Michael Beschloss

Stories by Michael Beschloss

  • Beschloss: Where Will Obama's Library Be?

    With almost three years, at a minimum, left in office, Barack Obama has been understandably silent about his plans for a presidential library. But lawmakers and university officials in the two states where it might most obviously be located are already in action. The University of Chicago (where Obama taught) and the University of Hawaii (near Obama's childhood home) are working on their proposals—and the 50th state is poised to approve an official invitation. By tradition, these archives and museums are built wherever presidents want.History does, however, offer Obama guidelines. Every chief executive since Herbert Hoover has inspired a library, and the locations have followed a distinct pattern. Eleven of the last 13 presidents built their libraries in the state where they were born or raised—including Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, like Obama, never held office where he grew up. The two others, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, opted for California and Texas, respectively—the...
  • The Great Inspirer

    Presidents for generations have turned to Lincoln for solace and guidance.
  • Beschloss on Lady Bird Johnson, 1912-2007

    During the three decades after Lyndon Johnson's death—a period almost as long as their marriage—Lady Bird followed her own heart. She established a world-class wildflower center and summered among the glitterati of Martha's Vineyard, a place her husband once derided as "some female island." She bought a house for herself in Austin so modest that Lyndon would have felt claustrophobic. Even the LBJ Ranch, where Lady Bird still spent much of her time, looked different. She banished some of the more egregious remnants of her husband's taste, such as the ubiquitous triple-television sets and his big executive desk chair at the dining table. I once asked if she still used the airstrip where the president used to land. "Heavens, no!" she replied. "We didn't use it after Lyndon's death. I think that runway was always unsafe, but the federal aviation people were too afraid of Lyndon to tell him to stop using it." She had filled LBJ's spacious old hangar with her grandchildren's toys.Her...
  • On The Road: Memphis, Tenn.

    In August it will be 30 years since Elvis Presley sagged to the floor and died alone in the upstairs bathroom of Graceland, the Memphis estate that was his Mount Vernon. This year, Graceland's managers expect the annual candlelight vigil on Aug. 15 to break all records.Since his death, the aura of the King and the Colonial revival mansion he bought in 1957 has never stopped growing. During an official U.S. visit last summer, the then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi insisted on touring Graceland. There, before a chuckling President Bush and Elvis's once wife, Priscilla, and daughter, Lisa Marie, Koizumi mugged like the King and crooned "The Impossible Dream."Elvis was casual about money, and that is the only reason that the Graceland house—which would be dwarfed by a modern rock star's pool house—is open to visitors. Although Presley transformed America's music, he left an estate so relatively small (reportedly less than $5 million) that Lisa Marie, his principal heir,...
  • Talk Transcript: The Real Jamestown

    In April 1994, at Jamestown, an archeologist named Bill Kelso looked into the hole he had just dug and cried, "Holy Moses!" What inspired Kelso's outburst was a fragment of pottery—evidence that he had discovered the exact site of the first English-speaking settlement in North America. The British fort known to Capt. John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahontas was built in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Until Kelso's discovery, most people thought the fort's remains had been washed away by the James River. Starting with Pocahontas, what little we knew about Jamestown's founders—sent by London's Virginia Company to dig for gold, Christianize the natives and find a way to the Orient—sprang from half-remembered stories and outright fable. Now science is coming to the rescue. And just in time. Next month the settlement's 400th anniversary will be celebrated with visits from President Bush and Queen Elizabeth II. Since Kelso's "Eureka" moment, his...
  • White House: Restoring the Lincoln Bedroom

    A hundred and ninety-eight years after Abraham Lincoln's birth, the White House's Lincoln Bedroom finally looks like a room the great man would recognize.Until recently, Lincoln furniture and a copy of the Gettysburg Address were displayed against the pale walls, curtains and carpet of a 1950s city hotel—not the vivid golds and purples, heavy fabrics and large patterns of Lincoln's era.One reason for this mild historical fib was to focus attention on the chamber's historic objects. Another: midcentury Americans disdained Victorian décor, which they equated with the horrific house in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."But now, under First Lady Laura Bush and White House curator Bill Allman, the bedroom has been impressively restored to the time of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln signed there in 1863.The chamber, of course, was never Lincoln's bedroom. It was his office, as it was for later presidents until Theodore Roosevelt built the West Wing in 1902. Harry...
  • Happy Birthday, Abe

    Beschloss's next book, "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989," will be published in May.A hundred and ninety-eight years after Abraham Lincoln's birth, the White House's Lincoln Bedroom finally looks like a room the great man would recognize.Until recently, Lincoln furniture and a copy of the Gettysburg Address were displayed against the pale walls, curtains and carpet of a 1950s city hotel--not the vivid golds and purples, heavy fabrics and large patterns of Lincoln's era.One reason for this mild historical fib was to focus attention on the chamber's historic objects. Another: midcentury Americans disdained Victorian décor, which they equated with the horrific house in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."But now, under First Lady Laura Bush and White House curator Bill Allman, the bedroom has been impressively restored to the time of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln signed there in 1863.The chamber, of course, was never...
  • Ideas: History, Pivoting On the Unpredictable

    It was the summer of 1937, and Franklin Roosevelt was depending on his Senate majority leader, Joe Robinson, to pass perhaps the most important bill of his second term--packing the hostile Supreme Court with pro-FDR justices. Colleagues said that only Robinson had the clout and I.O.U.s to turn the tide in Roosevelt's favor. But almost on the eve of the roll call, a housemaid found Robinson dead of a heart attack in his apartment, the Congressional Record at his side.With Robinson dead, Vice President John Nance Garner told Roosevelt, "You haven't got the votes." When they quashed FDR's court-packing bill, conservative Democrats found they could oppose the president and wake up alive the next day. And so they started striking down bill after Roosevelt bill, turning FDR's second term into a congressional nightmare.When Sen. Tim Johnson fell ill last week, jeopardizing Democratic control of the Senate, it was a reminder that not only in an Allen Drury novel can political history turn...
  • Advice, But Often No Consent

    America was mired in a frustrating, seemingly endless war. An election year was approaching, and the president’s own party leaders were terrified that their recent crushing midterm congressional defeat would be repeated in the coming race for the White House. To blunt the war’s unpopularity, a commission was proposed to measure the crisis and give the president political cover for finding a way out.The time: January 1968. The war: Vietnam. The president: Lyndon Johnson. Half a million Americans were fighting in Asian jungles, and LBJ was considering requests for hundreds of thousands more. Johnson warned against what some people were calling “cut and run.” He disdained antiwar Democrats—like his nemesis, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York—for turning “on their leader and on their country and on their own fighting men.”The idea of a Vietnam commission came from a surprising source: the fabled Democratic boss Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago. LBJ considered Daley a stalwart loyalist; the...
  • History: The Five-Year Itch

    In the fall of 1937, less than a year after winning re-election by the greatest popular landslide in history, Franklin Roosevelt was suffering from a second-term slump. So menacing was the economy that FDR's Treasury secretary warned him, "We are headed right into another depression!" Many congressional Democrats told the president they would jeopardize their jobs if they voted for New Deal bills. In 1938, many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Roosevelt--and FDR lashed out at the press. He wrote a friend that "all the fat-cat newspapers--85% of the whole" were "utterly opposed" to him.Buffeted by the savaging of his ill-fated Supreme Court pick, the indictment of his vice president's chief of staff, setbacks in Iraq and stumbles over Hurricane Katrina and soaring oil prices, George W. Bush has watched his public approval dip below 40 percent. He may be consoled to recall that during the half century since Roosevelt, every president returned to office has found his...
  • THE THAWING OF THE COLD WAR

    Whether history will view Ronald Reagan as a great president depends, more than anything else, on one question: how much credit does he deserve for the fact that the cold war ended far earlier than almost anyone suspected--and on terms that Americans had fantasized about for 45 years?Campaigning against Jimmy Carter, Reagan refused advisers' pleas to align himself with the approach to the Russians adopted by every president since Eisenhower: Bargain to limit the increase in both sides' nuclear arsenals. Improve relations with Moscow to avoid a dangerous confrontation and to open up Soviet society so that eventually it would become more like us.As president, he immediately let the world know that he would be a different kind of free-world leader. In language that no president had used since Truman, Reagan declared in his first press conference that Soviet leaders "reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime--to lie, to cheat" to achieve "world revolution and a one-world...
  • The Kissinger Files

    When John Updike published his ironic 1992 novel, "Memories of the Ford Administration," he could not know that he was writing about the future. This past spring, as George W. Bush fought Iraq, the president was being advised by some of the crown jewels of Gerald Ford's 1970s circle--Donald Rumsfeld, who had run Ford's Pentagon; Dick Cheney, Ford's chief of staff; George H.W. Bush, who was Ford's CIA director. But it was like a TV reunion of the "Dynasty" cast without Joan Collins.Absent from center stage was Henry A. Kissinger, 80, who served Richard Nixon and Ford as national-security adviser and secretary of State. The onetime Harvard government professor has paid careful attention to his place in history, producing thousands of pages of elegantly written and best-selling memoirs about his Nixon-Ford years (most recently "Ending the Vietnam War," published earlier this year). The latest is his new book, "Crisis," a fascinating window on two pivotal episodes--the 1973 Yom Kippur...
  • Fdr's Auschwitz Secret

    By the summer of 1944, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis had murdered millions of Jews. Jewish leaders implored Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to try to slow the killing by bombing the death complex at Auschwitz and the railroad lines that supplied it.For almost two years, Churchill and FDR had been quietly receiving evidence of Hitler's ghastly effort to remove an entire people from the face of the earth. Churchill appeared interested in a military strike against the camps. He told his Foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, that Hitler's war against the Jews was "probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world," adding: "Get everything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me, if necessary." In July 1944 Churchill was told that U.S. bomber pilots could do the job best, but that it would be "costly and hazardous."But America was the senior partner in the alliance. Washington would have to make the call. Today FDR's most stalwart...
  • 'I Don't See Any Way Of Winning'

    As George W. Bush launches America's war on terrorism, we are watching a great turn of the historical wheel from the start of our last momentous war--in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson took us into the catastrophe of Vietnam."We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam," President Bush said last month. There are some echoes: a debate over ground troops and advisers; strong resistance on the ground; an uncertain future. But, for the moment at least, most Americans are determined to fight what we consider an essential war against terrorism. By contrast, in 1965 most of us knew or cared little about Vietnam and had not the remotest idea that LBJ's war could ultimately kill 58,000 Americans, grind on for 10 years and culminate in America's first defeat.Until now, most of us presumed that LBJ launched the struggle with confidence that America could win. Indeed, in August 1965, at the moment he sent the first large number of ground combat troops to Vietnam, Johnson assured a Washington...
  • A Question Of Anti-Semitism

    In July 1971, Richard Nixon was furious. Angry that the Bureau of Labor Statistics had released embarrassing unemployment numbers, the president orders his special counsel--and hatchet man--Charles Colson to investigate the officials who leaked the figures. "They are all Jews?" Nixon asks. "You just have to go down the goddam list and know they are out to kill us," Colson replies.Historians now have new evidence from which to judge the depth and importance of Richard Nixon's private antipathy toward Jews. In newly released White House tapes, Nixon singles out Jewish Americans as natural political enemies and potential traitors. "The Jews are all over the government," he says, insisting that the only way to control bureaucrats of the Jewish faith is to put someone "in charge who is not Jewish." Was the 37th president guilty merely of letting off steam, as his defenders insist, or was Nixon an anti-Semite who allowed his prejudices to influence him on the job? Officials of the Nixon...
  • Putting The Pieces Back Together

    AT THE BEGINNING OF AUGUST 1974, THE penultimate moment of Watergate, some thought the scandal might end with a horrific scene out of Allen Drury or ""Seven Days in May.'' To ensure that Richard Nixon could not start a war to keep himself in power, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger told the Joint Chiefs that any military order from the embattled president should be first referred to him. Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff, discussed surrounding the White House with the 82d Airborne Division. The president himself told Haig that soldiers had the ""best way'' of dealing with a situation like his: ""You just leave a man alone in a room with a loaded pistol.'' On NBC, John Chancellor reported that many Americans were worried that Nixon's forced ouster would ""shred the fabric of our society.'' ...
  • The Johnson Tapes

    AS LYNDON JOHNSON WAS dying of heart disease in January 1973, he reminded his personal aide, Mildred Stegall, to safeguard the cache of tape recordings of his private presidential conversations. He wanted them kept secret for at least another 50 years, and some of them, he instructed, should never be made public. Fortunately, Johnson's widow, Lady Bird, has chosen to honor a different wish of her husband's: that history be written ""with the bark off.'' The tapes, excerpted here from ""Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963- 1964'' (which will be published this week by Simon & Schuster), capture the 36th president as he assumes power after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and grapples with the tumultuous issues of his age, starting with civil rights and Vietnam.We will probably never again get such an intimate glimpse of a presidency from beginning to end. Roosevelt and Eisenhower taped a few of their conversations, Kennedy more, and Nixon recorded about half of...
  • Lbj Goes Off The Record

    Lyndon Baines Johnson never liked to be out of the limelight for long. Now, 23 years after the fatal heart attack in the bedroom of his cherished ranch, the 36th President has brought himself back to life--thanks to the Johnson Library's release of tapes LBJ made of private conversations he conducted in early 1964. ...
  • Where The Elite Met

    A FUTURE TIME TRAVELER TRYING TO learn how America was run during the early cold war might be well advised to descend on a quirky, modern house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington one evening in the late 1940s. There, with liquor flowing, a well-tailored columnist named Joseph W. Alsop would be found provoking, flattering, advising and squeezing information out of some of the era's most powerful leaders-Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg-in the presence of duchesses, diplomats and novelists. "Your dinner will please everyone more if there is a lion or two to roar awayat the head of the table," Alsop observed. As Robert W. Merry writes in his fascinating dual biography of Joe Alsop and his brother Stewart, Taking on the World (644 pages. Viking. $34.95), Joe was "brutal in assessing people's social finesse. According to his formula, a party of twelve could absorb a single bore, and a party of twenty could absorb two." ...
  • The Art Of Losing

    AROUND THE NIXON WHITE HOUSE, THEY CALLED IT THE "WALLACE WATCH." Richard Nixon had narrowly won in 1968; worried about 1972, he longingly eyed the 13 percent captured by the swaggering Alabama governor's third-party campaign. George Wallace's appeal was unvarnished: he ran to represent "the beauticians, the truckdrivers, the office workers and the policemen" against the "big boys." Race was always there. "Would you walk on the streets of New York at night?" Nixon knew the strength of Wallace's pitch, and asked an aide, Pat Buchanan, to figure out how to co-opt the Wallace vote. "In blue-collar neighborhoods," Buchanan wrote Nixon, Republicans should rail against "compulsory integration" and "in favor of the integrity and value of ethnic neighborhoods." That wasn't all: "We need to shed the "in bed with Big Business' image." ...
  • Backstage At The Cold War

    In 1962, Nikita Khrushchev sent a young former aircraft engineer, Anatoly Dobrynin, as his envoy to John E Kennedy. In 1986, worried about Dobrynin's independent influence in the United States, Mikhail Gorbachev yanked the old man back to Moscow. In the years in between, "Tolya" turned his charm on the Washington establishment, trying to keep the manic-depressive superpower relationship on course. ...
  • The Curse Of The Famous Scion

    It is not always a treat to grow up as the heir to a world-famous leader. Consider the offspring of the most important trio of this century-the Big Three of World War II, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin:The British Prime Minister expected his son Randolph to carry on his leadership, but as the Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin observed, young Churchill's "violence and lack of control" were at times "pathetic, disarming and childlike." The hard-drinking Randolph once boasted after a dinner given by the film director Otto Preminger that he had succeeded in insulting so many people that eight fled the table. And Noel Coward greeted Winston's heir by calling out, "Dear Randolph, utterly unspoiled by failure!"Franklin Roosevelt's sons James and Franklin Jr. flamed out at their father's calling. When James followed Franklin into the House of Representatives in 1955, the old Speaker, Sam Rayburn, warned him not to "make a damn fool of yourself the way your brother...
  • The End Of An Era?

    Listen closely, and you may hear the death rattle of the presidency we have known for 60 years. Seldom in recent history has the engine of political initiative in America so decisively shifted from White House to Congress. This week Newt Gingrich's Republicans will begin enacting a hundred-day plan of the like once conceived only by presidents. Bob Dole has traveled to London in pursuit of his own foreign policy. Dick Gephardt, who holds the job Sam Rayburn once called"the president's man in the House," has declared his independence from Bill Clinton.The resurgence of Congress may seem to be merely the temporary result of Clinton's repudiation by November voters. But it is more likely to prove the crowning blow to what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in his 1973 book called "The Imperial Presidency" -- the phenomenon in which an outsize share of political power came to be vested in one office.The Founders deliberately limited presidential authority. Abraham Lincoln expanded his to fight the...
  • What Took Them So Long?

    THE WONDER OF LAST WEEK'S ELECTIONS IS NOT THAT THE Republicans seized control of Congress. It is that they took so long to do it. The United States has been largely a conservative country since the early 1970s, as shown by its almost unbroken string of Republican presidents. But you wouldn't have known that from the consistent Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. During the past two decades, Democrats have used seniority, money and other advantages granted incumbents to create a high sea wall against the conservative tides that flooded other realms of the political system. Now the public's scorn for experienced leaders, swelled by its disenchantment with Bill Clinton, has torn that wall down. ...
  • The Day That Changed America

    In November 1963, it seemed unlikely that later generations would come to see John F. Kennedy's assassination as one of the great turnings in American history. The 35th president was succeeded by another liberal Democrat who made his watchword "Let Us continue." The staying power of the Kennedy legend was so uncertain that when William Manchester set out to write his family-authorized account of the murder, his literary agent warned him that by the time his book was finished, Americans might no longer be interested in JFK. ...