very little what a candidate looked like, what his voice sounded like, whether he could handle himself in a dramatic way on a platform because a relatively small number of people would actually see him in the flesh. They might read newspaper accounts, but even those were second-generation and a little bit more vague. People in those days were trained to vote much more on issues than on what they heard about a candidate's dog or his family or his moustache. With television and television debates, the performance has come to loom so large that it is not only an important factor, but if there is not a big issue, it can be the central factor. The result is that you screen out people who might be wonderful presidents but may not be terrific-looking or may not be able to perform on stage or before the television camera. That, I think, is a loss.
Ferris: I hear the answer to this. Do you think campaigns have become more personalized and less based in ideology?
Beschloss: Sure. But if you're in a near world war or if there is a depression, people do have the ability to say, “Look, this is not what's important. What really is important is how much of a leader this is.” In a year like 2000, we have been able to indulge ourselves more because there hasn't been an overwhelming problem. What I worry about is that we have increased the odds that television performance is going to be decisive. I love the idea that there are television debates, because if you look at a year like 1968, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey were able to get through that whole campaign without ever being directly interrogated about what they would do in Vietnam. A lot of the people who voted for Nixon in 1968, we know from the polls, did so because they thought that Nixon was more likely than Humphrey to get America out of the war. Had there been television debates with people interrogating them, that probably would not have happened. So debates, I think, are wonderful. But the problem with having simply three ninety-minute debates is that the time is so short, the amount of time on camera is so small, that a candidate can get through those relatively brief performances without really being probed and showing what is in his soul. If it is that small a period of time, it turns much more on Americans' chemistry with the image they are seeing on the screen. If you had as an alternative, let's say, twelve debates that were ninety minutes, that sort of takes away this gladiatorial aspect that we heard so much and saw so much about this past fall. I think it causes people, after a while, not to notice so much what they are seeing and the way people look, but actually what they are hearing, and make a judgment about what these p eople might do.
Ferris: The growth of the Internet has changed how Americans get their information. Are we better informed as an electorate, or is there more noise than substance?
Beschloss: I think the net of it is that we are better informed because there is an unlimited amount of information and an unlimited ability for people to send in information to the brains of Americans. If you had just a traditional press, there is a relativel y limited amount of space in newsmagazines and newspapers and in the ol d-fashioned news broadcasts of thirty minutes a night on television. In many ways the information was limited to what could fit through those tubes, whereas now that limitation has been taken off, which I think is wonderful. It also makes a voter more active because he or she is the one who has to go surfing and seek it out and find what is actually of direct interest to him or her.
The problem that I worry about is that, at the same time as all this, you are giving an instant world audience as well to Nazis, racists, fascists, or people who have values that are dangerous, and are sometimes able to send that into the minds of children.
Beschloss: All this puts a burden on all of us to be more active citizens both in terms of protecting our children and also being a ble to differentiate between good ideas and dangerous ones.
Now, Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party went bust, and Nader only received 3 percent of the vote. Do you think there is room for a third party in our system of separated powers? What role would a third party play in Congress or in terms of the presidency?
Beschloss: History would show that they don't tend to take a very large bite of the system and don't tend to last very long. One reason for that is institutional. For better or worse, the Electoral College discriminates against third parties. Ross Perot, who in 1992 got 19 percent of the vote, never took a state and therefore got no electoral votes. It is extremely hard for a third-party candidate to win the presidency under those circumstances. One of the things that the Nixon and Humphrey people were very worried about in 1968 was that George Wallace would get such a share of the electoral vote that it would throw it into the House and that Nixon and Humphrey would have to bargain with George Wallace to become presidentÑand that very nearly happened. That scare was one reason why Nixon, in 1969, went to Gerald Ford and said, “I want to abolish the Electoral College.” Ford was the Republican leader of the House. The bill got through th e House, although it was filibustered in the Senate by senators from smaller states who did not want the system to be abolished. It prob ably fits with the founders' intentions. The founders were n ot concerned about parties and they were not worried about fact ions, but they were worried about instability. Let's say we had direct popular vote and there were six candidates. The presiden t might be able to win with 29 percent of the vote, but would find it very hard to lead.
In Congress it is somewhat the same. The founders did not hold a candle for political parties, but they would have been worried if the House of Representatives were dominated by several of the parties who always had to make shifting coalitions. While respecting states' rights, the foun ders wanted both the Congress and the presidency to arrive at a broad na tional coalition.
Ferris: Unlike the British parliamentary system, where all branches of government are united under one party, the American system allows for a divided government. In fact, American presidents tend to have a higher job approval rating when they are opposition leaders working with a divided government. In a divided government, where can people look for accountability?
Beschloss: In a way, accountability is something that they feel better about. If you have a White House d ominated by one party and a Congress dominated by another, you at leas t feel that the Congress is on the back of the president. One reason w hy Americans were satisfied with Bill Clinton and I think reelected him was because they felt that there would be a Republican House to make sure that he did not do something that overreached. They might have been more nervous about it if there were a Democratic White House and two Democratic houses of Congress.
It is a fashion among many political scientists to say, “Let's do things with a system that makes it more possible that you've got a presidency a nd two houses of Congress in the same hands. That's the only way th at you overcome gridlock and get things done.” I would come at it th e other way. Most of the time—and this goes back to the eighteenth century— Americans are less concerned about gridlock than they are a bout excessive overreach by members of Congress and presidents. Th e American people want to see the power of government limited.
Ferris: As the only national politician elected by the whole country, how does the president represent the people, and how is the president accountable to the people?
Beschloss: He is the only nationally elected figure, with the exception, obviously, of the vice president. Harry Truman used to say that there are only fourteen million Americans with the resources to have their interests represented, and the rest depend on the president of the United States. That is probably right. The idea was that any in dividual member of Congress, however public-spirited he or she might be, is inevitably not going to be able to take the national perspective that a president can; and only the president can rise up above those in terests and to some extent counteract the local orientation of members of Congress.
Ferris: Exactly. In some countries, Germany for example, the president takes on ceremonial duties and the prime minister governs. This division of labor raises an interesting question. Can a dual leadership work more effectively than what we have now?
Beschloss: I think it wouldn't work here, although the amazing thing, of course, is that the system in Germany is essentially the system that we Americans devised after 1945 because we wanted a system that would make sure that there was not centralized power in one leader, like the führer. If you had a system in which there was very localized power, which is what you got in Germany, then it would be so decentralized that you w ould never have a dictator like that again. That seems to have worked.
In the American system, though, the problem is that we combine—there is both a problem and a benefit—both the chief of state and the prime minister in one human being, which is the president. The downside of this is that he is trying to do two things that are oftentimes antithetical. In the role of prime minister, he is proposing programs that can be controversial and divisive and political and partisan, and that causes a lot of Americans to dislike what he's doing and feel polarized and estranged from him. At the same time, he has got to be the chief of state, which is this unifying national leader to whom Americans hold their children up and say, "You be like him," and makes us all feel warm and happy about the system. It takes extraordinary skill to carry both roles off. Very few presidents manage to do both. The upside of this is the mirror image of what I said, which is that if you've got a president who has policies that are unpopular, at lea st he can draw on the wellspring of support that comes from the fact that everyone thinks of him as the only president that we've got.
Ferris: Right. I would like to talk a little about your own background, Michael. You are one of the most thoughtful commentators on the presidency and our government. You mentioned you dreamed of this work at a very young age. Did the study of history and literature and so on help shape your interest?
Beschloss: Absolutely. I've got two little boys who are six and four. They are just about the age when this happened to me. I lived about forty miles south of Chicago. Our house was on a large pie ce of land with woods nearby and not the kind of neighborhood where yo u could just sort of walk down the street and there would be kids there. My little brother and I were probably more isolated than many people are growing up. One of the results of this was I just read feverishly. Probably the first grownup book I read was Arthur Schlesinger's A Thousand Days—it was 1965 so I would have been about nine years old—which I remember ordering from our local library. I think I was the first to read it. My interest came from having lived through that exciting period in national life, exciting and horrible in many ways—the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination and the civil rights revolution and the Great Society. By about the age of ten, if you can believe this, what I wanted to do in life was write history books and live in Washington and watch presidents. I'm afraid it is a little bit grim and boring, but there is a direct line between that and what I'm doing at the age of forty-five. The most important thing of all was the fact that I read so much and loved books, and not just history but books of all kinds. I was aware, too, of the national and international events that were going on all around me, which I've been trying to do with my little boys.
Just a quick story. I am working on a book on Lincoln's assassin ation and the last weeks of his life, which grew out of a trip I took to Springfield and New Salem in the early 1960s. I have been trying to motivate my children to be interested in history by talking about this, but it has been only half-successful. Our older boy says that he likes Abraham Lincoln, but our younger boy says that he likes John Wilkes Booth.
Ferris: Let me ask you, as someone who understands so intimately the processes of our nation, as we seek to deepen the public's understanding of the humanities and their support for them, what are the things that you think we should be seeking to do? What are the steps that will make the humanities a more visible part of our nation's life?
Beschloss: The most important thing is to remind Americans that we are an exceptional nation in all sorts of ways. There is a reason why millions of people around the world want to become Americans year after year. It is not just our military power and our political power. Another way that we are exceptional is the humanities. This is an advanced civilization that, as long as we have been a country, has given enormous weight to making sure that we have excellent public schools and that we understand areas of life that are not just career-related. It almost goes back to John Adams, and the old quotation: “I must study politics and war so that my children can move up to mathematics and so that their children can move up to the arts and porcelain.”
In a way, the humanities are a metaphor for America's rise. If Americans see as much pride in our achievements as a civilization as we see in our military power and political power, I think then the case is made.
Ferris: That is a wonderful closure. I want to tell you how much I appreciate your taking time to talk with us.