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The Key to Presidential Courage

Key to PresidentialCourage

HISTORIAN Michael Beschloss, gave an engaging and entertaining talk to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council a couple of nights ago about his book, Presidential Courage.

Michael Beschloss
We expect our Presidents to be willing to make a sacrifice if necessary; to place the interests of the country ahead of their own interests. George Washington set the bar for other Presidents to follow. John Adams, our second President was faced with an issue—potential war with France— that required the courage to place his own aspirations second to what was right for the country. He had to go against his party by rejecting the idea of a war with France. It cost him a great deal of personal anguish and loss of the Presidency to Thomas Jefferson. Beschloss wrote of Adams, “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.’”

Beschloss said that in effect, Adams said, “I wanted more than anything to get a second term so that I had a chance in history to be the equal of General Washington. Now that’s gone. But, I can go back to Massachusetts and I can feel that my sacrifice was for something important. And I still have my wife Abigail (to whom he was so close) and my children and my farm and my books and my old veteran friends from the revolution.” Adams lived on for 26 more years; long enough to see his son John Quincy elected to be the sixth President. Bescholoss found his attitude a significant key to courage. Adams had a life beyond the Presidency.

“We’ve got to look at candidates for President this year and next, and if you want someone who is capable of presidential courage, I would say one thing to look for is: Is this someone who is desperate to be President and hang-on almost at all costs or is this someone who if there is a moment requiring presidential courage—where they have to give it all up—has something else in his or her life—a family or other interests or even better yet, convictions (they can feel that they gave it up for doing the right thing)?

As we choose candidates these days, in a system that I find completely atrocious, it forces all of us to evaluate these people’s character. And one thing I would really ask is that we would look at them in terms of the stories in this book and say “Is this someone who is like these courageous Presidents?” Because in the next five years we may very well need that.

The question was raised concerning the difference between courage and betrayal. We speak of courage on the one hand, but what is going on when a President betrays people by doing something that people do not like or different from what they said they would do. Beschloss responded, “In these stories, you will see where Presidents do tell American’s that it’s a good thing to do things that they may not first approve of, but it is not something that is wildly different from something they said in the campaign. They’re moving public opinion just somewhat beyond where it’s willing to go at the moment.” For example:

Of the nine presidents I write about, only one had to pay the price of losing reelection and that was John Adams. Everyone else was a good enough politician or a good enough educator that they were able to continue. For instance, FDR, in trying to get a third term could say to Americans, “Well, you may be disturbed by my building up our defense, but think of it this way. Maybe it’s the best way to scare off Hitler if we’re really strong with 50,000 airplanes and so on.” Or in Abraham Lincoln’s case, he stuck to the Emancipation [Proclamation]. But rather than just say, “Well, I’m going to be a courageous guy, and I’ll just go down in flames,” he was such a good educator that he said to Americans, “You may not like the idea of fighting the Civil War also to free the slaves, but since I’ve declared the Emancipation, 200,000 African-Americans have come across enemy lines from the South and they’re all working hard in our Union War effort. If I now dispense with the Emancipation, they’d sit on their hands and we’d lose the war.”

That’s what a great President does.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 02:34 AM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Books , Leadership



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