Historian Michael Beschloss hasn't become known as one of the country's leading presidential historians by accident. Since 1980 his eight books on U.S. presidents include the 2002 best-seller "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945." A registered independent and regular on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Beschloss has a new book, "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989," coming out in May. I talked to him by telephone Thursday from his office in Washington:
Q: Do you have any sense that we are living in an important historic era?
A: How could you not have that sense? This is the time when tectonic plates are changing in the world. Oftentimes you don’t quite appreciate how historic a period is until much later on, but if you apply almost any measure to the time that we are living through, it couldn’t be more dramatic.
Q: Is there a single event that will be looked back at?
A: If you want to use 9/11 as a tipping point, you certainly could not do better than that because here’s a case where leadership really does make a difference. George W. Bush at the time that 9/11 happened, reacted by saying, “This is a wake-up call to us Americans. Terrorism is a problem that has been festering and we’ve never dealt with it frontally. I’m going to declare a war against terrorism and rip this scourge from the face of the Earth -- which could take decades.” Many other people who might have been president at the time might have dealt with this very differently by saying, for instance, “We’ll use the FBI” or “We’ll have retaliatory strikes” or “We’ll limit ourselves to diplomacy.” A lot of things that have happened in history since 2001 have flowed from that one decision.
Q: George Bush is getting a lot of criticism for staying tough on Iraq. Thirty years from now, will this be seen as courageous?
A: I think it will be definitely seen as courageous, no matter what happens, because you have a president who is willing to fly in the face of public opinion ... and that is nothing but courage. The other element is whether it turns out to be wise in the eyes of history, and that’s the kind of thing that takes 20 or 30 years. George Bush is the first one to say this. He knows that his decisions on Iraq will be measured by historians of the future through the lens of whether the war in Iraq and the general war on terrorism worked.
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