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Global Perspectives: Michael Beschloss on Becoming a Writer, the Challenges of the Presidency and National Division

Mark A. Wynne

May 18, 2021

Michael Beschloss is a historian, leadership scholar and author of 10 books, most recently the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Presidents of War.

Beschloss appears regularly as the NBC News presidential historian (a position he has held since 2007, and the first person appointed to such a role) and as a contributor to PBS NewsHour. He has also been a contributing columnist at the New York Times. He won an Emmy in 2005 for the series Decisions that Shook the World, which he hosted for the Discovery Channel. He is the recipient of six honorary degrees and numerous other awards, including the Harry S. Truman Public Service Award and the Order of Lincoln, the state of Illinois’ highest honor. He has more than a half-million Twitter followers.

Beschloss has served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution, a scholar at the University of Oxford and a senior fellow of the Annenberg Foundation. Among his earlier books are two volumes on Lyndon Johnson’s secret tapes—The Conquerors, about Franklin Roosevelt, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust; and Presidential Courage. He was also co-author (with Caroline Kennedy) of the bestseller Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.

Beschloss, a native of Chicago, is an alumnus of Phillips Academy (Andover) and Williams College, where he studied under leadership author James MacGregor Burns. At Harvard Business School, he studied leadership in the private and public sectors.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently hosted Beschloss as part of the Bank’s Global Perspectives speaker series. This series was launched at the beginning of 2016 with the objective of bringing leaders from the worlds of business, academia and policymaking to the Dallas Fed to share their insights on leadership, and global, national and regional developments.

Beschloss and Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan discussed how he became a writer, the challenges of the presidency and healing a fractured nation. The following are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity, and presented by topic.

On Becoming a Writer:

Beschloss: I wanted to write history books about presidents since I was, say, 7 to 10 years old. I went to Williams College up in Massachusetts, where I studied under James MacGregor Burns. He wrote a book called LeadershipLeadership, which came out in 1978 and was a big book.

He is the one who came up with the terms that probably most of us who study leadership use, such as transformative leadership or transactional leadership. Those came from him and from that book. Actually, I was with him the night he figured those out. In any case, he was my supervisor and my mentor at Williams, and I wanted to write history books.

I didn’t think I could teach history as well as I hoped to write it. So, he said, “Well, what do you think you’ll do if you’re not going to teach?” And I said, “What do you think I should do?” And he said, “Well, why don’t you go to Harvard Business School, get an MBA, go on to get a PhD in history if you want—although it’s not necessary if you’re not going to teach—and then do something like work at a foundation, which will probably be very happy to have you write books?”

That’s what I did, and I went there [Harvard Business School] in 1978, long before you [Rob Kaplan] were there [2006–15]. My senior thesis written under Jim’s supervision was on the relationship between Joe Kennedy Sr., the founder of the family, and Franklin Roosevelt. After I finished [at] Williams, a publisher (Norton) expressed interest in publishing it, so I rewrote it, and the book came out about two minutes after I got out of Harvard Business School in 1980. And it did well enough so that the foundation world was spared my full-time services, and I was hired instead by the Smithsonian as a historian.

On Being an Effective U.S. President:

Lesson No. 1, if you want to be a leader, be prepared to be unpopular. Jim Burns, my old teacher, taught me this when I was 18 years old. If you want to be a manager, there is nothing wrong with that; it’s a perfectly honorable calling, but managers keep the engine running. They don't change things.

A leader of the country, of a company, of the Federal Reserve has to have a vision of the way things should be. It’s going to involve change; it’s going to make people unhappy. There are a lot of people who love being popular. If you want to do that, you're never going to be a leader because leadership will be agony.

Lesson No. 2, make sure you can explain unpopular decisions because you don't want [to be] someone who’s making unpopular decisions and then saying, “All right now, having done this, I will now resign because everyone hates me.” The archetype is Abraham Lincoln, who in 1864 [while] running for reelection, was able to explain why he issued the Emancipation Proclamation—which did the right thing but wound up prolonging the Civil War, causing more deaths, and a lot of people were unhappy.

Lesson No. 3, make sure your leader has a sense of history, beginning with the president, but I think this applies to every leader. How can you possibly become a leader of a country, or of an organization, or of a community if you have no idea what mistakes and what triumphs were true of the leaders and citizens who had gone before?

Especially if you’re president of the United States, there’s no manual. You are making 20 decisions at once; oftentimes, you’re tired and confused. You don’t have the kind of information a historian will have, with almost 20/20 hindsight 40 years later. But what tool do you have, other than history? If you’re not interested in history, fine; if you’re not interested in history, your life experience will be limited to what happens to you and what your friends and family tell you.

If you’re interested in history and tap into it in some way, whether it’s books, movies or something else, you’re tapping into the collective wisdom of billions of people who’ve walked the earth. If you’re the new head of a company, why would you not want to know the history of your industry and your company and what worked and what did not? You know you’ve got few road maps; that’s one of them.

Harry Truman said, “I could never understand how you could have a leader or a president who had no interest in history.” I have been saying the same thing to groups for 30 years, and only during the last five years did I suddenly get shocked reactions from people.

On How the Presidency Has Changed:

I believe the presidency has gotten much too powerful—way beyond anything the founders ever imagined. Think of the potential power that rests on the character, and abilities, and ideology of whoever becomes president. I'm a registered independent, and I'm coming at this without politics.

If you have a president who is unbalanced, that person can launch a nuclear strike. That person has the ability to abuse the rule of law, the Department of Justice, our intelligence system—all sorts of powers that one day could be used by a president to undermine democracy. I don’t believe that was ever the intention of the founders.

They hoped that we would elect presidents of the character of George Washington, but Alexander Hamilton specifically wrote about the danger that someday there will be someone elected president who’s not George Washington, and we’d better have the safety locks. This is me speaking on our system of government to make sure that a president cannot cause too much trouble. My argument—and I wrote about this in Presidents of War—is that for all sorts of reasons, we became OK in the last 80 years especially with giving presidents all sorts of power they never had before. It’s probably OK most of the time, but it could be one day extremely dangerous, and we could come to rue that fact.

[Suppose] Abraham Lincoln said, “I’ve got to take on almost dictatorial powers to carry out my oath to keep the Union together. So, therefore, I’m going to suspend habeas corpus, and I’m going to shut down newspapers and I’m going to do other things.” This is me speaking, not him—this is what he would have thought that I know were not what the founders intended. But, “Unless I do these things, we’re going to lose the whole country. And I do not intend these things to be a precedent for later presidents.”

Then you get Franklin Roosevelt, whom I love 80 percent of the time. But Roosevelt in 1942 says, “We’ve got to send people of Japanese descent to prison camps. I know that it’s a violation of civil liberties, but we might lose the war, and I’m going to do other things that seem dictatorial, and I’m going to take on new powers for a president in war time, and I don’t intend these to be a precedent either and, by the way, Lincoln did it.”

And then you get to Richard Nixon in 1969 and 1970, who says, “Antiwar protesters are undermining our system of government. I’ve got to do something called the Houston Plan. I’m considering it seriously (which is abusing the FBI, break-ins into the psychiatrist office of my political enemies, the wiretapping of reporters).”

All I’m telling you is, one day we’re going to be in a dictatorship and, if that happens, this is the way it’s going to happen.

On Overcoming Division:

The country is very divided. Obviously in 1859 and 1860, the country was so fractured we went to war. We are not, thank God, anywhere near that point now. And although we disagree about a lot of issues, the disagreement is not as fundamental and overwhelming as it was then.

One parallel I think works to some extent for the time we’re living in is early 1933—banks were closed; [there was] high unemployment; people were starving, losing their houses. There was an awful lot of suffering. And basically, if I could go back through time and tell the president who was incoming (Franklin Roosevelt) what to do, it would be [that] you’ve got to relieve suffering fast because, if you do not, we could lose our democracy.

If you do not show people that our free-enterprise system works with some regulation, with some constraints, they are going to Huey Long, who wants to redistribute wealth, or Father [Charles] Coughlin, who is dictatorial, or other leaders who have voices that are pretty much outside the consensus. I don’t think we’re to that point yet, but we’re in a divided country where I think, if our system does not seem to work especially in creating prosperity, there are all sorts of groups in America who would love to come into the political system, especially in 2024, and go a route in some cases that we have not seen before.

Just to underscore how much is at stake right now, I’ll speak very personally. In 2008, when the [global financial] crash occurred, I can remember talking to my wife and saying, “If I were someone who was thrown out of work in one of these factories in the Midwest, and I saw the CEOs even richer at the end and something was not done to correct these problems pronto, I would be irate and I’d be taking a torch to the streets.” That’s my direct quote from September 2008. Well, to some extent that has happened. I would give the same message today. There are many Americans who have seen this [in the] past year, and distrust government. This is not a political comment. Our government did a terrible job during the last year of confronting the crisis of COVID. I like to think that we learned from history.

Woodrow Wilson, whom I love for what he did with the Federal Reserve system, was a great leader. But he was the opposite of that on the [1918] influenza pandemic—675,000 Americans were killed, 50 million people around the world were killed, largely because Woodrow Wilson was a very selfish man who [reasoned], “I don’t want to become unpopular, especially at a time of World War I. So, I’m not going to admit in public that there’s a pandemic at all.”

And Wilson was perfectly happy to take a lot of power for himself to fight the war, [but] wasn’t willing to do this to fight the pandemic. A huge number of those 675,000 dead did not need to die. So, if you [in the audience] and I and Rob [Kaplan] were talking two years ago, I would have said, “Presidents will make many mistakes. They will never again make the mistake of Woodrow Wilson, which is refusing to use the presidential pulpit and the power of the federal government to do everything they could to carry out one of the most basic obligations of a president, which is to help people to survive.”

Our government failed us. So, you got people very angry—rightfully so, if the fact [is] that they were not protected during the last year. They have seen, just as you’ve suggested, more inequality. People who are on the top have done great during the last year. Inequality has gotten worse. The prescription is not vote Republican or vote Democrat—it’s find great leaders who can preserve our democracy.

I’m a deeply conservative institutional conservative. I want to see our democracy conserved. I want to see our rule of law conserved. I want to see our system survive, and democracy always requires eternal vigilance. So, all I’m saying is, there was a lot of anger that came out of 2008. There were too many people in the Midwest who showed [up] in the 2016 election who were so angry because they felt that the solutions were unfair and they did not work.

The same thing could be true as a result of this horrible year that we’ve all gone through—horrible in terms of almost every family suffering, but also in terms of most people economically suffering. And if you’ve got a lot of Americans saying once again [that] “we’ve been ripped off, and it went to the people at the top,” I don’t know how a democracy can survive. So, all I’m saying to leaders is, if you’re as institutionally conservative as I am, make sure in the year 2021 you give people the sense that the system works and it protects everyone. You want democracy? That’s the way to do it, in my view.

About the Author

Mark A. Wynne

Wynne is vice president and associate director of research in the Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Federal Reserve System.

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