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PRESIDENTIAL COURAGE
Brave Leaders and How They Changed America
1789-1989

Michael Beschloss

“We should always be wary of Presidential courage.  In the absence of wisdom, leaders who defy public opinion may take the nation over a cliff.  But we must still demand that Presidents will, at vital moments, be willing to jeopardize themselves for an essential cause.  The political culture of the twenty-first century—the instant communications, polls and oceans of money—may inhibit leaders from taking such wise risks.  Recalling the courageous Presidents of our past should inspire us to expect more.”

-- Michael Beschloss, from the preface to Presidential Courage

What makes a great President?  With a string of Oval Office aspirants beginning to roll out their 2008 campaigns, it’s a question that requires serious consideration, and never more so than now.  The future of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran, the challenges of genocide in Darfur and elsewhere, terrorism around the world and the West’s continuing clash with Islamic Fundamentalism: these are just some of the issues that the next occupant of the West Wing will undoubtedly face.  According to Michael Beschloss, whom Newsweek called “the nation’s leading presidential historian,” it is courage combined with wisdomthat makes a great president—courage to confront paramount issues and problems and triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles and difficulties. 

In PRESIDENTIAL COURAGE: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989 (Simon & Schuster; May 8, 2007; $28.00), New York Times bestselling author Michael Beschloss chronicles the crucial moments when courageous Presidents struggled with what seemed to them the pressing issues of the day, and in the end overcame critics and the pressure of events to dramatically change the future of the United States.  Says Beschloss, “This volume is not intended to include all of our greatest Presidents or all of our bravest.  Instead it seeks to show Presidents who took various risks over vital issues in our history—the tensions between government and big business, human rights, war and peace.”

Blending meticulous research, surprising new material that has never been used before, and sweeping storytelling, Beschloss reveals the inner turmoil each of these men faced at the moment of crisis as they made decisions for the national interest, knowing they might be destroying their careers.  He also delves into the ways in which each of these men—knowing the entire future of the country rested on their shoulders—drew strength from wives and other family members, friends, private conviction and, sometimes, religious faith. 

Taking readers through 200 years of American history PRESIDENTIAL COURAGE showcases nine presidents:

  • George Washington – He faced his greatest challenge not on the battlefield but in the field of politics in 1795 as he tried to avert a new war with Great Britain that he knew his country could not survive.  Risking his popularity and reputation Washington struggled to persuade the American people to accept a peace treaty that had been negotiated with the British.  As the public tempest swelled, riots broke out in New York, Boston, and elsewhere.  Some wanted Washington impeached; others called for his execution.  Beschloss reflects on the precedent Washington set with his leadership on the treaty: that a President should not merely preside but rather must use his unique standing—even if it makes him unpopular or costs him an election—to conduce Congress and the American people to accept unpopular notions that may be in their long-term interest.
  • John Adams – He inherited from Washington his biggest challenge as President—the danger of war with France.  In attempting to make peace, Adams was vilified and reviled by the war-hawks of his own party.  Ultimately he succeeded but the price he paid was a second term in office.  “In retrospect,” writes Beschloss, “Adams deserves lasting credit for his political sacrifice.  Had he, as President, remained silent and played the front man for the arch-Federalists’ war program, he might have kept his party together and won a second term.  But …He had long argued that a leader ‘must run the risk’ of incurring ‘people’s displeasure sometimes, or he will never do them any good in the long run.’ ”
  • Andrew Jackson – Despite its official-sounding name, the Second Bank of the United States was a federally chartered quasi-private corporation with influence so vast that on the whim of its president, Nicholas Biddle, the U.S. economy could be sent into a tailspin.  With its excessive power over average citizens, President Jackson felt the Bank profaned America’s revolutionary ideals.  (He also blamed his wife’s death on Biddle’s allies, his political foes, who had slandered her as an adulteress and whore during the election campaign.)  With an ability to spread vast sums of money among newspaper editors, Senators and Congressmen, Biddle seemed unassailable.  But when Congress, at his behest, voted to renew the Bank’s charter Jackson vetoed the measure—establishing new authority for himself and future Presidents—and ultimately succeeded in crippling the Bank.  Beschloss writes, “Jackson’s audacity gave later President’s more power.  Had he not redefined the veto and broadened expectations of what Presidents owed the people, the American future would have been very different.”
  • Abraham Lincoln – Writing with strong and fascinating human detail, Beschloss shows how Lincoln confronted the decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and battled back from the brink of political extinction even as his closest advisers were telling him it was dragging him down.  Beschloss writes, “Had [Lincoln] caved in to the Radical Republicans, on one side, or the War Democrats, on the other, he would have shattered the coalition that ultimately brought him victory.  Instead, although fleetingly tempted to backpedal, he stuck to his conviction that slavery must vanish before there could be peace.”  Lincoln may have launched his Presidency eager to be the leader who restored the Union.  But by1864 he realized that if the North won the war, the Emancipation Proclamation would stand as the central act of his administration and the great event of the nineteenth century. 
  • Teddy Roosevelt – Almost from the moment he took office, President Roosevelt cast aside the pro-business conservatism of his murdered predecessor, William McKinley, and took aim at Wall Street; corporate monopolies; financiers and railway barons like J. P. Morgan, Edward Harriman and James J. Hill; and the all-powerful trusts.  Like both Adams and Andrew Jackson, Roosevelt was taking a large risk by challenging the citadels of wealth and power.  Since the 1870s, big business had owned the Republican Party.  He knew that if the power elite got angry enough, they would try to stop his nomination in 1904.  Like Nicholas Biddle and his allies in the Bank War, they might also try to destroy his character.  Nevertheless T.R forged ahead and, in the process, established the government’s right to scrutinize great corporations and mediate between management and labor.  Beschloss writes, “With his pulsing ambition, his sense of history and moral purpose, Roosevelt felt that great Presidents were those who took noble risks.  The politician who cared ‘only for his own success’ was a ‘curse.’ ”
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt – Had FDR bowed to the polls in 1940, he would not have dared push public opinion toward rearming the country, and aiding Britain in its struggle against Nazism, while trying to win a third term.  On the eve of that election year, when pollsters asked Americans what problem was “most important,” forty-seven percent—by far the largest number—had said, “Keeping out of war.”  But Roosevelt knew that, especially in crisis, a President’s job was not to follow the public but to lead it.  Beschloss writes, “Part of his genius was framing events like the fall of France for Americans in ways that advanced his cause.  Another part was his feline sensitivity to how far he could change people’s minds at a given time.”  For FDR, “leading” also included the need to tell half-truths, impinge on civil liberties, and possibly break the law in the name of national security.  Some later Presidents, in justifying similar actions, would cite Roosevelt as the model they were following.    
  • Harry Truman – With hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors still in camps throughout post-war Europe, Jewish leaders and others were pushing hard for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.  Truman wrestled with the issue for three years while facing enormous pressure from all sides including Zionist lobbyists on the one hand, and on the other his own Secretary of State and top officials who warned the U.S. would have to use military force to defend a Jewish state from the Arabs, and that support for the new state would lead to the Arab shutdown of oil supplies to the U.S.  In the end, Truman recognized Israel for many different reasons, but the one underlying influence on him that few outsiders glimpsed was his historical understanding of what it would mean to give the Jews a homeland after two thousand years.  Beschloss writes, “As Truman always told himself, the ultimate test of any Presidential decision was ‘not whether it’s popular at the time, but whether it’s right…If it’s right, make it, and let the popular part take care of itself.’ ”  
  • John F. Kennedy – Despite being elected in 1960 with overwhelming African-American support, JFK was lukewarm at best about civil rights during the first two years of his presidency.  He was terrified that his narrow margin against Nixon meant he needed to stay away from such volatile issues.  But when civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. turned up the pressure by generating crises in the south (culminating in the Birmingham riots in 1963), Kennedy came to feel that if he didn’t send a civil rights bill to Congress, the country was going to blow up.  Despite knowing that it might cost him a second term, Kennedy would tell his brother Bobby, “If we’re going to go down, let’s go down on a matter of principle.”      
  • Ronald Reagan – Unlike politicians who followed the slightest downdraft in the political atmosphere, Ronald Reagan’s strong beliefs and optimism moved him to do things from which others might have flinched.  Among the enormous risks he took was his decision in 1981 to ask for and get the largest defense buildup in U.S. history.  Says Beschloss, “We now know the Soviets felt he was building up to wage a first strike nuclear attack against them.  That’s about as risky as it gets.”  Although the Soviets dismissed Reagan’s claims that he was willing to negotiate, they began to see that in their worldwide contest with the U.S. this President would go the limit if necessary.  Another great risk Reagan took was when he stunned many of his oldest supporters to say he was willing to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War—and then followed through.  Beschloss writes, “Like the most effective American Presidents, Reagan ultimately proved that he was not the captive of his political base but its leader.”     

Never has the issue of great presidential leadership been explored so deftly, with such a wealth of personal and political detail, or with such a dazzling grasp of history that brings these human beings to life in a way that is completely fresh and new, and in a narrative that reads as quickly and effortlessly as a good novel.  This is a landmark work of history as it should be—at once serious, and “popular,” and challenging the reader’s assumptions about men and events.  Like all of Michael Beschloss’s books, PRESIDENTIAL COURAGE takes a subject readers might think they know something about and shows how much richer and more complex the events are in fact—and how much more interesting the men and women involved.  

About the Author

Michael Beschloss is the author of the best sellers The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945; Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964 and Reaching for Glory, as well as The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963; Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair; and Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance. With Strobe Talbott, he co-wrote At The Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War.  As NBC News Presidential Historian, Beschloss appears on all NBC News programs, including Today, NBC Nightly News, and Meet the Press.  He is also a regular on Imus in the Morning and PBS’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.  Beschloss has held appointments in history at the Harvard Russian Research Center, the Smithsonian Institution, and St. Anthony’s College, Oxford.

For further information about PRESIDENTIAL COURAGE, or to arrange an interview with Michael Beschloss, please contact Tracey Guest at Tracey.Guest@simonandschuster.com or at 212-698-7533.

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About the Book
Presidential Courage:Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989
By Michael Beschloss
Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 8, 2007
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 0-684-85705-7
First Serial: Newsweek

For author photo and jacket art, visit:  http://resources.simonsays.com
Or email Tracey.Guest@simonandschuster.com