Skip to main content

Crucial Moments, Courageous Decisions

In Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, historian Michael Beschloss takes a look at nine crucial moments when a president risked his political career for the good of the country, often by taking an unpopular or controversial stand.

In reviewing strong presidential stands — from George Washington's then-controversial peacemaking with England to Harry Truman's decision to recognize the newly formed state of Israel — the author drew on newly released material including presidential diaries, notes, and Oval Offfice recordings; he also reviewed interviews taped with former presidents once they'd left office. He concludes that while they all ultimately made courageous choices, "none of them was a saint; all of them wanted at times to do the wrong thing, to escape what might be political suicide."

Beschloss is a contributor to PBS' The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and presidential historian for NBC News; he's written eight books on U.S. presidents, including The Conquerers: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany.

44:22

Other segments from the episode on May 8, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 8, 2007: Interview with Michael Beschloss; Review of the album "Lafayette Gilchrist 3."

Transcript

DATE May 8, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss on his new
book "Presidential Courage," focusing on key moments in history
involving nine courageous presidents
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss has written a new book focusing on
key moments in history involving nine different presidents. From George
Washington to Ronald Reagan, Beschloss examines what he says were some of the
most courageous and controversial decisions made by American presidents,
decisions so controversial they could have threatened the future of their
presidencies, but ultimately changed the future of the United States for the
better. Beschloss' new book is called "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders
and How They Changed America 1789-1989."

For his examination of several of the 20th century presidents included in his
book, including Reagan, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman, Beschloss drew upon
a lot of recently released material, including presidential diaries, notes and
secret tape recordings from the Oval Office. He also used taped interviews
made after presidents had left office. We'll hear some of those recordings
today.

Beschloss is the author of eight previous books on American presidents,
including two annotated collections of Lyndon Johnson's tapes. He is the
presidential historian for NBC News and a contributor to PBS' "The NewsHour
with Jim Lehrer." Terry spoke with Michael Beschloss last week.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Michael Beschloss, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: The first story I'd like you to talk about is Harry Truman who--the
courageous moment you choose for him is his decision to recognize Israel in
1948. What was at stake for him? Why did it take such courage for him to do
that?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, in the spring of 1948, the Jews who lived in Palestine
were about to declare the state of Israel, and Truman was under huge pressure
not to do it, especially by his secretary of state, George Marshall, who's
very famous, heroic guy who many people in the United States admired,
including Truman. But Marshall went to Truman and said, `If you recognize
Israel, I'm going to oppose you,' and Truman was running for reelection that
year. Had Marshall come out against him, that could have been curtains for
Truman.

On the other side, what I discovered was that Truman had a background with
Jewish people that you really didn't expect from someone who was essentially a
rural Missouri Baptist. One thing I discovered was that when he was a kid, he
lived next to probably the only Jewish family in the town of Independence,
Missouri, a family called the Viners. He was very close to the daughter, who
was named Sarah and it turned out that Truman worked for them as what they'd
call a shabbos goy, meaning that on the Jewish Sabbath Truman, who obviously
was not Jewish, would perform chores that Jewish people were not able to do.

GROSS: We actually have a tape you brought with you of Truman talking about
his decision to recognize Israel and we're going to hear an excerpt of this.
Would you introduce it to us, tell us where this recording is from?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Sure. This is Truman in the early 1960s, so he would have
been almost 80 years old. And what he's talking about is his memory of what
he went through and how he got to this decision of recognizing Israel in '48.

GROSS: So let's hear an excerpt of that tape, of Harry Truman in the early
1960s.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Mr. HARRY S. TRUMAN: No problem I faced while I was president of the United
States was more controversial or more complex than the problem of Israel. In
1948, I was up to here in experts from the Army, the Navy, and the State
Department. I had to take a look at myself for the simple reason I was trying
to find out why a Midwest Baptist like me should get so emotionally upset over
Palestine and the fate of the Jews and their terrible position in the world.
I knew how they felt. My grandmother and my mother had told me many stories
about what happened to the people who lived between Kansas and Missouri, how
they were moved off their homes, as many goods and chattels as the federal
soldiers thought they ought to have loaded into a wagon and taken into town
where they had to stay all the time while the war was going on. I had some
notion of what these people were going through, who had to be moved from one
place to another in order to have a home. And I was very anxious that they
would not and should not have to go through the same sort of difficulties that
the families in the War between the States had to go through.

It was my attitude that the American government couldn't stand idly by while
the victims of Hitler's madness were not allowed to build new lives. Hitler
had been murdering Jews right and left. It's estimated that he killed six
million Jews, burned most of them up in furnaces. It was a horrible thing. I
saw it and I dream about it even to this day.

And on that account the Jews needed someplace where they could go. Some way
had to be found to take care of those displaced persons. Give them a place to
live, something to eat and something to wear, and it was up to us to try to
get it done. We'd just finished two wars and we had a country of our own to
put back on an even keel. I guess that's when I began to feel that the
presidential chair was about the loneliest place that a man could be.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Harry Truman, recorded in the early 1960s. My guest is
presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and his new book is called
"Presidential Courage."

You know, listening to that, it sounds like Truman's dictating his memoirs.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Yeah. He was talking--it almost sounds like...

GROSS: Or reading something that's already been written.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Yes.

GROSS: It sounds like he's reading something.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well that's part of the way Truman talked, you know...

GROSS: Is it?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: ...because he thought that he should sound like a president,
you know, not sound like really Harry Truman who, in many ways was a little
bit more laidback. And there's another element, which that's true, because
there's certain things he's not telling.

One of the things he's not telling you is that when he had to make this
decision about recognizing Israel, he had to cope with his wife Bess. And his
wife, Bess, at best, was not very sympathetic. This is a woman who, as Truman
said late in life, did not allow Jewish people into her house. She was
someone who was from what was considered to be a patrician family in
Independence and she used to say that she didn't feel that Jewish people were
really her sort. So you've got a president who, as you heard, is sympathetic
to Jewish people but at the same time he's got to go home at night to a wife
who will not even let Jewish people through the front door.

GROSS: What were some of the other pressures that were on him? Because he
had complained about pressures from Zionists and Jews.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Another one was that, as you can imagine during the years
before 1948, a lot of Americans, many of them Jewish, were very passionate
about the idea that you should take these Holocaust refugees and give them a
homeland, that that's the only way to make sure that Jewish people will never
again have to suffer from another Adolf Hitler. And they were very
determined. One was Rabbi Hillel Silver, who went to Truman's office, the
Oval Office, in 1946, and actually pounded on Truman's desk, saying, `You must
recognize a Jewish state!' And Truman was so angry that he said, `From now on
I don't want any Jewish leaders in my office,' and so it was.

GROSS: Later in the tape that you brought, he talks about actually allowing
an Israeli leader into his office. Do you want to tell us the story?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: That's exactly right. You know, at the same time as he's
angry at all these Zionist leaders--and I found, for instance, a piece of his
dairy that was lost for years in which he says things like, `You know, the
Jews are very selfish. They're only campaigning for their own people and they
don't care what happens to other people.' And he said at one point, `Jesus
Christ couldn't please the Jews while on earth. Why did I think I would have
any luck?' Things that almost verge on anti-Semitism.

At the same time, he was torn. And what happened was that this ban on Jewish
leaders coming to his office included Chaim Weizmann, who was ultimately the
first president of Israel, very determined to get a Jewish state. Weizmann
wanted to come and see Truman and say, you know, `You must listen to our
case,' You know, `Don't slam the door just because you're angry at this one
rabbi.' Truman wouldn't see him.

And so finally what happened was, Truman had a very good friend who was in the
Army with him named Eddie Jacobson, who was Jewish. They actually ran a
canteen together when they were in the Army in World War I. After that they
ran this famous haberdashery store in Kansas City that went bankrupt, yet the
two men stayed very close. Finally Jacobson said, `If you won't see these
Zionist leaders, at least see me.' So he came to see him and he said, `Harry,
this doesn't sound like you,' and tears were rolling down Jacobson's cheeks.
He said, `Why blame the people who want a Jewish state just because you're
angry at a rabbi? You really should see Chaim Weizmann, at least, hear him
out.' And so he did.

GROSS: So Truman decides to recognize Israel. Are there consequences that he
faces as a result?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Big consequences because, needless to say, a lot of people
who wanted Israel were delighted to see him do it, but Secretary of State
George Marshall--there was an open question whether he might get angry and
resign. And also that a lot of people might be suspicious of Truman and say,
`Well, perhaps he did this just for political reasons.' And the interesting
thing about Truman is that he was always torn, but what finally dominated his
thinking was, you know, `Yes, I think there should be a Jewish state. And
since he was a kid he read the Bible and he was a Baptist but he knew a lot
about history. He knew how historically important it would be for him to
regather Jewish people in Zion. His favorite Bible passage was the line `We
wept when we remembered Zion.' And later in life, having gone through all of
this, he won the `48 election. It was the thing that he was most proud of.

And Eddie Jacobson, just after Truman was president, introduced Truman at a
big gathering and said, `This is the man who helped the state of Israel be
established,' and Truman said, `What do you mean, helped get established? I'm
Cyrus.' And what he was referring to was the ancient Persian king he had read
about when he was a king who allowed the Jewish people to go to Babylon.

BIANCULLI: Michael Beschloss, speaking to Terry Gross. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, we're listening to an interview Terry
Gross recorded with presidential historian Michael Beschloss about his new
book "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America."
Beschloss brought along several presidential tape recordings he relied upon as
part of his research for the book, including tapes from the Kennedy
administration.

GROSS: Michael Beschloss, you choose as President Kennedy's moment of courage
his decision to back civil rights and civil rights legislation, which was not
a decision he immediately made. Why did you choose this as his example of
courage?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, what I'm trying to do with all these nine presidents is
talk about the fact that none of them was a saint. All of them wanted, at
times, to do the wrong thing. They wanted to escape something that might be
akin to political suicide, and a lot of them waited. And no better example of
John Kennedy. He was elected in 1960 with 90 percent of the African-American
vote, promising to do things for civil rights. Yet when he became president,
he did almost nothing, and the reason was that in 1960 he was elected mainly
because he carried the white South. He didn't want to lose it when he ran for
reelection in 1964.

So what happened was that Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader of
that time and all time, was saying, you know, `The Kennedys really have foiled
us. You know, they promised us they would do things. They're not doing
them.' So King was going to places in the South and trying to create pressure
that would goad against the Kennedys and say, `If you do not act, there will
be big, bad consequences for you.' One of those places was 1961 in Alabama.

GROSS: So tell us who Bobby Kennedy is talking to and what the occasion for
the discussion is.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: This is Bobby Kennedy, a year after his brother's death.
He's very depressed, as you'll hear. He's talking to Anthony Lewis, The New
York Times man. This is a tape that's never been heard publicly before about
his brother and civil rights, and he's describing Martin Luther King's anger
in 1961 that the Kennedys were not doing more to protect King and also protect
other demonstrators for civil rights who were down in the South.

GROSS: OK, so here's the tape.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Mr. ANTHONY LEWIS: Sunday night.

Mr. BOBBY KENNEDY: Sunday night. Martin Luther King was concerned about
whether he was going to live and whether his people were going to live, and I
was concerned about whether the place was going to be burned down. We kept
getting these reports, that the crowds were moving in and that they were going
to burn the church down and shoot the Negroes as they ran out of the church.

Mr. LEWIS: They did burn a car right in front of the church.

Mr. LEWIS: What was Governor Patterson saying on the phone?

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, first, Martin Luther King, I said that we were--our
people were down there, and that as long as he was in church he might say a
prayer for us. He didn't think that that was very humorous. And he rather
berated me for what was happening to him at the time, and I said to him that I
didn't think he'd be alive if it wasn't for us and that we were going to keep
him alive.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's an excerpt of a tape from Bobby Kennedy, speaking about a phone
conversation he had in 1961 with Martin Luther King at a time when King felt
that President Kennedy wasn't doing enough to support him or the larger civil
rights movement. My guest is Michael Beschloss, who has brought several
historical tapes with him, and we're talking about his new book "Presidential
Courage."

So how did President Kennedy decide to actually support civil rights
legislation and try to push it through Congress?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: What finally happened was that--you know, you heard Bobby
saying King berated him. King kept on berating the president and he kept on
creating situations that put pressure on JFK. And finally in the spring of
1963 there were demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, which went into riots,
and John Kennedy basically was confronted with a real choice: Do I continue
to do nothing about civil rights? And Bobby told him, `If you do that, the
northern cities of the United States in 1963, this summer, may go up in
flames, and everyone white and black is going to blame the president.' Or do
you send a big civil rights bill to Congress that says everyone, no matter
what their race, can use all hotels and restaurants. Kennedy finally did
that, but he was very worried; and even after sending that bill to the Hill,
he said, you know, `This really may destroy me. This may cost me my
reelection.' But then he said to Bobby, you know, `If we're going to go down,
let's go down for something as important as civil rights.'

GROSS: And one of the things he was afraid of regarding going down is that
he'd lose the support of the Southern vote.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And he did almost instantly. The polls found
that he dropped in the South about 25 points, and the irony is that, had John
Kennedy lived and run for president again in 1964, he might have lost, because
the white South was furious at him. He would have lost those Southern states.

GROSS: Well, you brought a tape with you of President Kennedy speaking on the
phone in 1963, spring of 1963, with Louisiana Senator Russell Long, and Long
is angry about Kennedy's support of civil rights. What are Louisiana and
other Southern states threatening to do here that Kennedy's trying to stop in
this phone conversation?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: They are threatening to field an anti-civil rights slate of
electors for the electoral college in the presidential election of 1964
against Kennedy. So the idea is that if those slates win across the South,
they can throw the presidential election into the House of Representatives.
And they can go to Kennedy and his Republican opponent in 1964 and say, `We're
going to give our votes and give the presidency to that person who will be the
most against civil rights.' Kennedy's trying to head that off.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear this 1963 conversation.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Senator RUSSELL LONG: Well, that's terrific. So thanks so much...

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: How you doing? I hear we're in some trouble in
Louisiana.

Sen. LONG: Well, sir, I haven't had a chance to check today. I was down
in--I went to Houston, Texas, to kind of see if I could squeeze a little money
out of the oil people to get us along, and I've talked to the governor of
Louisiana from--over there, and he said that he thought he might get to keep
that bill in the House...

Pres. KENNEDY: The thing is--what's so screwy about that thing is that if a
Democrat carries Louisiana, no matter who those delegates are, they can't go
up and make a deal with a Republican then, let's say. Because a Republican
can't look like he's in the position of outbidding a Democrat on some civil
right questions. So therefore the best they could do is throw it in the House
of Representatives, and then it puts--then everybody gets sort of on the hot
seat, because either you break up the Democratic Party or everybody votes
Democratic, so where does it end? I know it's sort of just a means of
protest, isn't it?

Sen. LONG: Well, no. What they've got in mind, they're trying to work out a
sort of a block vote type deal where they would get their vote together...

Pres. KENNEDY: Yeah.

Sen. LONG: ...and then say, `All right, now if my vote might elect somebody
president...

Pres. KENNEDY: Yeah.

Sen. LONG: ...`I mean, he's going to have to come to our terms. Now, you
know those fellows made some kind of a deal like that in that Tilden-Hayes
race that was up--I believe it was.

Pres. KENNEDY: Yeah, that's right. I know.

Sen. LONG: And...

Pres. KENNEDY: But this isn't 1870...

Sen. LONG: Oh, I agree. I think...

Pres. KENNEDY: Eighteen seventy-six. It isn't 1876.

Sen. LONG: I think it's a lousy idea.

Pres. KENNEDY: Because what happens is--and it will become the most
publicized thing. Then they come up and say, `Well, you've got to do
something, you know--you've got'--in the first place you've got the courts
operating anyway, no matter what the president did...

Sen. LONG: Right.

Pres. KENNEDY: ...and then they'd come up, and everybody's looking, what is
the president promising this group. And pretty soon you've got the
God...(word censored by station)...finally ends up in the House of
Representatives. It doesn't get them much. In addition, everybody then says,
`Christ, the South is so uncertain that I'd better just try to get my votes in
the North.'

Sen. LONG: Well, of course, the worst thing about that, I don't know how you
feel about it, but the bills, they've got to have...(unintelligible)...but
I've been told about it. You see, the worst thing about that is that, in
effect, that would take the South out of...

Pres. KENNEDY: That's right.

Sen. LONG: ...the presidential election.

Pres. KENNEDY: Exactly. Exactly.

Sen. LONG: So that it...

Pres. KENNEDY: Until afterwards.

Sen. LONG: If we were not going to vote on whether you were going to be
president or not, now why did you promise us anything?

Pres. KENNEDY: Exactly.

Sen. LONG: You should direct your appeal to those...

Sen. KENNEDY: That's one...

Sen. LONG: ...the Negro vote might be the key vote.

Sen. KENNEDY: And at least I could count on it. Otherwise, I'd figure,
`Well, I have to do my business after November,' and I can't do it under those
conditions. I think it's crazy for the South. Because this way I'm concerned
about Georgia and Louisiana and these places where we got a chance to carry.
But if I end up with no chance to carry them, then I've got to go up North and
try to do my business...

Sen. LONG: Right, well now, I tell you...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's President Kennedy and Louisiana Senator Russell Long, recorded
in 1963.

Michael Beschloss, what does Kennedy mean when he says he'd have to take his
business up North?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: What he means by that is that he's going to have to start
going to the right again and saying, `Well, maybe I'm not so much for civil
rights after all.' And Kennedy was this very mixed person. In the 1950s he
was probably the most anti-civil rights candidate of those potential
candidates for 1960, to the point that he was once at a banquet with the great
African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson, who was so angry at
Kennedy's stance that Robinson wouldn't even have his picture taken with
Kennedy.

GROSS: When President Kennedy says to Senator Long that if the Southern
states go through with their threat, then Kennedy will have to go North and do
his business there, what does that mean?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: What Kennedy is saying to Long is, if you're going to shut me
out of the South in the election of 1964, then I'm going to have to go really
liberal and try to get a lot of Northern votes to counteract this.

GROSS: And the South wouldn't like that?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: The South would not like that at all, especially on civil
rights.

GROSS: So what was the outcome of this conversation? Did Louisiana and the
other states back down?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: In the end they did. There wasn't a slate like that because,
as it happens, after Kennedy was assassinated, Barry Goldwater ran in 1964,
and he was against civil rights. But Kennedy couldn't know that, and up to
the moment he was murdered, he feared that he was going to be done out of the
1964 election because of this ruse.

BIANCULLI: Michael Beschloss, speaking to Terry Gross. We'll hear more of
their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry
Gross.

Let's get back to Terry's interview with presidential historian Michael
Beschloss about his new book "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How
They Changed America." In the book, Beschloss chose some of the most
courageous and controversial decisions made by nine different American
presidents, decisions that ultimately changed the US for the better. He used
recently released material, including presidential recordings, for his book.
When we left off they were talking about John Kennedy's decision to support
civil rights legislation.

GROSS: You have another tape you've brought with you, and this was recorded
during the period when President Kennedy is trying to get his civil rights
bill through the House of Representatives. He's on the phone with Mayor Daley
of Chicago. What's happening in this conversation?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, coming from Chicago, I can particularly tell you, he's
calling up Daley, who was the boss of Chicago, you know, very powerful
influence over all the members of Congress from Chicago, and saying, `You've
got this congressman from Chicago named Roland Libonati. He is against my
civil rights bill.' Libonati was from a district in Chicago, very
anti-African-American district, very worried about civil rights. He was
feeling the pressure. So Kennedy is calling up Daley and saying, `Can't you
get this guy into line?' And you'll hear what Daley says.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Pres. KENNEDY: ...with that Judiciary Committee trying to get their civil
rights together...

Mayor RICHARD DALEY: Yeah?

Pres. KENNEDY: ...and Roland Libonati is sticking it right up us.

Mayor DALEY: Is--he is?

Pres. KENNEDY: Yeah. Because he's standing with the extreme liberals who
are going to end up with no bill at all, then when we put together another
vote for the extreme bill. And I asked him, `Are you going to vote for this
package which we put together with the Republicans, which gives us just about
everything we wanted,' and he says `No.'

Mayor DALEY: He'll vote for it. He'll vote for any guy you want.

Pres. KENNEDY: Well, can you get him?

Mayor DALEY: I surely can. Where is he? Is he there?

Pres. KENNEDY: Well, he's in the other room.

Mayor DALEY: Well, you have Kenny--you tell Kenny to put him on the wire
here.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: How did you get--where are these tapes from, and how were they
recorded?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: In this case, this is a tape that Kennedy made himself of
many of his telephone calls. And these were some of the things I used in my
research. He also taped a lot of meetings. Some of them have only been
opened in recent years.

GROSS: And did people on the other end know they were being taped?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: They didn't, and as a very strong believer in civil
liberties, I think that's horrible because you're trapping someone, you know,
forever, putting his or her words on tape without that person knowing that he
or she is being trapped. But since it was done, I must say, as an historian
it's an absolute gold mine and I couldn't have written these stories, really,
without them.

GROSS: Are the tapes technically illegal? Because the person on the other
end didn't know they were being recorded.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Nowadays they would be illegal in a lot of states, but in
those days, this was very early and the technology, so much less so.

GROSS: And--this might sound like a silly question but did President Kennedy
ever try to use these tapes to pressure or blackmail anybody?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Not to my knowledge, but there was always the possibility
that that might be the case. Lyndon Johnson often did. You know, he once
said that the reason he taped was to make sure if some senator made him a
promise and reneged, he could go back to it and say, `This is what you
promised me,' and give almost a direct quote.

GROSS: Kennedy was assassinated before the civil rights bill passed. It
passed under President Johnson. Had Kennedy lived, do you think he would have
succeeded in getting through the civil rights bill?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: He would have had a much harder time because one reason LBJ
was able to get that civil rights bill, which was still tremendously
controversial, through the House and Senate, was, he said, `You may have some
qualms about this, Senators, especially in the South, but do it as a memorial
to our great President Kennedy. This is what he wanted.' So the irony is that
when John Kennedy died in Dallas, he ended up being essentially the person who
allowed civil rights to come to America.

Jackie Kennedy, just after John Kennedy was killed, was told the assassin is
what she called `this silly little communist, Lee Harvey Oswald,' and she was
so bitter about it, she said, `It had to be a silly little communist who
killed Jack. He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil
rights.' But in a way, finally, he was.

GROSS: There's another tape you brought with you that I wanted you to play
for us, and this is a tape right after the assassination attempt on President
Reagan's life, and this is recorded in the situation room. It's a secret, top
level meeting about the possiblity that Soviets were involved in the attempted
assassination, and people in the room are discussing responding to the
assassination attempt by raising the alert level. Who's speaking here?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: You'll hear the voices of Alexander Haig, who was the
secretary of state; Casper Weinberger, who was the defense secretary; and
others. And the second they heard that Reagan had been shot, which was really
only a few minutes earlier, their first thought was, `It must be the
Russians,' because Reagan is so anti-Soviet, the Russians probably wanted
Reagan dead so they could deal with his vice president, George H.W. Bush '41,
because he'd be easier to deal with. So what they're talking about was the
possibility that the Soviets may have just assassinated the president, and
they've got to respond with a military alert.

GROSS: Now what is being said is a little hard to make out, but I want to say
before we heard this, what I find most remarkable about this tape is how low
key it is. You know, we've all seen the Hollywood movie, where there's like,
you know, an attempt on the president's life or something, and behind the
scenes there's this secret meeting and everything's at this like this
fever-pitch and it's really high drama and this is just like just, soundwise,
sonically, it's the opposite of that.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Yeah, it ain't exactly like that movie "Air Force One." And I
think the best explanation maybe is that they're a little bit confused and
trying to stay calm because who knows what may be next, maybe even a Soviet
attack?

GROSS: Well, this is that recording in a secret meeting after the
assassination attempt on President Reagan's life.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. I have the...

Unidentified Man #2: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is coming on, gentlemen,
just a second.

Man #1: Tell him to get alerts to the strategic air command and such other
units as seem to him to be desirable at this point.

Unidentified Man #3: Not to compare...

Unidentified Man #4: What kind of alert, Cap?

Man #1: That's a standby alert. Just a standby alert.

Man #4: We're not raising readiness?

Man #1: No. Also--but the main thing is he should stay there in the command
center, not here.

Unidentified Man #5: Right.

Unidentified Man #6: Look, there...

Man #1: Al, don't elevate it. Be careful.

Man #2: Absolutely, absolutely. That's why I toned down the message that's
going out. You know...

Man #3: I don't think anything that talks about the continuity of the
government or anything. That sounds like we know a lot more than we do

Man #2: Yeah...(unintelligible). This is apt to turn out to be a loner.

Man #3: I think it would.

Man #1: Cap, what do they mean by an alert?

Man #2: Well, an alert...

Man #3: We've been down this path once before.

Man #4: Yeah.

Man #1: That's right. The alert simply is that there are conditions which
may require very quick action...

Unidentified Man #6: You sure that doesn't mean DefCon 3 or...

Man #1: No, no, no. I'll tell him. It's a matter of being ready for some
later call. It's probably DefCon 2.

Man #5: Two. Well, that's too...

Man #1: I think the important thing, fellas, is that these things always
generate a lot of...(unintelligible)...stories

Man #2: Yeah.

Man #1: And everybody's running around telling everybody everything that they
can...

Man #3: That's right.

Man #1: Goddamn. I think it's goddamn important that none of that happens.
The president--as long as he's conscious and can function...

Man #5: That's right.

Man #4: The vice president's in a--the vice president's in Air Force One.

Man #1: Let me point out to you that the president is not now conscious.

Man #2: Question now, should you talk to the speaker of the House?

Man #1: Yeah.

Man #4: The speaker of the House...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's an amazing tape. I hope our listeners could make some of that
out. They're talking there about, `Well, is the president conscious?' `No,
he's not conscious.' `Well, should we alert the speaker of the House, who's
next in line of succession to stand by?' And...

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Yes.

GROSS: It's all very low-key sounding but it's incredible stuff they're
saying. And, you know, of course, they're all talking about raising the level
of alert and fearing that there's a Soviet threat behind the shooting of the
president. Did the public know this at the time?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: No, and they tried very much to make sure the public did not
know how much they were worried, because their general thought was that if
there's going to be an attack by the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union and
the US, largely because of Reagan, at that moment, could not have been more
opposed and antagonistic. If there was a Soviet attack, they always felt that
it would start with an attack, an assassination attempt on the chief of
government, the president. That's what they thought this might be.

GROSS: How did you get this tape? Where is this tape from? How was it made?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: This was actually made by a guy called Richard Allen, who was
Reagan's first national security adviser. He just had a little tape machine
in the room because he thought that moment might be historic, as of course it
turned out to be. This is a moment that really led to a turning point,
because one of the things I also used in writing these stories was Ronald
Reagan's private diaries. And in the diaries, he says, you know, `The
assassination attempt has taught me something, and that is that God spared me
for a purpose. I must be here on earth for something. And maybe what that is
is trying to bring peace to the world and trying to create a better
relationship with the Soviets and abolish nuclear weapons.' And so from that
moment on, Reagan was thinking, `How can I do that?'

And what finally happened was history was changed by two women. One was his
wife, Nancy, who in 1984, said, `Ronnie, this showdown of yours with the
Soviets is getting ridiculous and dangerous. You've got to change.' And Nancy
brought in a woman whose name is not well known, a woman called Suzanne
Massie, who's a little bit mysterious. She was someone who had written on
Russian culture. She came in and saw Reagan probably three or four dozen
times throughout the rest of his presidency. She reminded him of his mother
and she said, you know, `Yes, the Soviets are dangerous, but they're also
human beings that you can relate to.' That led directly to his decision to try
to relate to Mikhail Gorbachev.

GROSS: And that decision to work with Gorbachev to try to end the Cold War is
the decision that you use as President Reagan's example of presidential
courage.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: That's it, because a lot of the people who loved Reagan and
had backed him for years, what they liked about him was this was a guy who was
tough on the Soviet Union. As far as they were concerned, he would be that
way forever. So in 1986, when he says, `Gorbachev is for real. I think he's
really trying to seek peace. I'm going to try to work with him,' a lot of
people said to Reagan who had supported him for years, `We're finished with
you. We think that you're a sentimental idiot. Who have you been listening
to?' And as it turns out, now we can know because you get this information
that was behind the scenes. The people he was listening to were largely
women: his wife and Suzanne Massie. And that sort of fits because in the
1980s a lot of the people in the United States who were most worried about
Reagan doing things that might lead to a war with the Soviet Union were women.

GROSS: Who were some of the hard-liners within Reagan's own administration
who were opposed to his working with Gorbachev?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: There were people who, in fact, even earlier, someone like
Alexander Haig, whom Reagan fired, in part, in 1982 because he was so tough.
There were people on his national security staff. But largely the people who
were worried about this were people who had been his political supporters for
years. You know, people who did direct mail and who had campaigned for him
really back to the beginning of his career in 1966.

Reagan, for his part, had always been very honest. He had said, `I think the
way to make peace with the Soviet is to challenge them, put the pressure on
them, so they'll see that they can never win the Cold War. But once they do
that and once a leader tries to seek peace, I'll respond to that.' His old
backers didn't really listen to the second part of the sentence, so when
Gorbachev came and Reagan thought he was for real and Reagan started to deal
with him, these people said, you know, `We think that this Ronald Reagan is
not the person we thought he was.'

GROSS: You mentioned that President Reagan kept a handwritten diary almost
every day of his presidency, and excerpts of those diaries are going to be
published soon. Do you consider those diaries to be forthcoming, or are they
the kind of things you make available to the public because you know the
diary's going to be public but you don't necessarily put in what's really
going on behind the scenes?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: They give you some glimpses and they're very useful in
understanding Reagan at certain points, but this is someone who, as you know,
Terry, was the opposite of introspective or reflective, and even Nancy Reagan
has said, you know, `Even I could not get beyond that barrier that Ronnie was
someone who was so hurt by his first wife walking out on him or the end of his
film career after World War II'--other hurts in life--an alcoholic father.
That this is someone who really was very self-contained and oftentimes never
confided even to Nancy, with whom he had this famously close marriage what he
was really thinking.

BIANCULLI: Michael Beschloss, speaking to Terry Gross. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with presidential historian
Michael Beschloss. His new book examines crucial and brave decisions by nine
US presidents.

GROSS: You have done so much with presidential tapes over the years in your
various books and CDs and so on, and you've drawn on presidential tapes for
your new book "Presidential Courage," so you're very sensitive to the
historical value of the documents that presidents and their administrations
leave behind. So I'm really interested in what you have to say about the Karl
Rove e-mail story, and this is the story where he kind of created an alternate
channel for his e-mails so that they wouldn't be part of the official White
House administration historical documents that would be open to the public.
He had an alternate channel through the Republican National Committee, and
their e-mails are not part of that open--they're not open documents.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Right.

GROSS: And I guess he erased those e-mails, too, and now there are attempts
to try to restore them. So, would you talk about like what the laws are about
the official White House communications that are supposed to be eventually
open to the public for historical reasons?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: It's absolutely horrible, Terry, because what the law says is
that presidents have to make very careful records and keep them and put them
in libraries. They have to, for instance, preserve their hard drives. But
what really happens, and has been happening in recent years, George W. Bush's
administration, more than anyone else, is an effort to make sure that this
kind of stuff is not left for later historians, and maybe even contemporary
prosecutors. What the White House counsel will now tell a president is, you
know, `Don't make, certainly don't make tapes because, you know, it's
entrapment to the people who don't know about them, but also don't write
diaries, don't write letters, don't keep really careful memos because they
might be leaked. They might get to some kind of a prosecutor if there's a
scandal,' and so the result is--and we're seeing it in just you're talking
about is--we in the future will not have the kind of records of a contemporary
president.

As you know in this book, I write about earlier presidents from George
Washington and John Adams all the way through Abraham Lincoln and Theodore
Roosevelt, and also Franklin Roosevelt, and in writing these stories about all
those guys and trying to get into their marriages and into their brains and
how they got through these ordeals, what I had were these wonderful diaries
and these letters and public documents, official documents that were
preserved. Sometimes they were closed for 50, 75 years because they were
explosive or sensitive. That's the kind of thing that you really need to not
only write about a president going through an ordeal that requires courage,
but also to get into his mind, to understand what his relationship with his
wife was or with his mother; you know, what his temperament was. And if this
paper trail begins to dry up, as it's now doing for presidents, we historians
in the future are going to have a very hard time.

GROSS: What was the most exciting discovery in terms of, you know, audio or
paper documents that you found while researching your new book?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: In Franklin Roosevelt's case, this was someone who--not by
current standards, but really did try to manage his image. He wanted people
to think this was someone who was just a fine noble person always, and I found
two tapes that were actually sort of an exception.

Roosevelt in 1940 started making tapes for a while of some of his
conversations in the Oval Office and accidentally recorded one conversation in
which he's telling one of his campaign managers to spread dirty stories about
his opponent in the 1940 election, Wendell Willkie. He's saying, `I hear
Willkie has a mistress. Of course, I can say this in a speech, but why don't
you get people to spread the story about so that it hurts Willkie?' And also
he was trying to spread a story that Willkie had been very unkind to his
father, who drank too much and had him buried in the potter's field when the
father died. This is just the kind of think that Roosevelt would have been
furious to know had been preserved on tape so that people like me could hear
it.

GROSS: So how was it preserved?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: In this case, Roosevelt began taping some of his
conversations in the Oval Office in the fall of 1940, but figured he'd weed
out the ones that were ones didn't show him in a very good light. These are a
few that he missed weeding out.

GROSS: Well, why don't we close with an example of the kind of tape you're
talking about, and this is FDR talking about this whisper campaign that he's
helping to instigate against his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie. Now,
because this tape of Roosevelt is a little hard to make out, Michael
Beschloss, I'd like you to basically tell us exactly what we're going to hear,
and then we'll be able to understand it better as we listen.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: OK. I'll try not to do my FDR impersonation, but what he's
saying is that `Mrs. Willkie has been perhaps not hired but, in effect she's
been hired, to make this campaign with Wendell. Whether there's a money price
or not, I don't know, but it's the same idea,' he says.

GROSS: And FDR's talking to a campaign aide here, trying to convince his
campaign aide to spread this information?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Right. He is caught essentially with his pants down, FDR is.
It's the kind of thing he would have been mortified to know that here we are
playing and listening to.

GROSS: So we'll close with this President Roosevelt tape, and Michael
Beschloss, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and for sharing
some of these tapes with us. Thank you.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Terry. I always love being with you.

(Soundbite of audiotape)

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Now, Mrs. Willkie may not have been hired,
but in effect she's been hired, to return to Wendell, and now makes his
campaign with him. Now, whether there's a money price behind it, I don't
know, but it's the same idea.

BIANCULLI: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, speaking to Terry Gross.
His new book is called "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They
Changed America 1789-1989."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead on the new CD featuring pianist
Lafayette Gilchrist. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Kevin Whitehead looks at new album from trio featuring
Lafayette Gilchrist, "Three"
DAVID BIANCULLI, guest host:

Washington-born pianist Lafayette Gilchrist has been touring with saxophonist
David Murray the last seven years. When he's off the road and at home in
Baltimore, he leads a seven-piece band called The New Volcanoes. But his new
album showcases his piano in a trio setting. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says
this isn't a typical trio.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:

Great jazz pianists are often admired for their restraint. Count Basie,
Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley, Herbie Hancock and others showed how to do more
with less, each in their way. Still, some fine pianists do more with more,
like Lafayette Gilchrist. The way he gets the whole piano vibrating puts him
in a long line of jazz maximalists, going back to the ragtime, boogie-woogie
and stride pianists, with their two-handed polygrips and lines voiced in
ringing octaves. Gilchrist's forebears also include McCoy Tyner, with his
thundering tremolos, and South Africa's Abdullah Ibrahim, who can make piano
sounds like a drum choir. The idea is not to play fast but to cover a lot of
ground and make the box shout.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: A main thing that separates Gilchrist's trio from other jazz piano
combos is his rhythm section. In most trios, the drummer articulates loose
swing time on the cymbals while an upright bassist walks tuneful lines four
beats to the bar. But on the new Lafayette Gilchrist "Three" from the Hyena
label, drummer Nate Reynolds lays down fat funk beats on snare and high hat
for a tight clipped sound, and Anthony "Blue" Jenkins on bass guitar plays
popping riffs and slabby sub-basement low tones. This is jazz from people who
grew up listening to hip-hop, P-funk and Washington go-go music. But the
basic idea is Jazz 101. Every player articulates a different aspect of the
groove to layer and energize the room.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Lafayette Gilchrist has been making records with his midsized
band, The New Volcanoes, since the '90s. But he plays so much piano he barely
needs trumpets and saxes to fill out a sound. Besides which, the blunt close
horn-voicings he writes seem lifted straight off the keyboard, as if he's
orchestrating what he might play himself. At the piano, he thinks in terms of
multiple lines. He might set up a right-hand rhythm in conflict with his
left, so we get four layers from three players.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Gilchrist's music can be a little heavy, but in his hands, that's
not a big problem. Some musicians get all heavy because they don't have the
sense to rein themselves in. Lafayette Gilchrist sounds like he has so much
music in him, he's just got to let it out.

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the
University of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed
Lafayette Gilchrist, "Three," on the Hyena label.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Did the Trump camp help far-right militia groups plan the Jan. 6 attack?

New York Times journalist Alan Feuer says some members of Trump's inner circle have close ties to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy.

52:30

Real life or satire? Novelist Mat Johnson says it can be hard to tell the difference

Novelist Mat Johnson believes that America has its own unique "flavor" of apocalypse. "It's hard not seeing the possible end of things in a variety of different ways," he says. Johnson's new satirical novel, Invisible Things, serves up one of those apocalyptic flavors.

42:38

A novelist's time in the MMA cage informed his book on memory loss and identity

"Really, the heart of the story is about misplaced loyalty and what we can do with memory and how fluid and malleable memory can be when we ... use it to fit the narrative that we've created in our mind," says novelist John Vercher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue