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Michael Beschloss, historian
Landon Lecture
Thursday, March 6, 2003

 

I sometimes am on PBS on the News Hours with Jim Lehrer, Jim Lehrer being a great Kansan from Wichita, born in Wichita, who takes his Kansas roots extremely seriously. It was once said about PBS public broadcasting that PBS comes in five parts. He said, "The five parts are the animals talking, English people talking, animals mating, English people mating, and the News Hour with Him Lehrer," so I -- I could have probably saved John a little bit of time by just coming up and saying, "I'm the one from Category 5."

I should probably actually elaborate on ho Him came to put historians regularly on television, and what that was in 1973. The Senate Watergate hearings were going on in Washington and he was new to PBS. He went from Kansas to Texas and then finally to Washington, and he was anchoring the Watergate hearings on PBS with Robin MacNeil, and he had always had this idea that they should use historians more on television to talk about the precedence for an historic event like Watergate. So they had an intermission of about four minutes in the hearings, and they thought, "Why not put a historian on, does Watergate remind of anything in history."

And he chose a previous Landon lecturer, Barbara Tuchman, a wonderful choice, but what he forgot was that Mrs. Tuchman was known for writing these excellent, but very long books, and he had only four minutes.

And so what happened was, as he tells me the story, you know, the intermission began and he said, "Mrs. Tuchman, does Watergate remind you of anything in history," and she said, "Yes, Jim, it does, and to understand Watergate you have to back to the 14th Century." And she began to talk, and one minute passed and two minutes, and finally it was near to about four minutes and he was relived, because it was getting to be the end of the time, at which point she said, "Now, Him, that brings us to the 15th Century."

And the result was the Jim Lehrer did not put historians regularly on television for something like 20 more years. So I was lucky to beat the statute of limitations.

Jon Wefald was a colleague of Hubert Humphrey, senator and vice president from Minnesota years ago. It reminds me that Humphrey, as Jon, I think will confirm, was also known not for talking very briefly, and Humphrey was once giving a speech and it went on and on and finally Humphrey knew that he was way over time, and he said, "Has anyone got a watch?" and someone yells out of the audience, "How about a calendar?" So I will try to stay within time.

Another great pleasure of my visit here has been to have the privilege of being with your great president. Jon is not only a world class leader and a great historian, but I've been learning more and more about what he's been doing here at Kansas State, and looking very much forward to reading the wonderful book that's been written about that, that I've been hearing about before I came here. Usually you don't get these things in real time, we historians have to wait a number of years, so I’m glad to have it between hard covers and thank him so much for being here this morning.

And I also want to say how honored I am to speak in the name of Alfred M. Landon. You could say a lot about him, I'm sure. A lot about him has been said by the 128 Landon lecturers, and I think probably very little that I can add, except for a few things. And one is, that especially in these times you have to look at how unusual this career was. This was a man who ran for president in 1936, said exactly what he thought, didn't have posters, didn't have consultants, spoke very much from his viscera, saying things that in many ways were unpopular in 1936, but things which he believed deeply, which resulted in him not being elected president. And where I live in Washington, that's about the most cardinal sin you can commit, is to say something that might impede you from being elected to office, especially the presidency. I see it as a towering sign of character and something that we should back at Alfred Landon as a model for the political figures of our own time.

And the other thing that strikes me most of all is this: When he lost that election, he came back to where he was from and he served for about 60 more years as a great national figure and leader, not only in Kansas, but a model for the rest of us Americans. He didn't lie in bed every morning at 2 a.m. wondering whether he should have had, you know, more time campaigning in Ohio, whether that would have brought him the election. He didn't agonize over the fact that he was not president.

This was a person of parts, who could run for president, didn't make it, and led a very full and contributing life for the rest of his life, and very much in my mind in the spirit of the founders, who had the idea that you have public service, you know, Cincinnatus leaves his plow, and has a spell of public service and then goes back to his normal life and serves perhaps as richly in certain ways even more than he might have had he been president.

So I think that's a very great tribute to Alf Landon and I think it's a wonderful thing that this lecture has been such an enormous success over the last three or more decades, and I couldn't be more honored to speak in his name this morning.

The first time I actually saw a real live president was in 1960, Richard Nixon, and I was growing up in Cook County, Illinois. I was about four years old, and Nixon was in a motorcade on a highway, and as I remember being told later on , I don't remember it myself, when I was four I was held up in the air as Nixon's Cadillac rolled by and that was the first time I saw a president, although in Nixon's case it was a future president.

And it turned out there was a method to the madness, because that was the fall that a few here will remember that Nixon was giving his speech saying, "Elect me president, your children will not grow up under communism," and they wanted local Republican parents to bring their small kids' theatrical props held up in the air as examples of the future non-communists if Nixon was elected. And Nixon was not elected that year but he was in 1968, and I did not turn out to be a communist, so that was a campaign promise that was kept by a presidential candidate.

And so anyway, time passed, and the first time I actually saw Nixon in close quarters was, I was writing a book with a co-author on the end of the Cold War and we went up to see Nixon in northern New Jersey, and I think it was February 1992, and one problem with being a presidential historian, is that we know about a million times more things about these presidents and former presidents than they know about us. So unless we contain ourselves and sort of put a stopper on all we know, these conversations are going to be very one-sided. And so I forgot my lesson the second the I got there, because I went to Nixon's house, and he was living at that time - it was the end of his life - in an attached townhouse in northern New jersey, and he took me up in the elevator to the fourth floor to his library to have drinks before lunch, and I saw a set of golf clubs leaning against one of the walls, and I said, "Mr. President, I thought you had given up golf."

He said, "Yes, well, ever since I had a hole in one." And I was brusque enough to interrupt and say, "Yes, wasn't that in 1931 with the actor Randolph Scott?" And he gave me the strangest look I think I've ever received, and I said to myself, "You'd better be very quiet or else this is going to be not a very edifying experience.

So I was on good behavior until we sat down to lunch, and that was the time I thought it would be nice to tell him what I hoped he would find this charming little story about my having seen him in the motorcade in Cook County, Illinois when I was four in 1960. So I said, "Mr. President, you may not remember me, but we have met before." And I told him of seeing him in the motorcade. He fell dead silent, immediately changed the subject and didn't refer to what I had said for the rest of the lunch, and I thought I had committed some horrible social faux pas.

And so when I got home I called a friend who knew Nixon, and I said, you know, "What did I do wrong?" And he said, "I'll find out and tell you."

He called me a couple days later, he said, "It turns out you struck out three times." I said, "What did I do now?" He said, "Number one, these days Nixon is interested in the present and future, not the past, so you brought up what he considered to be ancient history, strike one." He said, "Strike two, just in case Nixon through some strange fluke felt like talking about ancient history, the ancient history he would like to discuss would not be the 1960 campaign, which he lost to John Kennedy."

And he said, "Strike three, just in case through some really bizarre lapse he wanted to discuss ancient history and the '60 campaign, the place he would really like to discuss would not be Cook County, Illinois, where he feels the ballots were stolen that gave the election to John Kennedy."

I don't know if there's a lesson in any of this, except for that in all of our careers, even historian who write about presidents, there is involved some modicum, I guess, of personal diplomacy. This brewed up when I was doing this project that Jon was kind enough to mention, these two volumes on the tapes that Lyndon Johnson made, he had this, it turns out, secret taping system that taped a lot of his private conversations, as it turned out, 10,000 of them from his first moment in the presidency to the very end.

His wife did not know that she was being taped. His children did not. His close aides in many cases did not either. And when I began doing these books I would run into a Johnson aide and say, "You know, isn't it great, you know, it turns out your boss taped all of your private conversations with him in secret, aren't you glad those will be in my book?" And the guy would sort of look like the deer in the headlights, wondering what things he might have told LBJ many years ago that he would not want to wind up between cloth covers.

But the problem with writing about any president, and I think this is true of historians in general. I now that Jon has been studying Genghis Khan I know this did not happen with him, fortunately, but oftentimes a historian will take on the characteristics of the person that you're writing about, which I think would not be a great idea in the case of Genghis Khan, although Jon has a great sense of proportion. Probably would be okay if you're writing about Mahatma Gandhi. My problem is I was writing about LBJ, and it's not Genghis Khan, but there were some problems if I turned into a living replica of Lyndon Johnson and took on his way of doing things.

One case in point, Johnson once asked one of his speech writers to come in with a speech for an occasion that Johns had to speak to, and he came in with a speech and Johnson looked at the text, and he said, "Well, the text is okay," And it had a big quotation at the beginning from Aristotle.

So Johnson said, "Well, the speech text is fine and I like the quotation, but," he said," "no one in the audience will know who the hell Aristotle was," so he said, "Just keep the quotation and change it to "As my daddy said." It's the kind of thing that worked find for LBJ, it would not do wonders for me if I took on this way of doing things.

Another example is the language. I mean, listening to these tapes over and over again, you can begin to talk like the person that you're listening to, and LBJ, I guess the best thing you can say is he was incapable of speaking an uninteresting sentence. I'll give an example or two and I apologize in advance for the language, but I want to accurate. He will - for instance, he will never say, "John Jones is nervous," he will say, "John Jones is nervous as a whore in church."

Or he spent about two days with a Scandinavian king who, granted, was not the sparest knife in the drawer, and Johnson was a very smart man. But at the end of the two days he practically pushed the guy out of the helicopter and he threw an arm around the young aide and said, "Boy, I knew they made dumb kings, I just never knew they made kings that dumb."

And I guess my all time favorite is that Johnson in early 1965 was talking to Jon's old friend, Hubert Humphrey, and one problem with trying to sort of decipher the Johnson tapes is that, you know, I'm from Illinois, not from Texas, so the accent is sometimes lost on me, especially when Johnson is talking late at night and you can hear the ice sort of rattling around in a glass, the accent gets thicker and thicker. And the other thing is that there's just a lot of Texas expressions that we just don't use in Illinois.

And I finally formed a circle of Texas friends to help me decipher when it was needed. And they were pretty good, but there was one that stumped us all, and that was this: Spring of 65 he was talking to Jon's friend, Hubert Humphrey, who by then was vice-president, and Johnson says, "Hubert, that Medicare bill is going to go through Congress faster than a dose of salt through a widow woman." And that stumped everyone. You know, someone thought, maybe, you know, widows cry so you have to replace the salt in their tears. It didn't sound right to use, and so finally, you know, if I gave a lecture in Texas, I would say, "If there's anyone here who has any idea what this means, if they could meet me at the back of the hall."

And finally this very nice lady came up to me and said, "Young man, don't you realize that in Texas ladies in Lyndon's boyhood oftentimes used Epsom salts as laxatives." I mean, of all the things, I never expected to have to understand when I became a historian, this probably is the best example of that, but shows you how difficult the work is.

Perhaps the final example is this: When you're dealing with something like the Johnson tapes, I finally had to decipher them myself and actually transcribe them, because there were transcripts that were done by secretaries, but these were very inaccurate, because they were working under great pressure and working lat at night, because Johnson didn't want anyone to know that he taped those conversations. The moment I found that I had to transcribe them myself - and this is what you oftentimes encounter in historical sources - according to the transcript, it was about ten days into Johnson's presidency.

He was talking to the Speaker of the House, John McCormick, and the secretary had transcribed what he said as, "John I can't talk to you long because I have in my waiting room for me a pack of bastards." I apologize for the language, but that's what it said in the transcript. and I said, "Well, if that's what he said, I'll put it in the book." But I actually listened to the tape myself and looked at his daily schedule. It turned out what he had actually said was, "I have waiting for me in my waiting room the Pakistan ambassador." And it give you a little bit of an idea of how difficult this is.

You know, when I was doing it I sort of figured it was not an irrational mistake for the secretary to make. I mean, she had worked for him for 30 years and knew the way that the guy talked. And the other thing was, just before he became president, probably much more common among his visitors were packs of bastards than Pakistani ambassadors, so it shows you have to sometimes substitute your own judgment.

What I thought I would talk about this morning and try to keep within time so we'll have some time for questions, is what history brings to the table that we don't always know in real time. For instance, here we are at what seems to be a very historic moment. We seem as if we're on the brink of a war with Iraq; we have cable television channels; we have superb newspapers like Edward's; we have probably coverage of a president of the kind that we never had before with this intensity in American history.

Yet at the same time as we're watching all this we have to always keep in mind that no matter what judgments we may for about George Bush and a war in Iraq during the next 90 days or so, they're likely to be very different from the kind of judgments a historian might have 20 or 30 years from now. And there are two reasons for that.

One is we don't have the information that we're going to have 20 years from now, because we will get presumably private memos and letters and diaries, the kind of stuff that shows us what's going on in the president's mind and what's going on behind the scenes. But much more important than that, 20 years from now we're going to have the essential ingredient, and that is hindsight, we will know how the story turned out. We will know what followed. We will know how important certain things seem in the hindsight of history, which Barbara Tuchman once called in this wonderful image, the lantern on the stern of the boat that shows you what went behind.

And the information is crucial. I was talking about the Johnson tapes, these things show us all sorts of things about Lyndon Johnson that we never could have dreamt of, we never could have known at the time. One of them is that in 1965 when he was sending American boys and some women to Vietnam and saying, "Nail the coon skin on the wall," and "America wins the war she fights," in private he was saying, "I don't think we can win this war." He was telling a Secretary of Defense in February of 1965, "I can't think of anything worse than losing the war in Vietnam and I don't see nay way that we can win."

That's something that no one knew in 1965, and had they known, it would have thrown a very different light on the events of the time. It's not always this grave and serious.

Dwight Eisenhower, another great son of Kansas, used to give these wonderful press conferences in which his grammar was not wonderful, to put it mildly, and people would think that this is a president not very much on top of his job. Long afterwards we got records showing how intelligent Eisenhower was and the fact that he often times put on those performances to distract people.

There was this one scene where Eisenhower was about to tell his press secretary, Him Haggerty, what to say about Taiwan in a press conference, and he gave him the answer to give, and Haggerty said, "I can't give that answer, boss; you know the press boys will give me hell," and Eisenhower, with that wonderful smile, threw his arm around Haggerty's shoulder and said, "My boy, better you than me!" The kind of thing we didn't know at the time.

Adlai Stevenson, who in my state of Illinois, was this great figure, I found much later from his aides that he was not much of a campaigner. One of his aides told me in 1956 they were campaigning with Stevenson, it wasn't going well. Stevenson said, "What am I doing wrong?" and the aide said, "Here's what's wrong, Governor, this morning that little girl handed you a stuffed baby alligator -" this was Florida - "and what you should have said was, "Thank you, little girl, that's just what I wanted for my living room. Instead of what you did say, Governor, which was, 'For Christ sakes, what's this?'" It's the kind of thing long afterwards gives you an idea.

John Kennedy in 1963 was meeting with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold McMillan, and in the newspapers, including I'm sure probably Edward's, they were basing the reports on what was given out by the White House, McMillan and Kennedy discussed bilateral issues like the Cold War and arms control, and so they did.

But only long afterwards did we get exact records of what was really said in the conversation and it turned out that Kennedy had gone on at great length complaining about the fact that Jackie, his wife, was getting really bad press coverage, and, McMillan, who was a generation older, said, "Jack, what do you care, just brush it off, it doesn't matter." And Kennedy said, "Well, that's easy for you to say. How would you like it if the press said that your wife Dorothy is a drunk?" And McMillan's reply was, "I would simply reply, 'You should have seen her mother.'" It's the kind of thing that gives you an idea long afterwards, but you don't get it in the real time.

And it's also important, too, because I say, you know, these things oftentimes show you things about presidents that really do bear on the reputations. Harry Truman is perhaps the best example. If we were evaluating Harry Truman perhaps in 1953, he went back to Missouri after his presidency with a poll rating that was probably in the teens, which would be like about a five percent rating nowadays, because people respected presidents very much in those days. And he was seen at the time as someone who was unpopular. Adlai Stevenson would not campaign with him because he thought that Truman was a burden. He was seen as the architect of an unpopular war in Korea. His entourage was brushed with minor corruption. Truman by most Americans and many historians in '53, was not seen as a great president.

Here we ware exactly 50 years later, most historians and I think most Americans would see Truman as a very great man. Why is that? One reason is we had information. We now know in private the kind of conviction and honesty and modesty and common sense that were in that man that were admirable. But the more important thing is hindsight, we now have 50 years of hindsight. We know how the cold War turned out and we know that America won the Cold War, because we and about a dozen Cold War presidents adhered to a strategy that Harry Truman devised in the late '40s and early '50s, the Marshall Plan, NATO containment, aspects of the United Nations, and since it was that strategy that allowed us to defeat the Soviet Union and live in a different world today, you have to see Harry Truman as a great man in a way that we never could have dreamt in 1953.

So my point is this: As we're looking at George W. Bush and a very likely war with Iraq, you know, let's make judgments, let's react to it as we always should as citizens, but always hold back a little bit and remember that there are a lot of things that we don't know about what's going on right now behind the scenes, and there are a lot of things that we can't know because we're not prophets, we do not know what's going to go on in the next 20 years or even in the next 90 days.

So I think that really brings us to the final question, and that is that that's all great for an historian who has the luxury of dealing with people and events 20 years later, but what do we as citizens do? You know, we have to make judgments about presidents and citizens in real time. We can't afford to wait until their papers come out or when historians write about them, because it's going to be much too late for us to vote or talk to a pollster about what we think about what a president is doing.

And I would say this: If you go back and look at presidents in their time, perhaps one of the most important things that you could really see in real time is this: Is this a president of deep conviction who is willing to take a risk perhaps even with his political career in the service of that conviction?

Look at Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, he was running for a third term as president. I guarantee you his pollsters were saying, "You know, the country is isolationist, especially a place like Kansas, you know, don't say what you really feel, which is that we might have to fight Hitler and the Japanese, we have to prepare our defense. You know, instead give speeches saying, you know, you're an isolationist like everyone else, do that to get elected."

And Roosevelt, to his great credit, instead said, "You know, it's very important that I tell the people where I stand, prepare our defense. Unless we prepare now we will lose World War II if we have to fight it." And so that would have been true, had he not been that politically courageous we would have lost World War II against the Germans and the Japanese. We would be living in a very different world today. Some of us might not be here.

Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s were heavily advised, you know, "Stay away from the Civil Rights Bill to integrate hotels and restaurants, it's unpopular." In Kennedy's case, in 1960, I think will Jon confirm this, if you look at the Electoral College vote, Kennedy only became president because the number of southern states were in column. By sending a Civil Rights Bill to Congress he lost the white south, put himself in great jeopardy of being defeated for reelection in 1964, yet he did it.

In 1980, when Ronald Reagan was running for the presidency, he felt that the Soviet empire was beginning to topple, there was a chance to end the Cold War in our lifetimes, and to do that by increasing the defense budget and going to strategic defense and making it clear that America had regained its will and it was going to contest the Soviet Union in every theatre.

And his aides during the '80 campaign said, "Governor Reagan, you know, don't say these things, they scare people, it will lose you votes. If you want to do it, fine, but just don't say it during the campaign." And Reagan, with great principles said, "The people have a right to know where I stand, and if I'm elected on what platform the congress will have to along with these things because they will realize that I will have a mandate, and maybe we can end the Cold War."

And that is exactly what happened in retrospect. We now increasingly know, I think, that what Reagan did during the 1980s had a lot to do with the ending of the Cold War, but I think what you could know in real time was that here was a politician who had guts and who had a great sense of conviction and who was willing to perhaps even put his political career on the line out of that sense of conviction. And I think you can see that exactly in George W. Bush right now. Whatever anyone thinks about the war with Iraq, if it comes, this is not something that someone would do out of political timidity. What the consultants would probably say is, "This can bounce in almost any direction. It's much safer for you to sort of run the clock, so something that might not jeopardize your reflection in 2004."

So I think that's the kind of thing that we can look for in presidents in real time. And maybe one story from the Johnson tapes, just since we're near the end of our time, I think makes the point. And this is, in the spring of 1964 LBJ was dealing with the Civil Rights Act. And when Johnson became president, this was Nov. 22nd, 1963, after John Kennedy's murder in Dallas, he flew back to Washington, he met with his new cabinet, he went back to his house in northwest Washington. And in those days, unlike the days of Dick Cheney, a vice-president was so unimportant, he didn't have an official residence, just had his own house, and his telephone number was listed in the telephone book.

So there's Johnson, he's just become president, and these neighbors whom he barely knew, are calling up saying, "Gee, Lyndon, want to wish you all kind of good luck," which was lovely, but he had a few things to do. And so finally he called his aides back into his bedroom and said - it was midnight - "What do I have to worry about," And they said, "Boss, you know, the things you really have to worry about is the Civil Rights Bill that John Kennedy sent to Congress. It made him very unpopular in the south, possibly meant that he could not have been reelected in 1964. You have every excuse to say, you know, 'I'm a new president, I need a year to consolidate my authority, set it aside, get safely reelected and then pass the bill in 1965."

And Johnson, to his enormous credit, replied, "What the hell is the presidency for if I can't use it for civil rights?" Absolutely elemental. It's exactly, I am certain, the kind of statement that a President Alf Landon would have made in the late 1930s had he been confronted with another controversial issue on which he felt strongly.

And in the spring of 1964 LBJ was on the telephone trying to get the Civil Rights Bill passed, and he had been majority leader of the Senate, and he was talking on the telephone to the minority leader of the Senate, who was a man named Everett Dirksen, who was the senator from my home state in Illinois, whom I remember as a kid we used to watch on television, my brother and I, we thought he sounded like Mr. Ed. And Johnson and Dirksen knew each other extremely well.

It was the kind of relationship that senators had in those days, when senators spent a lot of time together on the Hill and didn't have to raise money and race back to their states and be on TV.

And I so remember a story that was told to me by Howard Baker, who was his son-in-law and now the husband of Alf Landon's daughter, Nancy, just o bring this into the Landon milieu. And Senator Baker tells the story about the fact that when he was a congressman - I believe he was a congressman still - he was sitting in his father-in-law's office on the Hill and suddenly he say a Beagle dog come into the door, which was followed by a leash, which was followed by President Lyndon Johnson, who had come up to the Hill to talk to Everett Dirksen, and he was ready to deal and horse trade. That's what this relationship was, and it did some wonderful things for the country.

And the one I'm thinking of is this: Spring of '64 Johnson calls up Dirksen and essentially says, "Ev, I need your help on this Civil Rights Bill because the southern Democrats are going to be against it and I need Republican votes." And he essentially says, not verbatim, but the essence of it is, he says, "Ev, I know you've got some doubts, but look at it this way, if this bill passes it's going to change the country and make history, and if all that happens everyone will give credit to you. And if it happens a 100 years from now the school children of America will know exactly two names, Abraham Lincoln and Everett Dirksen.

And Dirksen heard that and he liked what he heard, and I think it was not the only reason, but he supported the Civil Rights Bill and it passed, and history was changed.

And my guess is that even despite some wonderful faculty members here at K-State, not everyone knows the name of Everett Dirksen, but I've got two little boys who are eight and six and I can at least assure you that my two little boys will. Thank you all very much.