Michael Beschloss: 2019 National Book Festival


>>David M. Rubenstein:
Welcome, Michael.>>Michael Beschloss: Okay,
can everyone hear okay?>>David M. Rubenstein:
Everybody here? Okay. So how many people
here have been here all day? Okay, wow.>>Michael Beschloss:
Well, very impressive.>>David M. Rubenstein: How
many people here came just to hear Michael [laughter]. Okay, all right.>>Michael Beschloss:
But my wife is here. I’m not sure she did [laughter].>>David M. Rubenstein:
Michael Beschloss is one of our country’s most
distinguished and most respected and most admired
presidential historians. Let me tell you a little bit about his background
before we talk a little bit about the presidency and
then his latest book,Presidents of War
which I highly recommend. And we’ll go through that. So Michael is a native
of the Chicago area. He went to Williams where
he came under the influence of our famous historian,
James MacGregor Burns. And subsequently, went to
Harvard Business School. After Harvard Business
School, he did not go into private equity which
he should have done. Missed an entire calling.>>Michael Beschloss: See, you
see, David did it the right way. He was always inclined
to history. He took what? About a 30-year sabbatical as
a lawyer and private equity and now, he has come
back to history.>>David M. Rubenstein: So and
then Michael began writing books about the presidency and
history and has now written, this is your 10th book? Okay and he’s also the
official historian for NBC, among other things that he does. You’ve probably seen him
many times on television. And Michael, why did you decide
to be a historian after going to Harvard Business School? Most people go to Harvard
Business School, they want to go out and make a lot of money
and not go write history books.>>Michael Beschloss: Obviously
bad judgment [laughter]. When I was at Williams, I wanted
to be a historian, no joke, since I was 10 years old. I was growing up in
Illinois and the true story, I’ve told it before
is that I was taken down to the Lincoln
House in Springfield. Did anyone see the
Lincoln sites, Spring — you can clap with me [applause]. We’re from Illinois. I love to hear that. And I sat at Lincoln’s
parlor and the guide said, “This is where Lincoln sat,
reading to his children.” I was very young. I said, “Well, actually,”
I wish I could have asked about civil liberty or something
like that, but I was, I think, eight years old or so
when I said, “Actually, when Lincoln’s boys were
naughty, did he spank them?” And the guide said with
his disgusted look, “No, Lincoln didn’t believe
in discipline. He just let those brats run
wild through this house.” I heard that. Lincoln was my man [laughter]. So I began reading about
Lincoln and other presidents and literally wanted to
write books about presidents since I was 10 or a little
bit earlier than that. But when I was at
Williams College, you know, Jim Burns said, “If
you want to do that, you would probably
have to teach.” And I said, “I don’t think, you
know, I’ve had great teachers. I don’t think I could teach with
as much quality and enthusiasm as I would write the books. What else could I do?” And he said, “Well, why
don’t you, you know, gear to become a
foundation executive.” And I said, “Well,
how do you do that?” And he said, “Why don’t we send
you to Harvard Business School, get an MBA, if you
want to do that. You can go on and get a PhD
in History, if you want to. And that way, you can write
history books and not starve.” And as it turned out, my first
book came out just after I got out of Harvard Business School and I was kindly offered a
great job at the Smithsonian. This was the early 1980s and the
foundation world was spared my fulltime services,
probably great for everyone.>>David M. Rubenstein: Okay,
so who’s our greatest president?>>Michael Beschloss:
Coming from Illinois, you’d expect me not to
say Lincoln [laughter].>>David M. Rubenstein:
Well, I –>>Michael Beschloss: I would
never let, be let back in. But I would say there was
a very close, almost a tie between Lincoln for obvious
reasons and George Washington, who essentially formed
the presidency. The presidency is not described with very much detail
in the Constitution.>>David M. Rubenstein:
The 20th century, who would you say is
our greatest president?>>Michael Beschloss: I
would say Franklin Roosevelt who rescued us from
the Great Depression in sort of a zigzag way. It was not very linear and
more important than that, rescued the world from
fascism and totalitarianism.>>David M. Rubenstein:
So you admired Lincoln, as many people do, obviously. If you had a chance to
have dinner with him, what would you ask him?>>Michael Beschloss:
Actually, I’ve — there are a lot of
things I’d probably ask but it would be less necessary
to have dinner with Lincoln to find out those things than
it would be to have dinner with George Washington. And the reason for that is
Lincoln has these extremely detailed papers, letters. They’re not all preserved but
a lot of them are preserved in the Library of Congress. So you got a pretty good
paper trail plus, you know, Lincoln died at the age of 56
at a time when a lot of people who had known him almost
all of his life set down their recollections and there were people
who were doing books. His old law partner,
William Herndon, interviewed a lot of people. And so, there was all these
that Lincoln, you know, we’d always like to know more but the paper trail
is pretty good. The paper trail we do not
have is George Washington for a lot of reasons. So if I’m allowed to have my
dinner with George Washington, well we, for instance, know
very little about his marriage.>>David M. Rubenstein: Now one
book that you, I guess, helped. You did the Johnson
tapes, is that right? And so, if you had a chance
to ask Johnson one question, what would you ask him?>>Michael Beschloss: Why
did you feel so compelled to get more deeply in the
Vietnam War when you knew that it was going south fast? And does everyone know what
the Johnson tapes were? He taped his private
conversations, about 600 maybe hours from the
beginning to almost the end. Terrible invasion
of civil liberties but wonderful for historians. I did two books on them. And so, the most heart-stopping
moment in those tapes was in February of 1965, just
when he was taking us into the Vietnam War for the
first time in a serious way, sending off ground troops,
he’s talking to his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Everyone know that name? And he’s talking about the fact that the war is really
beginning. And I’m expecting Johnson to
say what he’s saying in public which is we expect to win. Instead he says to McNamara, “I
can’t think of anything worse than losing the Vietnam War and I do not see any
way that we can win.” This is the very
beginning of the war. Thought maybe it was just
a moment of depression. That summer, Ladybird
later gave me her diaries. He says to her about the
Vietnam War, “I feel as if I’m in a plane that’s crashing and
I do not have a parachute.” So one of the things you
can get from a source like the Johnson tapes and I
use this a lot, as you know, in my new book, is you can
find revelations like this where if we did not have
those tapes, for instance, we would not know how
pessimistic he was about the possibility of winning
a war for which at that moment, he was sending these
idealistic young kids off, many of them to die.>>David M. Rubenstein: Now,
he retired from the presidency, didn’t choose to
run for reelection. At the time, I was younger
and he seemed old to me.>>Michael Beschloss: Right.>>David M. Rubenstein: But
he was today, he seems young.>>Michael Beschloss: Me too.>>David M. Rubenstein: He was
about 60 years old when he –>>Michael Beschloss:
When he retired in 1968, he was actually 59.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Fifty-nine and he died at the age of 64, right? So but he died of a heart attack
where today, with a stent, he probably would have been
able to stay alive, right?>>Michael Beschloss:
You’re going to kill me for mentioning this
but I actually learned that from David’s new
book which is coming out next month called
IT The American Story . Robert Carroll told that to him.>>David M. Rubenstein:
So let me ask you, you’ve told this story before and I think people might be
interested here in hearing it. Lyndon Johnson was worried
that the people were not coming to his Presidential Library. So he wanted to increase
attendance. What was the clever way that
he came up with to do that?>>Michael Beschloss: The story
I got from his great friend, Harry Middleton, director of
the library, died not long ago. Johnson, anyone been
to the Johnson Library? You, you can clap. It’s a great library [applause]. You may have noticed
that across the street from that library is a fairly
large football stadium? That’s maybe 100,000 people. So Johnson was worried
about getting people to attend his library which
in the spring of 1970 and ’71 around that time, he
was very unpopular. And so, he calls over to the
stadium and says to the guy that makes announcements
at half-time or his boss, something like, “Make an
announcement at the next game that anybody who,” I’m
cleaning this up, by the way.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Right [laughter].>>Michael Beschloss: “Anybody
who wants to take a leak or get some cool water can do it at the Johnson Library
across the street.” And the announcement was
made and huge numbers of people came at
the front door. They were counted as visitors. This was done at later games
and I am told that by the end of that year, Johnson Library
became the best presidential, best attended presidential
library in the country [laughter]. So if you’re asking how
presidents get things done, sometimes, you know,
their letters tell you and their [inaudible]. Sometimes, other
sources tell you better.>>David M. Rubenstein: Now,
you also were involved with, so Jacqueline Kennedy’s
interviews or diaries.>>Michael Beschloss: Right.>>David M. Rubenstein: And you,
did you edit them or did you, could comment on them?>>Michael Beschloss: Jacqueline
Kennedy was interviewed a number of times by Arthur
Schlesinger not long after her husband’s
assassination. And these were to be locked
up for about 50 years. Caroline Kennedy nearly
10 years ago decided that they should be
opened and published. So she asked me to
annotate them and sort of explain them and
write a foreword.>>David M. Rubenstein: And
the most surprising thing that you got out of that was?>>Michael Beschloss: The
most surprising thing was that throughout this
book, she basically says, “I had very little
influence on my husband. All the credit goes to Jack.” And if you read the
book carefully, people that she disparages,
you know that sort of disappear from the entourage? People that she praises
are promoted. So one thing that comes across
is that he really understood that she had a very accurate
ability to look into people and I think he took
that very seriously.>>David M. Rubenstein:
And one of the other things that was commented
upon at the time, was that she did know a lot
more about what was going on in the government than
people thought at the time.>>Michael Beschloss:
That’s exactly right. And that’s something you
find with most First Ladies in my experience, by the way, which is that at the time the
husband serves, they always say, “You know, it was always
the President who did it. I had very little influence.” And as you get into the inner
records of an administration, you find that these First
Ladies and one day, I hope soon, the First, you know,
Gentleman or First Spouse, have a lot more influence
than they let on at the time [applause].>>David M. Rubenstein: So –>>Michael Beschloss: You
can clap for that too. I would [applause].>>David M. Rubenstein: Okay,
so thePresidents of War, it’s a very interesting book about presidents
when we’re at war. Why is itPresidents of War
and not Presidents at War?>>Michael Beschloss: Because
the book is sort of half about how presidents
took us into war and half about how they did
when we were there. So Presidents at War suggest that you’re missing
the first part. But the other thing is that in
calling itPresidents of War, I was trying to make the point
that presidents who take us into wars, they’re of the
category that’s different from almost every
other president.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Okay, so your basic premise in this book is that
we’re supposed to, under the Constitution,
have Congress declare war but we’ve kind of
forgotten to do that.>>Michael Beschloss:
It seems to be true. Anyone know the last time
Congress declared war? Yes, sir? Yeah, ’42,
’43 during World War II. Have we had any wars
since 1942, 1943? So we’ve gotten out
of this habit of what the Constitution
says which is that if someone wants a war,
Congress has to declare it.>>David M. Rubenstein: Why
did the founding fathers of the Constitutional Convention
say the president is the commander in chief but he or
she cannot decide to go to war? Why did they let the
Congress do that?>>Michael Beschloss: When
the founders were writing our Constitution, one of the biggest
things that they were worried about was that they would write
a Constitution that would lead to a dictatorship or a monarchy
exactly what they were trying not to do. And because of their study of
history, they found that one of the ways that
happened was that monarchs or dictators would
fabricate reasons for war. This was usually in Europe. And say, we have to go to war. The country would unite behind
the king or the dictator. And totalitarianism, greater
totalitarianism would follow. So they thought that it was very
important that the president of the United States not be
the one that had the war power. That was in the 1780s. Here we are in the 21st century,
who now has the war power, is it Congress or our president?>>David M. Rubenstein: So
let’s talk about some war where we did declare war. What about the War of 1812? Did we declare war there?>>Michael Beschloss: We did
and that was a close call. And the irony was that James
Madison, everyone remember that he had a little bit to do with the writing of
the Constitution? Madison was one of those
who was most worried that there might be a
dictatorship of some kind. Yet, Madison was the one
who took us into a war, the War of 1812 against
England that the Congress, the American people were
extremely divided about. And the reasons for
it were semi-bogus. One was to stop the Brits
from bothering our ships. Well, it turns out a
couple of weeks later, they did so there was no
reason to go on with the war. Number two, seize Canada. And so, you know, one
way of looking at the War of 1812 that’s a little
bit novel is you know, it’s always said that Vietnam
was the first time we lost a war. I would say, “Take a look at
1812 because if our motives and the War of 1812 were
number one, to stop the Brits from bothering our ships. Well, it didn’t do that. Number two, do we
own Canada today?>>David M. Rubenstein: No.>>Michael Beschloss: This is
an audience response question.>>David M. Rubenstein:
No [laughter].>>Michael Beschloss:
Oh, don’t think so. So 1812 turns out to be,
I think, one could argue, the first war that
we really lost and also probably the
most unpopular war in American history, even
more so than Vietnam. And James Madison was the
one who took us into that.>>David M. Rubenstein: Mexican-American War,
did we declare war?>>Michael Beschloss: We sort
of faked ourselves into it. What happened with the
Mexican-American War was that James Polk, who was
not high on my hit parade, he wanted to get a lot
of land from Mexico and make the United
States a continental nation from east to west. So far, so good. He did it by faking a reason for
war by provoking the Mexicans to attack Americans in
South Texas and he then went to Congress and said, “We
have to have the Mexican War, war against the Mexico, Mexicans
all the way to Mexico City.” And the result was that yes, we
did become a continental nation but we established a precedent
which is not a great one which is fabricating
a reason for war. Abraham Lincoln, who was a
young member of Congress, got up in Congress and said, “I don’t believe there was
ever a real reason for war. Show me the spot where the
Mexicans really attacked us for good reasons.”>>David M. Rubenstein:
Now the Civil War, did we actually declare war?>>Michael Beschloss:
No, we didn’t but that was for a good reason. That was that Lincoln said that
for us to declare war would be to recognize that the
good confederacy was a different country. The whole thing was
Lincoln’s argument that this was an insurrection so he did not ask
for a declaration. He did ask Congress for military
support and other things that would help him fight it.>>David M. Rubenstein:
World War I, did we have a declaration
of war?>>Michael Beschloss:
Yeah, that we did. And that was Woodrow Wilson.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Okay and the Vietnam War. Let’s talk about
that for a moment. The Vietnam, well, let me
start with the Korean War. The Korean War, what
prompted us to go to war and was there a declaration
of war?>>Michael Beschloss: Yeah,
that’s where everything changed because this was, as a few here
might remember, in the summer of 1950, North Korea
attacked the South. America and its allies
responded. And again, so far, so good. And then, Harry Truman, the
president, his aide said, “When are you going to go to
Congress for a war declaration?” Just as our audience member here
rightly said, as FDR had done in 1942 and a little bit 1943. And Truman, whom I otherwise
love for many reasons, not all, said, “I’m not going to
go to Congress to ask for a war declaration
because it’s 1950. There are a lot of
fights in Congress. I have to, you know, run a
midterm campaign this fall. All it’s going to do is
arouse problems for me and the administration. I’m just going to go
ahead and send troops to defend South Korea. And I don’t think anyone
is going to object.”>>David M. Rubenstein: Okay.>>Michael Beschloss: Then someone called it a police
action and Truman agreed.>>David M. Rubenstein: You point out in your books
something very interesting that why did we actually have
the Korean War in the sense that the North Koreans
invaded the South but was that because they were
led to believe by Truman or his Secretary of State
that we wouldn’t respond?>>Michael Beschloss: A
large reason was a big goof that was made by our Secretary
of State Dean Atchison who in January of
1950 gave a speech to the National Press
Club implying that South Korea might fall
outside our defense perimeter and you know, fairly suggesting
perhaps to the other side, why not try to grab South
Korea and test the principle? And you know, if we’re wrong,
you know, we’d be wrong.>>David M. Rubenstein: And did
the Russians have any objection to the –>>Michael Beschloss: If
it could be done cheaply and if it didn’t lead
to a nuclear war.>>David M. Rubenstein: And
what did the Chinese have to say about it.>>Michael Beschloss:
Sort of the same.>>David M. Rubenstein: So when
the North Koreans invade South Korea and we decide
to pursue defense, who was put in charge
of the military?>>Michael Beschloss: A gentleman named
Douglas MacArthur.>>David M. Rubenstein: And
what was he doing before that?>>Michael Beschloss: He
was the Viceroy of Truman and the Allies in Japan.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Had he ever met Truman?>>Michael Beschloss: No. He had not had a formal meeting.>>David M. Rubenstein: So
he comes up with a strategy and what’s his basic strategy
of how to win the war?>>Michael Beschloss: To
push as hard as possible and eventually even if you
have to cross the [inaudible] which was not Truman’s
way of doing things.>>David M. Rubenstein:
So but MacArthur does come up with a very good
landing at Incheon.>>Michael Beschloss:
He did, indeed.>>David M. Rubenstein: And
what was so unusual about that? Why was that such a
great military feat?>>Michael Beschloss: Well,
because it succeeded by surprise and it changed the
terms of the war. And also, it caused
MacArthur to think that therefore he had license
to do all sorts of things that Truman and the Joint
Chiefs had asked him not to. And when he was told not
to, he would actually write to newspaper publishers in
the United States and say, “The Joint Chiefs and the
President is holding me down. You really should urge that
the President give me a license to go ahead.”>>David M. Rubenstein: Did he
want to use nuclear weapons?>>Michael Beschloss: Yes, that
was something that was within –>>David M. Rubenstein: So Truman ultimately
met him in Hawaii? Is that where he –>>Michael Beschloss: In
the middle of the Pacific.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Yeah, in the Pacific. So what was that meeting like? How did that go?>>Michael Beschloss: Not
bad and it was going so well that Truman decided to get
out before they got to –>>David M. Rubenstein: He was
to leave the meeting early.>>Michael Beschloss: Yeah,
so that in other words, they were in such agreement
that he didn’t want to test that by staying for too long.>>David M. Rubenstein: Okay, so what led to Truman
firing MacArthur?>>Michael Beschloss: He
saw that MacArthur was going to be extremely insubordinate
and if you were going to preserve the principle
of a military that’s under the command of
the Commander-in-Chief, he had to fire MacArthur. And part of the bad joke,
this is not my joke, but MacArthur came back and
the MacArthur famously spoke to Congress, gave
his emotional speech, “Old Soldiers Never Die.” And the Republicans wanted
him to run for president, thought he’d beat Truman. The Democrats were
worried he’d run for president and beat Truman. And so it was said that as
MacArthur spoke, not my joke, “The Republican side of the
House, there was not a dry eye. On the Democratic
side of the House, there was not a dry seat.” [Laughter] Not my joke.>>David M. Rubenstein: Why did
MacArthur actually never do what Eisenhower was able to do,
get a political constituency? He was such a famous general. Why did he not [inaudible].>>Michael Beschloss: He was
contemptuous of Eisenhower.>>David M. Rubenstein: But why
did he not have a political pull in the United States? How come the political
parties never really came to him and nominated him?>>Michael Beschloss:
You mean in 1952?>>David M. Rubenstein:
MacArthur, yes.>>Michael Beschloss: By
then, he was considered to be somewhat politically
extreme and also Eisenhower
had come back and he was a lot more popular.>>David M. Rubenstein: So
Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 but didn’t Truman
actually offered him the nomination of Democratic
Party in ’48?>>Michael Beschloss: In 1948,
Harry Truman offered actually to if Eisenhower would
run as a Democrat, Truman said he would
run with him on his ticket as Vice-President. And so Eisenhower later
recalled that, I think, in one of his memoirs and
Truman denied it and said, “I never would have done that.” And the problem was that Truman
had actually had written it in one of his diaries and someone found the
diary page later on. So if you intended to disown
something you have done, my recommendation as a historian
is don’t put it into your diary where it could be found.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Well, actually, he got back into some extent. He gave an interview with
Merle Miller, Truman did.>>Michael Beschloss: Right.>>David M. Rubenstein:
In which he had said that Eisenhower had
asked to be allowed to get divorced during World
War II to marry his driver.>>Michael Beschloss: Right.>>David M. Rubenstein:
And is that true?>>Michael Beschloss: The Miller
stuff is not too relied upon but he was really
angry at Eisenhower. But one really nice story is
Eisenhower and Truman were on terrible terms especially
from ’52 when Truman, when Eisenhower was running against Truman’s
“mess in Washington.” But on the day of John
Kennedy’s funeral, the two of them were
outside the cathedral as President Kennedy’s
casket was being brought out. And the two men were standing when they saw John Kennedy Jr.
saluting his father’s casket. The two men decided to
have a drink at Blair House and they made up all
their own differences, their old differences and remembered all
they had done together.>>David M. Rubenstein: Back to
the Korean War, Eisenhower said when he was campaigning,
“I’ll go to Korea and fix the problem,”
and did Truman think that was a good idea?>>Michael Beschloss: He thought
it was a fake and he sort of further built on his
problems with Eisenhower after the victory of
Eisenhower in November of 1952 by sending Eisenhower
a message saying, “In case you still
intend to go to Korea, as if this was just
some campaign stunt.” It made Eisenhower so furious
that on Inauguration Day, Eisenhower’s limousine
rolled up. The Trumans were inside to
give the Eisenhowers coffee and they waited a long time because the Eisenhowers would
not get out of their car. And Truman was furious and got
into the car and it was said that was one of the
coldest rides ever when that car went up the –>>David M. Rubenstein: But
Eisenhower did go to Korea and did he, how did he
solve the war or end it?>>Michael Beschloss: If you
were talking to Eisenhower and this was also a story
he told Johnson later on, Eisenhower said, the way
he solved Korea was he sent messages over channels that
were likely to get back to the North Koreans and their
allies that unlike Truman, he would not refrain from
using nuclear weapons, if necessary to end this war. And the war was, at least,
an armistice was imposed within about six months.>>David M. Rubenstein: Let’s
talk about the Vietnam War. So did we have a
declaration of war in Vietnam?>>Michael Beschloss:
No, we did not. And this is the problem. You know, when a president
like Truman says, “Well, I’m just not going to go ask for
a declaration because it’s going to cost me problems,”
it creates a precedent, a precedent that later
presidents might use for bad purposes. Lyndon Johnson dealt with
the Gulf of Tonkin attacks. At least one of those
attacks did not happen. He went to Congress and asked
for a Gulf of Tonkin resolution to use force in response. It passed overwhelmingly, both
houses almost unanimously. And the result was that although
there was not an attack, what was really the detonating
incident for that resolution for the next nine years
or so, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon waged the
whole of the Vietnam War, later the Indo-China
Wars, as expanded, based on this resolution, based on at least one
attack that did not happen. And the result is that ever
since then and my book only goes through Vietnam because
I try to write history and I think the later
things which are recent, we have never again gone, had
a president going to Congress and saying, “I want
a declaration.” We’ve had, you know, resolutions
but not the kind of declaration that Congress, that the
Constitution asked for.>>David M. Rubenstein:
But then, in the end, did Johnson know that the Gulf of Tonkin was based
on false information?>>Michael Beschloss: He
knew within a couple of weeks but he did not go
back to Congress and say, “It didn’t happen.” We should have.>>David M. Rubenstein:
So subsequent to Vietnam, for example, we went
into Afghanistan, did we have a resolution?>>Michael Beschloss: No.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Did we have, we have a resolution to go into?>>Michael Beschloss:
Oh, excuse me. We had a resolution
but not a declaration.>>David M. Rubenstein: So
we had a resolution to go into Kuwait when
after the invasion by Saddam Hussein, we did that? And we had a resolution
to go into Iraq.>>Michael Beschloss: And I
admire presidents for going to Congress, asking
for a resolution. But it’s not the same thing
as a declaration of Congress because the reason why the
Constitution says this is it says, “We want a declaration. It’s very hard to achieve. We want a president
to go to Congress and say this is how long
we think the war will take. This is the kind of
cost it might have.” They wanted it to be really
hard to get involved in a war.>>David M. Rubenstein: And
the resolution is different than a declaration
in what sense?>>Michael Beschloss: It’s
legally different and it is, it allows people in Congress
who voted for it to say, “I never voted for a
declaration of war.” Look at the number of members
of Congress, no names mentioned, who after voting for
resolutions for wars that proved to be unpopular, said
they were just voting for a resolution to use force. They weren’t voting for
a declaration of war.>>David M. Rubenstein:
A declaration of war, is it like a legislation
where it’s passed by Congress but then it’s signed
by the President? Or the President doesn’t
sign a declaration?>>Michael Beschloss: The President can sign
it and usually do.>>David M. Rubenstein:
But a resolution, does he sign the
resolution as well?>>Michael Beschloss: Can.>>David M. Rubenstein:
But doesn’t have to.>>Michael Beschloss: Yeah.>>David M. Rubenstein: Okay,
so what you would like to see, after all your research
on this, is a Congress to be more forthcoming and
actually passing declarations or what would you like?>>Michael Beschloss:
Yeah, I think, I think that would be true. I’d like to make it
harder for presidents to go into wars unless the
American people would support them overwhelmingly. And I’d also like to see
presidents who have some of that leadership qualities
that I write about in this book. For instance, in Lincoln’s case,
he had this wonderful empathy. Lincoln, in the middle
of the Civil War, there were so many casualties
that his people said, “We’ve got to build
a new cemetery. Where do you want it?” And Lincoln said, “I
want it built as close to my summer house as possible
because it’s going to be painful for me but I want to see
the graves being dug. I want to be reminded
of the terrible cost of these decisions
that I’m making.”>>David M. Rubenstein:
So today, as you look at our
Congress today, do you think Congress actually
wants to vote on resolutions or declarations of war or do
they prefer to avoid them?>>Michael Beschloss: Well,
I think, throughout history, they preferred to avoid them
unless it’s an overwhelmingly popular cause. That’s something that you find
all the way through history.>>David M. Rubenstein:
And as you think about the books you’ve
written today, which book, when you write a book, how
long does it typically take? Like this book took
how long to write?>>Michael Beschloss: David, I’m glad we’re saying
this toward the end of our talk rather
than at the beginning. This is a book that cost,
it took 10 years to write. I hope not 10 years
to read [laughter]. But it goes from you know, it begins with basically
the burning of the Capitol and the burning of the White
House and James Madison and Dolly running
away from Washington. And the President of the United
States spending the nights sleeping under the bush in
the rain because he’s worried that the British will come
and capture him and hang him as they would have done. And it has scenes like Abraham
Lincoln, who was also in combat. Everyone here been to
Fort Stevens or know where it is here
in Washington, DC? Battle of — you
can clap [applause]. During the Battle of Fort
Stevens, Lincoln stood up and there, and stood up to fire
and you know, subjected himself to the possibility that
he might get killed.>>David M. Rubenstein:
So when you do your work, do you research it and
then complete the research then write? Do you research and
write, research and write?>>Michael Beschloss: Pretty
much do the research before but what I really, you know,
love to look for is documents and other sources
that will you things that you have never seen before. I mean, the Johnson
tapes, you know, again are one great
example of that because if we had not
had the Johnson tapes, we would not have known
how pessimistic LBJ was about the progress
of the Vietnam War. We also wouldn’t have known
how bad his language was in private although I think
we probably [inaudible].>>David M. Rubenstein: But in
the Johnson tapes, I’ve listened to a lot of them, not every
one, but he was thought to be in some cases, maybe foul mouth
or gave the Johnson treatment. But I never actually heard a lot
of curse words on those tapes.>>Michael Beschloss:
Yeah, I was expecting it to be a lot worse actually. And what it was, was I think,
our definition of curses in the 1960s was so much more
mild than what it was in 2019. I was expecting all sorts of words especially
one particular one which doesn’t especially appear
that if Johnson were here in 2019, I think he’d
hear probably a lot more. Sort of like, does
everyone remember when Richard Nixon released
his Watergate transcripts and there were a lot
of expletives deleted? And I was in college and my
friends and I thought, well, if they were deleted, they must
have been pretty bad expletives. And an awful lot of them, it
turns out, were probably damn and hell, but his
secretary, Rosemary Woods, was so prim that she
thought that damn and hell should be omitted.>>David M. Rubenstein: So the
way the presidency is operating in modern times, if
you could change it, if you could wave a wand,
how would you change it? Do you think the presidency
could be more effective the way it operates or do you
think it’s operating okay?>>Michael Beschloss: I
think I would like, I mean, you always want a process in
which Americans had the freedom to choose presidents well.>>David M. Rubenstein: Now, some people say the
Electoral College was designed by the founding fathers and
it’s not working as well as maybe it should have. What is your view on
the Electoral College?>>Michael Beschloss: That’s one
example of what I’m thinking of. You could make the argument
and I think I might have, a few years ago, that the
Electoral College is necessary in order to make sure that the
presidential candidates will campaign in small states and
be, you know, more interested in smaller groups than if
they were just in TV studios in Los Angeles and New York,
which might be the case, if you have a popular vote. But I think what we’re beginning
to see among Americans is that there is a rising frequency
of presidents and I’m not, I’m not in politics today. This is not a Republican or a
Democratic comment but you know, where a president does
not win the popular vote but he becomes president anyway.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Now in modern times, the first time we’ve had a
presidential debate was Johnson, was Kennedy and Nixon, 1960.>>Michael Beschloss: Right.>>David M. Rubenstein:
And now, it’s [inaudible]. But do you think they actually
changed people’s votes, the debates and are
they worth doing?>>Michael Beschloss: I
think on occasion, they do. And it certainly did in the
case of Kennedy and Nixon. Maybe the best moment
was, and this was in my hometown of Chicago. Anyone here from
Chicago [applause]? Okay, a small number but high in [inaudible], I’m
sure [laughter]. When one of the Nixon people
said to Robert Kennedy, you know, “Does Dick
Nixon’s makeup look okay?” And Robert Kennedy said, “I
wouldn’t change it a bit. It looks perfect.” [Laughter] But that was a time
when John Kennedy was seen as an inexperienced, rather unknown backbencher
from Massachusetts. And it put him on the same level as the world famous
Vice-President of the United States who
had debated Khrushchev. I think it’s very fair
to say that without that first Kennedy-Nixon debate, Nixon would have been
president in 1961.>>David M. Rubenstein: Now,
for those people who aren’t, who haven’t studied it, the
famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, they were not involved in the presidential
campaign, is that right?>>Michael Beschloss: No,
they were senatorial debates.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Senate and –>>Michael Beschloss:
And they were long.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Long, how long were they?>>Michael Beschloss: Hours. And the reason for that
was that in those days, and I can speak as
an Illinoisan. I wasn’t quite alive
in 1858 but if you went to a debate oftentimes,
you know, it would take you a long
time to get there by horse. I don’t think anyone
ran to a debate, although maybe a
few of them did. And so, if you wanted to attend
a debate and it had taken hours to get there, if the debate
is just an hour, you’re going to feel a little bit deprived. And that tradition
went on in oratory in the Midwest for a long time. It was adopted by
Hubert Humphrey, who in the mid-20th
century, still gave speeches. Some might remember that, it seemed like about
three or four hours long. And I think this was a true
story that Humphrey once was, even he knew he had
gone on for too long, yells out to the audience,
“Anybody here got a watch?” And someone yelled back,
“How about a calendar?” [Laughter] So Lincoln
and Douglas did not have that kind of discipline. And it’s a good thing they
didn’t because the quality of those debates was so high
that both parties thought that those should
be the candidates in 1860 for president.>>David M. Rubenstein:
It’s like it reminds me of what Jim Baker
used to tell a story when he was giving a speech
and somebody was walking away, and he said, “Where
are you going?” And the guy said, “I’m
going to go get a haircut.” He said, “Well, why
didn’t you get one before I started speaking?” He said, “I didn’t need one
before you started speaking.”>>Michael Beschloss:
[Laughter] Exactly, right.>>David M. Rubenstein: So
today, do you find when you talk to people in college campuses
that they’re as interested in learning about the presidency
as you were or is it something that people are not
as focused on anymore?>>Michael Beschloss: I
think they are and for some of the same reasons because
you know, at this time, when you know, I told you
the little story about going to the Lincoln house when I
was eight years or older so, that was the early 1960s and
the presidency really mattered. There are other times in American history you
might not have felt that way. But I can remember John
Kennedy going on TV to say there were
missiles in Cuba. And even I at the age of seven, knew that we might
not survive this. I was a young person when Lyndon
Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill and then in the
Voting Rights Bill. So for a young kid just
reading the newspapers, everyone here know what a
newspaper was [laughter]?>>David M. Rubenstein: Right.>>Michael Beschloss:
Telephones, telegraphs? But you know, reading
print newspapers, the message would
be extremely clear, the presidents were
very important. We’re now at a time
when, you know, I think anyone would
realize in this period and not just the last few years,
I would say the last 20 years, anyone who would watch
this period, you know, as a young citizen and not
realize that it matters who is president, was
not paying attention.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Now, we have a tradition. It started with FDR of
presidential libraries. And the latest one
is being built in your home area, Chicago area. But it has no books in it. So why do we need all these
presidential libraries? Can you explain their purpose?>>Michael Beschloss:
It’ll have some books but you’re saying it won’t have
books in terms of like Obama –>>David M. Rubenstein:
There was no paper, no paper.>>Michael Beschloss:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Everything is digital.>>Michael Beschloss:
Right, precisely. And books are not going to
be the chief purpose of it and archives and
some of the others. The argument of and this is
not just the Obama people but many others and I think
we are likely to see this in the future, is that you
can have documents online. And they don’t need
to be in a library and it’s actually more small
d democratic if you can, for instance, gain access
to the Barack Obama papers or the Donald Trump
papers or other papers in the future online but
you’re not, you know, keeping out of the
process of history. People who cannot, for instance,
afford to go to Chicago. And so therefore, why not keep
them in College Park, Maryland, for instance, where the National
Archives headquarters is and being able to gain
access to it online. You can make arguments round
or flat but in certain ways, I think that may be at least
in part the way of the future.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Now, if somebody is here and they haven’t read this book, what is the reason they should
go out and buy this book?>>Michael Beschloss:
Because one of the most important
things that, as I’ve suggested
we will be coping with through our
lifetimes, whatever happens, is presidential power
and the possibility that the presidents
might take us into war. And the other reason is
that if you’re trying to understand American history and understand these really
important stories, you know, begin with Dolly and
James Madison running out of the White House and
him sleeping under the bush. And James K. Polk, you know,
provoking the Mexicans. And Abraham Lincoln nobly
holding the Union together. And all these stories have
come right up to the present, you know, there is a
reason why people say that you can only understand
the present and the future if you understand the past.>>David M. Rubenstein: Right.>>Michael Beschloss: And a
very large part of our past, both nobly and also
in certain cases, sadly have been presidents
taking us to war.>>David M. Rubenstein: Right. Well, I’ve read this book and
I highly recommend it to those who haven’t bought it yet. And Michael, thank you very much for a very interesting
conversation.>>Michael Beschloss:
Thank you so much, David. [ Applause ] Maybe kind of, okay. We now have an eminent,
eminent visitor.>>Carla Hayden: Yes.>>Michael Beschloss: Thank you.>>Carla Hayden: Yeah. Thank you, David and
[inaudible] and everyone, don’t leave because I have an
announcement and a surprise. First, I want to thank everyone for another very successful
National Book Festival. Thank you to the over 200,000
people who came here today to the Convention
Center and all the people who watched it online. It’s been an amazing day for
authors, books, and reading. So it’s time to start
the countdown for next year’s festival. Mark your calendars for the
2020 National Book Festival. It will be the 20th year for this annual festival
here in Washington. And so we want to celebrate big. The date, Saturday, August 29th. Again, that date
is August 29, 2020. Our 20th year, stay tuned. It’s going to be something. Now before we go and here’s
the surprise is it’s very hard to surprise Mr. David
Rubenstein.>>David M. Rubenstein: What?>>Carla Hayden: So
look at his face. It’s wonderful. The National Book Festival,
as you know, is made possible with so much generosity
from Mr. Rubenstein. And aside from his
support, today alone, he interviewed five
brilliant authors, capping it off right
here on the main stage with Mr. Michael Beschloss. [ Applause ] Now his expert interviewing
skills are showcased regularly on Bloomberg TV’s
program titled the “David Rubenstein Show
Peer-to-Peer Conversations”. And I want to call to the
stage, Mr. Justin Smith, the CEO of Bloomberg
Media [applause].>>David M. Rubenstein: Okay.>>Carla Hayden: He’s
wondering where this is going. For five seasons, Mr. Rubenstein
has interviewed the world’s most influential power players
about their personal and professional journeys
including Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet,
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Bill Gates, Christine
Lagarde, and many others. Here’s a short clip. [ Music ]>>These are good. Thank you. This is good [laughter]. This is good.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Thanks [inaudible]. If I watch your interview shows,
I know how to do [inaudible]. Do you go in a store and
you want to buy something, do you have to put
a credit card down. Do you just say, “I’m Jeff
Bezos,” and they send you stuff? How do you do that? And you ever had a
credit card denied?>>Denied.>>David M. Rubenstein: Has
that ever happened [laughter]?>>I have. So I give them another
credit card [laughter].>>David M. Rubenstein: You
were nominated to be Chairman of the Fed by President Trump. Is being chair all that it’s
cracked up to be [laughter]? You have said your secretary
pays a higher tax rate than you do.>>Yes.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Right and so you’re in favor of changing that?>>Some years ago, somebody from
the White House called and said, “Would you mind having
a tax named after you?” And I said, “Well,
if all the diseases that have been taken,
why shouldn’t I? I’ll take a tax.” [ Music ] [ Applause ]>>Carla Hayden:
So in partnership with WGBH Educational
Foundation and Bloomberg, we want to celebrate
your birthday this month and your support of the National
Book Festival by adding all of the episodes of the “David
Rubenstein Show” to the Library of Congress’ collection
because of its social and cultural significance
in chronicling the lives of many important
historical figures. And as part of this collection,
it will be made accessible to the public to view forever.>>David M. Rubenstein:
Okay, thank you. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Carla Hayden: So
David, congratulations and here is a certificate
to certify that your interviews
will live on forever.>>David M. Rubenstein: All
right, thank you very much. Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you. Thank you, [inaudible]. Thank you.>>Carla Hayden: So thank
you again for your support. Michael Beschloss,
you are the greatest. Thank you, Mr. Smith. And thank all of you
who have been here and have been supportive. Thank you, the Festival gets
bigger and better every year. Have a great evening and we
hope to see you next year. Thank you so much. [ Applause ]

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