Skip to main content

Michael Beschloss: Critical Moments, Critical Choices

In Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, the historian looks at crucial moments in which a president risked his political career for the good of the country.

32:57

Other segments from the episode on July 29, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 29, 2008: Interview with Michael Beschloss; Obituary for Del Martin; Review of the film "Trouble the water."

Transcript

DATE August 29, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

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

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com and
Broadcasting & Cable magazine, sitting in for Terry Gross.

You may have seen presidential historian Michael Beschloss on TV this week
during convention coverage on PBS. His latest book, now out in paperback,
focuses on key moments in history involving nine different presidents. From
George Washington to Ronald Reagan, Beschloss examines what he says were some
of their most courageous and controversial decisions, 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, now out in paper, is called "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders
and How They Changed America 1789-1989."

To examine several of the 20th century presidents included in his book,
Beschloss drew upon presidential diaries, notes and secret tape recordings
from the Oval 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. Terry spoke
with Michael Beschloss in 2007.

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, this 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 wouldn'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've 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: Yeah.

GROSS: It sounds like he's reading something.

Mr. BESCHLOSS: Well, that's sort 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 laid back. And there's another element in which that's true, because
there's certain things he's not telling you.

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
diary 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 that 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 Oval Office included Chaim Weizmann, who was ultimately
the first president of Israel, very determined to get a Jewish state. 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.

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 re-gather 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
almost most proud of.

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 a 2007 interview
Terry Gross recorded with presidential historian Michael Beschloss about his
recent book "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed
America." It's now out in paperback. 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, and 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. What was
Governor Patterson saying on the phone?

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, just a second. 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 J.F.K. 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: 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 votes together...

Pres. KENNEDY: Yeah.

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

Pres. KENNEDY: Yeah.

Sen. LONG: ...`and 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--I mean, 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: That's it. Well, of course, the worst thing about that, I don't
know how you thought about it, but the bill they've got--I haven't studied it,
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, why should 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 have to
figure, `Well, I'll 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 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.' And
Kennedy was this very mixed person of the 1950s. He was probably the most
anti-civil rights candidate of those potential candidates of 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: So what was the outcome of this conversation? Did Louisiana and the
other Southern states back down?

Mr. BESCHLOSS: In the end they did. There wasn't a slate like that because,
as it happened, 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.

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--tell Kenny to put him on the wire here.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Now, 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: Would have had a much harder time because one reason L.B.J.
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.

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 in for Terry Gross. Let's
get back to Terry's 2007 interview with presidential historian Michael
Beschloss about his book "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They
Changed America." It's now out in paperback. 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.
Beschloss was able to use recently released material, including presidential
recordings, for his book.

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 possibility that Soviets were involved in the
attempted assassination, and people in the room were 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 hear 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,
now just a second.

Man #1: Going to tell him to get alerts to the Strategic Air Commands and
such other units as seems 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 that 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 was, yeah.

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

Man #2: Well, an alert is that...

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 4...

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, I guess.

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 an Air Force
plane.

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...

(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: Yep.

GROSS: So it's all very low-key sounding but it's incredible stuff they're
saying. And, you know, of course they're also 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 was 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 that this is 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,' 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 who 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: 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: Presidential historian Michael Beschloss speaking to Terry Gross
in 2007. His book is called "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How
They Changed America 1789-1989." It's now out in paperback.

Coming up, a tribute to Del Martin, a pioneering lesbian activist who died
Wednesday at age 87. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Lesbian activist Del Martin, who died on Wednesday, and
her partner, Phyllis Lyon, from a 1992 interview
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Last June, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who'd been partners for 55 years, made
it official. They were the first gay couple to be married under the 2008
ruling by the California Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in that
state. Actually, it was their second wedding. In 2004, they took vows with
over 4,000 other same-sex couples, but a month after that wedding the state
court invalidated all same-sex marriages.

Del Martin died on Wednesday. She was 87 years old. In a statement, Phyllis
Lyon said, "I am devastated, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to
enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed." Del Martin
and Phyllis Lyon are considered the mothers of the gay rights movement. They
co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian group in the
country, in 1955. It was created as an alternative to the gay bar scene, but
developed into an activist group with the mission of helping lesbians to
discover their potential and find their place in society. The Daughters of
Bilitis disbanded in the 1970s, but Martin and Lyon remained outspoken
advocates of gay rights.

When Terry Gross interviewed them in 1992, they had been a couple for nearly
40 years. Terry asked them if they knew there was such a thing as a lesbian
when they started having feelings towards women. Del Martin answered first.

Ms. DEL MARTIN: No.

Ms. PHYLLIS LYON: No.

Ms. MARTIN: Sexuality was not talked about in those days, let alone
homosexuality.

Ms. LYON: Yeah, we're talking way back in the '30s and '40s and '50s, and I
didn't really find out about lesbians until I met Del, actually.

TERRY GROSS, host:

And what year was that?

Ms. LYON: That was in...

Ms. MARTIN: 1949.

Ms. LYON: 1949, right. And I knew vaguely that there were such things as
male homosexuals, but that was about it. But when I look back, I know that I
was always fascinated with women. I just didn't have a clue as to what to do
about that.

GROSS: Del, what about you? What was the first time that you had a sense
that you felt things toward other women?

Ms. MARTIN: Oh, when I was about 10 or 12, and I, you know, figured that I
was different and I was the only one.

GROSS: The only one in the world?

Ms. MARTIN: The only one in the world. That's a story we hear over and over
again in our age group. Everybody thought, `Oh, I'm the only one.'

GROSS: Where did you each find out more about other lesbians, about the fact
that you weren't alone? Did you turn to books? Did you turn to other people?

Ms. LYON: Well, there really weren't any books except, you know, unless you
went to the library. First, you had to know the word "homosexual" or
"lesbian" in order to look anything up.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LYON: And then there was nothing that was any good in the libraries in
those early days.

Ms. MARTIN: Yeah, mostly it just told you how sick you were.

GROSS: So it frightened you when you found the books, actually?

Ms. MARTIN: Right. There's no way that we could identify with that. I
think that the first book that I read that helped me out was Radclyffe Hall's
book.

Ms. LYON: "The Well of Loneliness," yeah.

GROSS: You both read that?

Ms. LYON: No, I didn't. Somehow or other I missed that, so that I was
still, I mean, I was through college and working before I found out about
lesbians, and that was only because as I--it was about 1949 that Del and I and
another woman we worked with were having drinks at the press club in Seattle
after work, and somehow or other the subject came up, and Del said she was a
lesbian, and I was fascinated, because I'd never met one before, I thought.
And the first thing I did when I got home was call everybody I knew and tell
them.

GROSS: Tell them about Del?

Ms. LYON: Yeah. I didn't know that that was a bad thing. Fortunately, it
had no repercussions to speak of.

Ms. MARTIN: But talk about outing. Ooh.

Ms. LYON: Talk about naivete.

GROSS: Del, you had already been married. What happened to end the marriage?

Ms. MARTIN: I fell in love with a woman next door, and, you know, my
feelings were really awakened by then, and I just felt I needed to do
something about it.

GROSS: When you started being a couple, a lot of lesbian relationships were
in the kind of butch/fem mode. Was your relationship that way, too, early on?

Ms. LYON: Well, it was sort of, yeah. I think that it didn't really stay
that way very long, although, to all intents and purposes we were still a
butch/fem couple in public. Since Del had decided when I met her she had
decided she was a butch, I didn't have much of an option, so I became a fem.
I've often thought I would've made a really good butch. And besides which,
you know, I did all of the butch kind of things, if you will. I mean, I drive
and Del doesn't. And I can drive a nail in, and she can't. You know, stuff
like that. But we conformed to what the going thing was outside the home, but
certainly didn't do it when we were at home.

Ms. MARTIN: Yeah, I was a sissy butch.

Ms. LYON: Yeah.

GROSS: So there was pressure on you? You felt that, like, from what you knew
about lesbian couples, this was the way it had to be? This was the way it was
supposed to be, butch and fem?

Ms. LYON: That's right, yeah. I mean, that's how everybody was doing it.
Because at that point in time, nobody--the only model anybody had was mom and
dad.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. LYON: And so everybody was kind of following that.

GROSS: You met in 1949. In 1955 you co-founded Daughters of Bilitis. Why
did you feel you wanted to start some kind of organization, and what did you
have in mind when you started it? What did you want it to be? What did you
need it to be?

Ms. MARTIN: Well, it wasn't our idea, but we had met a lesbian through a
couple of gay men that lived around the corner from us. And she called us one
Saturday morning and said, `How would you like to join with us in a social
club for lesbians?' And we were just delighted because we didn't know any, and
we were so starved for, you know, socializing with other lesbians that we
jumped at the chance. So that what Daughters of Bilitis started out to be was
a very secret lesbian social club.

GROSS: Where did the name come from, Daughters of Bilitis?

Ms. MARTIN: From the "Songs of Bilitis" by Pierre Louys, which is a long
lesbian narrative poem.

GROSS: It's a poem you knew?

Ms. MARTIN: Well, the lesbian who had invited us to join the club had read
the book, and she offered that as a suggestion for the name of it.

Ms. LYON: She thought that lesbians would know what Bilitis meant, but
nobody else would. I don't think was true because I don't think most lesbians
knew about the "Songs of Bilitis." However, it worked out as a name.

Ms. MARTIN: It was supposed to be a secret, and we have spent many, many
years now trying to explain the name.

GROSS: So I guess it worked pretty well. You know, some people, when they
hear the name, think it sounds like a disease, Bilitis.

Ms. LYON: Well, that's why we pronounced it Bilitis.

GROSS: Instead of "buh-lie-tuss," like phlebitis?

Ms. LYON: Instead of buh-lie-tuss, because we didn't want it to sound like a
disease. And that was at the time, you know, when Eisenhower had ileitis, so,
you know, no no, it's got to be Bilitis so it doesn't sound like an illness.

GROSS: So you were trying to keep the organization, you know, very secret to
protect the members. Were there ways that lesbians could let other lesbians
know who they were, like little cues lesbians could give each other through
the way they dressed or wore their hair or whatever?

Ms. MARTIN: Well, I think that's probably why so many lesbians dressed
pretty butch-y, to let others know that it was a possibility.

GROSS: Did you go to the bars at all before or after you co-founded Daughters
of Bilitis?

Ms. LYON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: What was the bar scene like then?

Ms. LYON: Well, what was it like? It was--for many lesbians, it was the
only outlet. It was the only place they had to go where they could be
themselves. It was the only place they knew to go to meet other lesbians, for
sure, you know, without being, you know, perhaps making a costly mistake. And
it's true there was a lot of drinking, which is what goes on in bars, but it
was the only place. It was the only...

Ms. MARTIN: And it was a risky place.

Ms. LYON: Yeah.

Ms. MARTIN: Because periodically there would be police raids, and one of the
things that we worked through on that one was during the Daughters of Bilitis,
when we started to have public forums...

Ms. LYON: Discussion meetings.

Ms. MARTIN: Discussion meetings, and we got attorneys to come and talk to us
and tell us our rights. And what we found when a bar raid took place, that
most everybody pleaded guilty and a plea of disturbing the peace or visiting a
house of ill repute or whatever to get out of it and pay a fine. But in
actuality, what they were pleading guilty to was being gay. Because they
hadn't done anything that was illegal in these places, they were just there.
So when we found an attorney who said, `Just plead nolo contendere. So you
were there.' And then when a police officer was asked, you know, what we did
in the bars, all they could say, say they rounded us all up and there was
nothing that the court could do but let us go.

When I say "us," I'm talking about lesbians in general. Phyllis and I never
got caught up in a raid. We missed one by a day, another by a week. We
didn't get caught up. But we did find legal help for those who did.

BIANCULLI: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon speaking with Terry Gross in 1992.
Del Martin died this week at age 87. Phyllis Lyon is her surviving spouse.

To hear their 1992 conversation in its entirety, visit our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.

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

Review: David Edelstein on the new Katrina documentary "Trouble
the Water"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

It's been three years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. A new
documentary, "Trouble the Water," relives that time through footage shot just
before and during the storm by a resident of the Ninth Ward. Film critic
David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: What a moment it must have been for documentary
filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal when they first bumped into Kimberly and
Scott Roberts in a shelter in the days after the levees broke, when New
Orleans' Ninth Ward, where the Roberts had lived, was still underwater.
Kimberly Roberts didn't just tell Lessin and Deal what she'd been through, she
had the footage. She turned her camcorder on marooned friends, relatives and
neighbors, both before Katrina hit and after the levees buckled.

In "Trouble the Water," the context that Lessin and Deal provide for her
footage is absolutely smashing. Around Kimberly's shaky and
ever-more-harrowing tape, Lessin and Deal weave interviews with other Ninth
Ward residents as well as snippets of TV news reports. Here's the mayor at a
press conference, expressing no concern as the storm approaches that there is
no public transportation out of the city, none. Here's the president,
shrugging that no one anticipated the breach of the levees; and his FEMA
appointee, Michael Brown, looking dazed as he tries to explain the
government's response. Here's the chaos and despair at the Superdome.

The filmmakers cut back and forth between Kimberly's camcorder shots during
those last days of August and the Roberts' return two weeks later to their
devastated neighborhood, where they find a decomposing relative and, amid
carcasses of dogs, their own somehow alive and frisky.

(Soundbite of "Trouble the Water")

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Ms. KIMBERLY ROBERTS: Oh!

Mr. SCOTT ROBERTS: Hey, Bea! Come here boy!

Ms. ROBERTS: (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: That's your dog?

Mr. ROBERTS: Down, boy! Come here, kissy!

Ms. ROBERTS: Kissy! Come here, girl! Come here, girl!

Man: That's your dog there?

Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah.

Ms. ROBERTS: Yeah.

Man: For real?

Ms. ROBERTS: Yeah! Hey, mammy! Get down, get down, get down. Get down,
get down, get down.

Mr. ROBERTS: Come here. Come here, boy.

Man: They holding it down till you all came back.

Ms. ROBERTS: Sit down. Let go, come on.

(Soundbite of dog panting)

Ms. ROBERTS: Done missed us, and we missed you all. We going to get it
together, you all.

Mr. ROBERTS: Come here, mammy.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: The core of "Trouble the Water" isn't that aftermath, it's
the feeling we get of looking through the eyes of someone who's actually
there.

First, Kimberly traipses around the neighborhood asking people why they've
stuck around when the storm is coming; the reason is that they have nowhere to
go and no way to get there. Then, when the levees break, she huddles in a
neighbor's attic with crying children, with a view of the water rushing
through the streets, higher than the stop signs. She--we--watch people
fighting the current to keep from going under while 911 operators tell her
there are no rescue teams at this time. There is simply no one from the
government there as the water rises. When a neighbor plunges into the
floodwaters to carry, somehow, children and old people out of their collapsing
homes, it's hard to keep from crying out with relief.

In the movie's quieter moments, the Roberts ruminate bitterly on the fact that
much of the National Guard is in Iraq and people like them are left high and
dry--or maybe I should say low and drowning. Yet they always end with praise
for the National Guardsmen who are there, and thanks to God.

Whatever sparked Kimberly's impulse to document the fate of her neighbors is
indeed a kind of miracle. Roberts lost her mother to AIDS when she was 13,
lived in the street and sold cocaine. Then she straightened out and married a
former addict--Scott--whose face she once slashed with a razor blade. She's a
rapper now, and the song she performs for the camera, "Amazing," is just that,
an explicit and profane account of her sordid past capped with an irresistibly
upbeat refrain. For someone like her, who's gone from chaos and nihilism to
faith, that impulse to document the catastrophe seems especially heroic. That
faith brings her and her husband back to New Orleans, despite continued
government neglect as the city pours many of its resources into luring
tourists back to the French Quarter.

"Trouble the Water" infuriates, yet it also lifts us up, restores our faith in
the documentary medium. For no matter how bland the government "bureacratese"
in the disaster's aftermath, what happened to Kimberly and Scott and her
drowned uncle and her grandmother, left to die in the hospital, is right there
on the screen, and always in the present tense.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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

40:26

A Doctor Confronts Medical Errors — And Flaws In The System That Create Mistakes

Dr. Danielle Ofri's new book, When We Do Harm, explores health care system flaws that foster mistakes — many of which are committed by caring, conscientious medical providers. She notes that many errors go unreported, especially "near misses," in which a mistake was made, but the patient didn't suffer an adverse response.

52:30

'The Past Isn't Done With Us,' Says 'Hamilton' Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda

A film of the original Broadway production of Hamilton, taped in 2016, will begin streaming on Disney+ on Friday. Miranda, who stars in the title role, calls the film a "a love letter and thank you" to the company.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

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

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue