- Show Notes
Michael Beschloss is a historian and the author of the new book, Presidents of War. He speaks with Preet about what the past can teach us about the Trump presidency, why history should matter to our leaders, and his wonderful, shade-filled twitter feed. Plus, Preet’s take on the legality of Whitaker as acting attorney general. Do you have a question for Preet? Tweet them to @PreetBharara with the hashtag #askpreet, email [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 and leave a voicemail.
Preet: [00:00:00] Michael Beschloss, thank you so much for being on the show.
Michael: [00:00:02] Thrilled to be with you. Thank you.
Preet: [00:00:05] Congratulations on the book. You wrote this book called Presidents of War: The Epic Story From 1897 to Modern Times. It’s a big thick book. I just finished writing a book. It’s not quite as long because I’m not as smart as you.
Michael: [00:00:18] You didn’t have 10 years to tank.
Preet: [00:00:21] No, it was a little over a year. And we’re not finished. But it took a lot took a lot out of me. I have -ew respect for people who not only write one book but have written many. So I don’t know where to begin with you, honestly. You know so many things about so many issues. I guess I wonder from you what the difference between history and journalism is. You’re somebody who’s written books about the long sweep of history in many different contexts, currently with respect to the relationship between presidents and war. But you also go on television like I do, and you talk about the news of the day. And I wonder how you resolve that and how you think about that?
Michael: [00:00:59] Well, the way I do it is everything I write in history – and I’ve been writing history books since I was 23 years old, believe it or not – I try to write on subjects that have you know shed some light on problems that we all are dealing with as a democracy. At the same time, I think the difference between history and journalism, for instance, as you know this book goes through 200 years of war presidents from Thomas Jefferson all the way up to nearly the present. It doesn’t deal with George W. Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan not because I wouldn’t have loved to – because those are great examples of wars that bring up all sorts of different issues. But I think if you’re writing about a past president, if it’s more recent than about 40 years ago, you can’t really write about it as history because you don’t have the sources you need. For instance, if I were to write about George W. Bush, I wouldn’t have his cable traffic. You know, the intelligence stuff that came to his desk. Maybe if there were diaries if there were memcons so I couldn’t really write about you know what he did from the inside which is what I try to do. And the other thing is that you really need hindsight. I mean, the classic example I always use is that when Harry Truman left the presidency – 1953 – his Gallup Poll approval rating was about maybe 23 percent. And that was because there were a lot of things that people didn’t understand about Truman’s greatness at the time, especially the fact that he was the guy who devised the strategy that allowed us to win the Cold War. You could know how the Cold War would end in 1953 with 20/20 hindsight. Here we are what sixty-five years later. We now know that America prevailed. Truman gets a lot of credit. So with that kind of hindsight he’s a much greater president. So that’s sort of the difference I see between writing about history and writing about almost current events.
Preet: [00:02:54] What’s an interesting footnote is his Gallup poll number was in the 20s as you said. But I believe that his Rasmussen poll was eighty five percent.
Michael: [00:03:03] Yes, exactly right. Rasmussen.
Preet: [00:03:04] That’s an inside joke for poll watchers.
Michael: [00:03:07] Wonderful indication of public opinion, don’t you think, Preet?
Preet: [00:03:11] Look, not all the polls can be right all the time.
Michael: [00:03:13] No.
Preet: [00:03:13] So, I guess, so that’s an interesting point though given that you wear both hats of historical writer and also current commentator because you have strong opinions on this president and things that he’s done and you make pretty bold declarations as do I although I’m not a journalist or historian. How should people be careful about the pronouncements they’re making day to day about the actions of any sitting president?
Michael: [00:03:39] They should know that 40 or 50 years later, Americans will probably look at them very differently in ways that we cannot anticipate. Forty or fifty years later, you siphon away the less important from those things that are important. For instance, using Truman in 1952, a lot of the people who told pollsters they didn’t like Truman they said the reason was because he didn’t remind them of Franklin Roosevelt. He didn’t really seem like a president. In fact, the true story is told that 52, Eisenhower and Nixon were running as a Republican nominees and a reporter asked Truman what do you think of Nixon and Truman said I think that Nixon is full of manure. And so that was printed. And so Truman’s aides went to Mrs. Truman said “couldn’t you get the boss to clean it up and speak a little bit more like a president?” She said “you have no idea how long it took for me to get them to use the word manure.” That’s what she was dealing with. But the point I’m making is 1952 – it seemed like a big deal whether Truman used language like that. Decades later we realize that what he did, you know, with the atomic bomb and his economic policies and firing MacArthur. These are things that were much more important.
Preet: [00:04:52] So some of it’s out of the president’s control right? So you engage in a policy whether it’s a Cold War or a certain kind of tax policy and if some years later you can attribute some great advancement of peace or prosperity to that action taken years earlier where it was unclear whether it would be successful or not, then that changes dramatically the view of that president. Right?
Michael: [00:05:14] Yeah, it’s like something in Truman once said which, he was absolutely right, he said that any high school student with 20-20 hindsight, 40 years later, can make better decisions than a president can make operating at the time with fragmentary information and dealing with a lot of different issues at once.
Preet: [00:05:33] So that leads me to a couple different questions. One forward looking, one backward looking. How much do presidents care about how they will be perceived 40 years hence and how much should they? I don’t get the sense this president cares about anything other than how he’s perceived tomorrow.
Michael: [00:05:47] Or maybe during the next hour.
Preet: [00:05:49] Or maybe next hour. But there’s also something to be said I think for not caring too much about your legacy in the history books and caring a little bit more about the medium term if not the short term.
Michael: [00:06:02] Doing the right thing. That’s exactly right. The last thing you want is someone who just wants to be popular all the time because they’re not going to make unpopular decisions like the ones that Truman made or the ones that Lincoln made to win the Civil War or FDR in 1940. If he had wanted to be popular he would have said I’m an isolationist like probably the majority of Americans and I will promise you we will never get involved in World War II. That’s what happens when you’ve got a demagogue. And with our current President, you certainly see a lot of elements of that. But I used to say Preet, before this presidency, I would never want a president who was not interested in history and almost all of them are. Because if you’re a president who knows nothing about history and doesn’t care, you know there are not many things to guide you when you’re president, you’re trying to make tough decisions. Because you know you’re usually tired and you don’t have enough information and you’re dealing with all sorts of people and issues all at once. Just about the only user’s guide you’ve got is where earlier presidents and earlier generations of Americans succeeded or failed.
Preet: [00:07:12] Is it also possible to overlearn from history?
Michael: [00:07:15] I think if you think that, you know, decisions for instance that earlier presidents made are exact parallels for the ones that you’re making. But if you do it, for instance, you know I keep on – sorry I keep on coming back to Truman – but it’s a good example of it. Because I think Truman although he was not a college graduate probably knew more about presidential history than just about anyone else who has served and maybe particularly because he didn’t have the education he was trying harder. And he used to say that I couldn’t have been president without knowing what some of these earlier presidents did. And he was a huge reader of history in fact the book that he like most of all – horrible title, it was written in 1895 – it was called Great Men and Famous Women. The premise being that women had no being great, only famous. And the subtitle was from Nebuchadnezzar to Sarah Bernhardt. So you can see Preet, it covered [a] wide swath of human history.
Preet: [00:08:13] That’s a broad range.
Michael: [00:08:14] Broad range. And I don’t think he he often thought about Nebuchadnezzar or Sarah Bernhardt but he used to say when I was trying to think about what to do with the atom bomb or what to do in Korea, I would think about what had read particularly in that book about Abraham Lincoln or Andrew Jackson. It was never an exact parallel but there were some areas of what they had to deal with that gave me some comfort and some insight so that I could go ahead. In fact, can I mention one other example?
Preet: [00:08:44] Yeah please.
Michael: [00:08:45] JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. Fortunately, for all of us just before then, he read a book that I’m sure you’ve read read – Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August.
Preet: [00:08:56] It’s assigned reading in most colleges if you’re a political science or government major.
Michael: [00:09:00] I’m glad to hear it. And I was a political science major. [It] was assigned to us too at Williams College. The lesson of that as you well know is basically World War I happened because there were a lot of miscommunications between the sides that were about to go to war. So Kennedy had just read that before he’s going to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And what better lesson would you want in his head than exactly that? Because during the missile crisis you know, he, he keeps on saying “I want to make sure that some lower level person in the Defense Department doesn’t put out some statement that’s going to convince the Soviets and Khrushchev that we’re about to do a first strike attack mistakingly…And we get into a nuclear war accidentally that could kill [a] hundred million people…incinerate much of the northern hemisphere.” That’s the way history really can guide a president at an absolutely paramount time.
Preet: [00:09:55] This is maybe not a well articulated question and these things may not be distinguishable and they overlap, but if you had to pick which of the following qualities is most important to a president to do the job properly. One is a good grasp of history. Another is good judgment. And the third is his good character. Which is the most important? Because they are a little bit different.
Michael: [00:10:19] Yeah they are different but I think I would say that’s a three-way tie. I have never seen a great president that does not have those things. And also I would add to that and this is a part of character, empathy. Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War – there were so many soldiers being killed because of the decisions that he was, he was making his people said “we need a new national cemetery. Where do you want it?” And Lincoln said “build it next to my summer house because it’s going to be intensely painful to me. But I want to see the union graves being dug. I want to see the grieving widows. I want to see the crying. I want to always be reminded of the real life results and death results of the decisions I’m making.” That’s what empathy is. That’s what you really want to see in a president.
Preet: [00:11:08] You need balance right because you can be paralyzed by empathy because you don’t want to cause harm in the short term even though it might cause longer term good and peace. And Lincoln obviously you know even if you haven’t read a lot of history if you watched any movies, you know that he spoke very movingly not only in public but also in the letters that he wrote to the families of fallen soldiers which is a great distinction between him and the current president who to date has not even visited any troops.
Michael: [00:11:39] Not been to see troops, not been to a base, not been to Iraq or Afghanistan and also has sent troops to the border in a reality show that doesn’t have too much connection to real life reality. I mean, it is something that we have rarely if ever seen in presidential history.
Preet: [00:11:57] Which presidents do you think in recent times have had the best grasp of history?
Michael: [00:12:02] I think Kennedy did, Kennedy wrote history. Truman as I’ve mentioned. Roosevelt tried. I mean he was not as much of a history reader but remember I was saying about Kennedy, it’s a good thing he read Guns of August.
Preet: [00:12:15] Right.
Michael: [00:12:15] Well FDR as it happens sometimes God looks over the United States. In 1940, the year before we got into World War II, what is Roosevelt reading? He’s reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln by Carl Sandburg and it gave him a lot of the lessons that Lincoln used to help prevail in the Civil War. And one of them was you know I think maybe the cardinal lesson for any president of war and that is you have to be a moral leader. You can’t just wage a war for cheap political reasons. And for instance, in Lincoln’s case as I write about he got into the civil war as we know and he tried to talk about this as he was just fulfilling his oath to defend the constitution. Constitution says that states cannot secede. The South seceded. So he was trying to reverse that. It didn’t make him a very effective leader and he really wasn’t saying what was in his heart. And finally about a year into the Civil War it’s almost like the moment – you know, you’ve seen the Wizard of Oz when it turns from black and white to color.
Preet: [00:13:19] Yeah.
Michael: [00:13:19] You know, it was almost like that. You know, Lincoln starts, you know, he basically stops talking about you know his oath and the Constitution he starts talking about this as a crusade to get rid of the evil of slavery. The second that happens this becomes a moral crusade and he becomes a more effective leader. And the soldiers know what they’re fighting for. And it actually was the right thing to do in terms of winning the war. That was a lesson that was in FDR’s mind early 1941. He’s talking to Congress and he talks about the four freedoms. You know, the things, that America supports in the world: freedom from want, freedom of religion, and so on. And so from the very beginning of our involvement in December of 1941 after Pearl Harbor. This is not just something to restore the balance of power in Europe and Asia. This is a moral crusade to preserve freedom in the world which it was and it made Roosevelt a much more effective leader. And the other thing is he had been Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He knew how bad it was for Wilson to be in this kingly isolation for the first year of World War I. He didn’t make that mistake. He gave those fireside chats saying, “we may have some defeats for a while but I want to level with you Americans and let you know what we’re doing.”
Preet: [00:14:39] The stories of serendipitous books that presidents have read or have read serendipitously is interesting to me and I wonder how you respond to the following question in part because it assumes a fact not in evidence. And that is if it were the case that Donald Trump read books, what book do you think at this point given how we’re facing issues with Russia and North Korea and a whole host of other international problems, what book should he be reading if he read books?
Michael: [00:15:08] It’s not a book. I would love to have him read the Constitution. And maybe you could be his tutor. Any president who understands the Constitution could not have done many of the things that he has been doing. And that is true of other presidents, by the way. I mean, in a more minor way I think I write about James Polk, for instance, as you know one of the things the founders in Philadelphia were really concerned about was that the people who would decide whether we get into a major war or not would not be presidents but members of Congress. And they basically say you want a war declared. Congress does that. Not a president. And one theme we’ve seen in history and I’m extremely worried that Donald Trump will be tempted to do this is, we’ve seen a number of presidents stage fake incidents or exploit fake incidents to get us involved in a major war. James Polk – 1840s – he wanted privately a big war with Mexico because he wanted to take from Mexico almost a million square miles of Mexican territory and bring it to the United States. What he did was write about it. He staged a fake incident at the border. Does that sound current to you Preet?
Preet: [00:16:22] It rings a bell.
Michael: [00:16:23] Unfortunately, but in Polk’s case, he provoked the Mexicans to attack some of Zachary Taylor’s soldiers and then Polk went to Congress and said there’s been this horrible attack on us by the Mexicans. We need a major war against Mexico all the way down to Mexico City which he waged. It was an illegal war and there was a young congressman who rose on the floor of the House -1847 – to say this is, this is an illegal war. This incident never happened. And the name of that Congressman was Abraham Lincoln. Very important for him to have seen this close up what presidents can do. And then the 1890s, William McKinley there was the sinking as you well know of an American ship called the Maine.
Preet: [00:17:08] Yes.
Michael: [00:17:08] In Havana Harbor so.
Preet: [00:17:09] I remember the Maine.
Michael: [00:17:11] Well you remember studying it case and people of a generation were furious about the sinking of the Maine because McKinley and others said it was sunk by a Spain, we need a major war against the Spanish. So we got into this major war. We took the Philippines. we changed the government in Cuba. We took Puerto Rico, Guam, other places. And we knew probably at the time we sure know now, what sank the Maine was not Spain but was a boiler accident. But I guess you couldn’t go to war against boilers so we went to war against Spain – again a war that was not the way the founders wanted. And then the final one that is closer to our time is the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964. LBJ hears that there is some ambiguous evidence that the North Vietnamese have done this attack against an American ship. Johnson goes on TV and says there’s been an unprovoked attack which he knew that if there was an attack, it wasn’t unprovoked because we were doing some things there. [He] gets Congress almost unanimously to allow him to use our armed forces in Southeast Asia. He quickly finds out privately there was never any attack but in terms of legality of all this which you’re particularly concerned with for almost 10 years Johnson and Nixon waged this war in Southeast Asia, kills almost 60,000 Americans maybe a million Vietnamese based on [an] attack that never happened and they never disclosed this.
Preet: [00:18:45] Where then in the spectrum do you place the war in Iraq which was based on nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in that country?
Michael: [00:18:55] That’s an example as I was saying earlier. I can’t really talk about yet as history but I’ll tell you the questions that will be asked. The question that will be asked is did George W. Bush know that there was a very serious chance that there were not weapons of mass destruction? That’s something we will know in 35 years. Right now, it’s ambiguous. And the other thing is that can a case be made that this was the right thing to do? We will know that in decades because we will know what the Middle East looks like. We will look know what, what used to be called the war against terrorism looks like. And I guess as a historian I have to be a little bit careful there because, you know, I cannot tell you exactly, you know, what the outcome will be.
Preet: [00:19:42] Right. Well, fair enough. You know, not to complicate it further because we’ve been just talking about presidents. But you know, some people think that the Bush presidency was actually a co-presidency. And you raise the question of what Bush knew about the quality of the evidence in the intelligence in Iraq. And there was another person who some people referred to as President Cheney. How do you or how does history assess the excellence or lack of excellence of a president in terms of how he is served by those around him? I mean there’s the – the other famous books we’re talking about famous books about going to war: The Best And The Brightest. And there was a disservice done to a president in connection with those times as well. So how do you judge?
Michael: [00:20:22] It all goes on the president because he doesn’t have to listen to his advisers even if the adviser is a very powerful vice president like Dick Cheney who may well have been and perhaps was the most powerful vice president in history. But, for instance, I am very tough on LBJ and Vietnam especially because, you know, I studied these tapes that he made of his private conversations almost 700 hours and the worst one was in 1965 – he’s talking to his defense secretary Robert McNamara who I see as one of the great villains in American history. McNamara had said to LBJ “you must get into the war in Vietnam. President Kennedy would have done it. You’ll be letting down your country if you don’t do it.” And later on as you’ll remember Preet, McNamara in the 1990s wrote a book basically saying it wasn’t me. I was always skeptical of the Vietnam War from the beginning. I say it’s a great thing that LBJ made these secret tapes of his conversations because those were released a little bit later and show that McNamara had been lying in his book. Without the tapes, we wouldn’t know that. But there a horrible moment in 1965, February, the first month that Johnson was sending American forces off to Vietnam and big numbers saying we’re going to win. In private, he’s talking to McNamara and he says, Johnson does, “I can’t think of anything worse than losing the war in Vietnam and I can’t see any way that we can win.” And if you were and I are talking about just about the worst thing a president can do, we can think of a few things but I can’t think of much worse than sending young idealistic Americans off to wage a war, give their lives for a cause that in private even at the very beginning, secretly the president thinks there’s no hope of winning.
Preet: [00:22:16] Can I ask you this? Do presidents who have [a] military background handle the question of war better and with more restraint than those without military background or is there no trend?
Michael: [00:22:27] I would feel comforted by a president with a military background for two reasons. Number one – you know, let’s say Dwight Eisenhower. Dwight Eisenhower kept us out of war seven and a half years. That wasn’t by accident. In the mid 1950s, the French withdrew from Vietnam. There was huge pressure on Eisenhower to get us involved in Vietnam. He said no because of his life experience. He knew that getting into a land war in Asia would be very difficult. Plus, he had empathy with his soldiers. He had been the one who sent huge numbers of Allied soldiers on D Day off to die which he knew in advance. And there was a photograph of Eisenhower in 1952. Eight years later where he’s talking about D Day and he begins to cry. And Eisenhower is not thought of as an emotional person. He covers his face with a handkerchief because he’s so embarrassed to be weeping in public. You find that kind of empathy in a president who has had that kind of experience. But the other thing you want is a president who knows the limitations of the generals. You know, sometimes you hear presidents say including someone we know, well I’ll just leave it to the generals. It’s the worst idea to leave it to the generals. I mean, one of the stories I have in this book is something we didn’t really know the full extent of before which is early 1968, Johnson’s general in Vietnam, LBJ’s, William Westmoreland comes to him and says “we’re stalemated in Vietnam, we might suffer a defeat. I think we should move nuclear weapons into South Vietnam and use them if necessary.” And Johnson basically is irate and he says “absolutely not. If this war goes nuclear the Russians and the Chinese will come in. We could kill tens of millions of people. There could be a nuclear war.” And he ordered all the documents locked up and Westmoreland resigned a few months later. This may have been the reason. I want a president who understands that generals are great on strategy but they have their limitations and they’re supposed to.
Preet: [00:24:37] I want you as someone who’s written books on the presidency and on war and this book about both those issues, to explain something both to me and to the audience that I don’t think is so easily understandable. And that is, who declares war and why every time there’s the possibility of armed conflict somewhere, members of the House and Senate get up and say you have to go through Congress. And there are various statutes including the War Powers Act. There’s a Constitution that you mentioned that some people read more than others.
Michael: [00:25:09] Right.
Preet: [00:25:10] But the fact is historically, that Congress’s role in approving war in a forthright clear way is very limited and hasn’t happened very often.
Michael: [00:25:23] Last time Congress declared war was 1942.
Preet: [00:25:27] So is Congress relevant to this at all?
Michael: [00:25:29] Absolutely. I mean I think it’s illegal the fact that presidents have gotten us into major wars since then without the declaration of war that the Constitution requires. Now why has that happened? Well, there was a moment in 1950. Historically, the North Koreans invaded the South and Truman sent MacArthur and American forces to Korea to defend the South. Great so far. And then Truman’s aides say “when are you going to be going to Congress for the war declaration as the Constitution requires?” And I love Truman but I hate him for what he did next. He said “I don’t have to go to Congress. I’m just going to tell them to go to hell.”And they said “well why why won’t you go to Congress?”
Preet: [00:26:13] Eat manure.
Michael: [00:26:13] He said, “if I go to Congress” and by the way, that’s a direct quote, the go to hell part, sounds just like Truman. And Truman says “if I go to Congress” – this is the summer of 1950 – “I will get involved in acrimonious debate. They’ll criticize me and the administration and about five months from now, I’ve got to deal with midterms. I will weaken my position. So I’m not going to ask for a war declaration and let them try to stop me.” Congress at that point was not going to stop Truman with American forces in harm’s way. And what Truman did in my view was he established an absolutely horrible precedent because 14 years later, LBJ is asked, you know, when are you going to do the war declaration for Vietnam? Johnson said Truman didn’t do it. I don’t have to do it either. And so he gets this terrible Gulf of Tonkin resolution and that becomes a model for all later presidents. If you don’t like Preet the war in Iraq and Afghanistan that was licensed by a lot of members in Congress including a lot of Democrats who were perfectly happy oftentimes for craven reasons to vote for a resolution to use force. Which is absolutely meaningless really in terms of the Constitution but allowed them to say once a war erupted and once that war became unpopular, a lot of the people who voted for that resolution said “well I never knew that this was going to lead to war. I was only voting to approve use of force.” So my point is as strong constitutionalists – I won’t, I won’t speak for you – I feel that we should get back to the habit that the Founders require, that you have to go for war declaration. And if that means that we get into fewer wars that are questionable that may not be supported by Congress or the American people, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen in my view.
Preet: [00:28:10] Going forward if a president wanted to take some action and could do it in the way that modern presidents have without getting a blessing from Congress, in what circumstances in real life can you imagine a president going back to Congress like happened in the ’40s and before? In other words, in what way could a president do that in the future and not look weak?
Michael: [00:28:33] Well you might have, if you had a strong Congress, and you know, a big part of this and you were alluding to it, Preet, is that leaders of Congress have oftentimes been lapdogs. Especially in wartime. I mean, LBJ, I found he dealt with a majority leader Mike Mansfield who hated the war in Vietnam, criticized all the time. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee William Fulbright. Same thing. I found – this was not actually known until my book came out – at the beginning of ’68, Fulbright and his colleagues were talking about impeaching LBJ because of his lies and the way he was running the Vietnam War. Compare that to leaders of Congress during Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve gotten intimidated. They’ve gotten people to say “you criticize the president you’re criticizing the soldiers.” What the Constitution, what the founders wanted, was they always wanted as you know, as much criticism as possible because that keeps presidents from becoming dictators and it also leads to the best leadership. And the problem we’ve got now, if I might take one step further, you know, you might have a Donald Trump or someone else saying I want to get us involved in a major war to raise my poll ratings or to divert attention from a Mueller type report or for some other reason. Donald Trump in 2011 a number of times tweeted predicting that Barack Obama would get the United States into a war in order to get re-elected. That’s a bad idea to be in the mind of a president. But the point is, that is something that is possible. Presidents in wartime can declare martial law. They can do a lot of other things. So if you were worrying about a president with authoritarian tendencies who may, you know, violate various democratic standards that you and I love the time, to worry about that most of all from my point of view is wartime. We’ve got to be absolutely certain that presidents do not get us into major wars unnecessarily and especially after fake incidents like what I was talking about with Polk and Mexico or the Maine in Havana Harbor or the Gulf of Tonkin.
Preet: [00:30:48] That’s a good segue to bring this into modern times and maybe put on a little bit more of a journalistic hat. Let’s talk about the current president, Trump.
Michael: [00:30:55] Sure.
Preet: [00:30:56] And his view of war. Do you think he’s someone who favors war because he favors strength or he’s a bellicose guy? Or is it more along the lines of what you’re suggesting that for Donald Trump electorally it might be a helpful thing to play that way? In other words, it’s not clear to me, given all the other ways in which he’s bombastic and threatens people whether he really is interested in having the fight, and I don’t just mean, you know, war with actual tanks and weapons.
Michael: [00:31:28] Right.
Preet: [00:31:28] Is he actually interested in winning or is he interested in the distraction and is he a big bluffer?
Michael: [00:31:35] I think if I had to speculate I would agree with you that what he’s interested in if necessary is, is using armed forces as a way to help himself politically. In a much more miniature sense, we’ve seen that done right before this election. Can you think of many incidents in history where a president has more blatantly exploited our armed forces for political reasons than this little sideshow down at the border just before the midterm election?
Preet: [00:32:05] Well, we had, there was a caravan coming, Michael.
Michael: [00:32:06] Yes, the caravan is coming and I guess because those forces are there, it did not come and the moment -.
Preet: [00:32:14] They stopped them in their tracks twelve hundred miles south.
Michael: [00:32:16] You know, there will be people who thank God for Donald Trump for having brought that about. Has he been talking about the caravan since the election happened?
Preet: [00:32:24] No, shockingly.
Michael: [00:32:25] I haven’t heard much.
Preet: [00:32:25] No, I haven’t heard much.
Michael: [00:32:27] So maybe it was not so great a threat. You and I do not have the luxury of just hoping that he will not do something like what we’ve just discussed. We’ve got to be a hawk-like. We’ve got to be vigilant. We have to sleep with one eye open always and watch him carefully to make sure that there is not the danger that he will do things for political reasons that might lead to a major war that he doesn’t even expect.
Preet: [00:32:51] I mean, he also seems to do a little bit of the opposite. So he has these meetings with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and even though the threat seems to remain, and as recently as this morning the New York Times reports that there’s continued activity in North Korea.
Michael: [00:33:06] Even more than before.
Preet: [00:33:07] Even more than before and I don’t know what the reaction has been and maybe it will be a reaction between now and the time this podcast drops but in some ways Trump has taken the opposite approach of what you describe in history. So rather than take a small incident and blow it up into a big one to cause a war, he’s taking in some measure real threats and dismissing them and just proclaiming that there are no more missiles coming and that there’s peace and that he solved the problem. Have you seen that before?
Michael: [00:33:38] Well, given the choice between the two I sure would rather see that. But what I am worried about is that he will do all sorts of things for politics that we haven’t seen with other presidents. The magnitude of the lies, the exploitation of our armed forces. What I’m worried about is he might remember, for instance, that in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, George H.W. Bush’s poll ratings went up to 90 percent. And if, you know, again we’re totally speculating, but if you’re Donald Trump and you’re feeling unloved and your political situation is getting out from under, you know one, one way of hauling it back – I hope he does not think in these terms – might be to use military force. I hope it never happens.
Preet: [00:34:26] What are the odds in the lead up to the 2020 election, Donald Trump bombs Canada?
Michael: [00:34:30] And maybe given his misuse of history, bombs Canada because, as he said earlier, he thinks that Canada was our chief enemy in the War of 1812. So he’s retaliating except for it’s only about two centuries late.
Preet: [00:34:47] There could be a caravan in Ottawa, you don’t know that.
Michael: [00:34:49] Right, a caravan from Ottawa that’s threatening threatening Northern Michigan which voted for him, the electoral college in 2016. So he feels personally threatened.
Preet: [00:34:59] Let’s talk about a couple of other things that you have given strong opinions about in recent times. So last week, we saw whether you want to call it a firing or resignation. It’s, I guess it’s a forced resignation of Jeff Sessions. I think you said that what happened with Jeff Sessions was ten times worse than Watergate.
Michael: [00:35:15] I said it was ten times worse than Nixon if this is going the way it looks. And what I meant by that is putting someone in like Whitaker as an Acting Attorney General who has declared himself as being opposed to the Mueller investigation. If you are worried about a president obstructing justice and I think that’s what it would be by shutting down this investigation, that’s why this Attorney General was appointed. Or this Acting Attorney General. That’s something we never saw Nixon do.
Preet: [00:35:49] What’s funny about all this and I go back to that theme of your analysis about how we make mistakes in day-to-day judgment that are not borne out by history is it depends on how the bad decisions turned out. So I don’t know what the press was saying but I imagine in 1961, there were some people who are not pleased that the President of the United States John Kennedy appointed his actual brother at age, I think 35, to be the Attorney General.
Michael: [00:36:15] Many people were displeased including the Democratic Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn.
Preet: [00:36:19] And they should’ve been.
Michael: [00:36:20] Who told JFK not to do it. And also as you know a law was passed by Congress later that decade.
Preet: [00:36:26] Yes.
Michael: [00:36:27] Called the Bobby Kennedy law so it would never happen again.
Preet: [00:36:29] But if you walk around, you know, a history class, history has not looked that unkindly on that act even though it was probably a bad idea, should never have happened, can never happen again. And that law was passed. So how do we know for certainty that some of these decisions with respect to Jeff Sessions and Whitaker and others are as terrible as they look in the moment?
Michael: [00:36:51] Well, some things I think are pretty clear and real time. For instance, the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon should not have done. And if the appointment of Whitaker does result in, you know, stopping the Mauler investigation and what Rudy Giuliani predicted that Trump would try to use executive privilege to conceal the Mueller report, there are some things that you don’t need four decades and I think that’s one of them. And also I think Preet if people like you or me, if we feel strongly about this and we don’t talk about these things in real time, doesn’t help very much four decades later when I think the survival of our democracy is in real question.
Preet: [00:37:31] Do you think that?
Michael: [00:37:33] I do.
Preet: [00:37:33] And what’s the greatest threat to it?
Michael: [00:37:35] I think the greatest threat is you know what Mueller was hired to investigate, which is, at least the possibility that the sitting president of the United States has a possible covert relationship with Russia. Has or had. A hostile power. That is something that goes so far beyond Nixon, I can’t begin to tell you.
Preet: [00:37:57] Now putting on your historian hat again, are there things that you are concerned about that are happening at the moment with respect to transparency or the keeping of records that you think will make it difficult for people like you and others to make an assessment about what was going on?
Michael: [00:38:11] Certainly I am. I’m particularly worried with Donald Trump because of the reports that we’ve gotten that things are destroyed which would be illegal if that happens. There are laws to preserve presidential papers. It’s a more general problem that even goes back beyond him. Because, for instance, in this book when I write about Franklin Roosevelt, let’s say, a lot of people around Roosevelt kept diaries. His wife wrote these great letters – Eleanor – for instance, there is one line in one of her letters. She says “more and more I think that Franklin is a great man but he treats me like a stranger.” You know, people wrote letters in those days that told you so much. Nowadays, we’ve got e-mails, we’ve got some memoranda of conversations but it’s not the same thing. I mean, I learned more than anything else about LBJ from these almost 700 hours of the secret tapes. They tell you what he was saying in private. And the emotion in his voice – problem is, that nowadays a new president whether it’s Donald Trump or anyone else, they’re told two things on the first day in office if not before. Usually by the White House counsel. Number one, keep as few records as possible because they might be leaked to a media organization or there might be a special prosecutor. You don’t want those things to exist. So the result is that modern presidents even – not just Donald Trump – they don’t keep these records and it’s going to lead to the ultimate cover up because people like me three or four decades later will not have the ability to get into a president’s head and figure out what was really going on.
Preet: [00:39:48] You’ll have to rely on Omarosa.
Michael: [00:39:50] Omarosa or…
Preet: [00:39:52] …And Michael Cohen.
Michael: [00:39:53] Other people who are writing press releases. And it’s, it’s not a very happy prospect.
Preet: [00:39:59] You’ve written about the importance of branches being independent from each other. We’ve talked about Congress versus the presidency. But there’s also that third branch that that Matt Whitaker at some point called the inferior branch. I don’t think that’s how it’s described in the Constitution.
Michael: [00:40:12] No.
Preet: [00:40:13] But there should be independence of the court as well.
Michael: [00:40:15] Which I am deeply worried about.
Preet: [00:40:16] And in particular with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, how deep is your worry there?
Michael: [00:40:23] Very deep for a couple of reasons. First of all, this was a vacancy that Donald Trump created by most accounts on his own or at least hastened by using his relationship with Anthony Kennedy’s son by what we’re hearing who was his banker which is already a relationship that’s a little bit closer I think than comfort would require to talk to Kennedy and perhaps encourage him to leave the court earlier with a promise. And again we’re relying on reports and maybe the reports are wrong. But if the reports are right on the promise that you know he would appoint a successor that Anthony Kennedy might be happy with, even one of his former clerks. So Brett Kavanaugh was appointed. And the way that happened makes me even more worried because at the time that Kavanaugh got into his troubles, as you know, he spent a lot of time at the White House, a lot of time with Trump’s political advisers, if not Trump himself, who essentially I assume said this is the way this is done, “tell us your most potentially damaging secrets so that we can protect you in the hearings.” I hope it didn’t happen this way. But the point is that because of what happened in that confirmation I think he is closer to the president who appointed him than most justices in history that I can think of.
Preet: [00:41:42] Although there’s an example that I’ve written about with respect to President Johnson, Lyndon Johnson.
Michael: [00:41:46] More than one.
Preet: [00:41:47] And Abe Fortas.
Michael: [00:41:48] Absolutely. A negative example. Abe Fortas was Johnson’s crony. Johnson put him on the court, I believe, as almost a spy for Johnson on the Court. Spent a lot of time with Fortas and I’m sure he asked him what’s going on on the Court. You know, if I do a bill such in such a way as less likely to be declared unconstitutional. He even used Justice Fortas to write his speeches and to help him choose bombing targets in Vietnam. Totally inappropriate. Or Harry Truman in 1952.
Preet: [00:42:21] Can we just pause to pause on that for a second? Because that’s astonishing. I don’t even have a comment about it because I’ve read, I’ve read that. And the idea that a sitting Supreme Court justice was helping to choose military targets in Vietnam is something that came to light when?
Michael: [00:42:41] It came to light years later. There is evidence of it in the Johnson library. You see photographs, for instance, of LBJ dealing with the Detroit riots in 1967. And guess who’s in the Oval Office leaning across his desk advising him? Justice Fortas. Shouldn’t have happened.
Preet: [00:43:00] So it doesn’t get a little bit suggest to defend Trump again, which is not my usual practice.
Michael: [00:43:05] Yeah, I’m really enjoying watching this Preet. This is, this is a new experience.
Preet: [00:43:10] I just want to put things in perspective. Look, I’m horrified by everything going on.
Michael: [00:43:13] Of course.
Preet: [00:43:14] Here’s a problem as I see it. There were various presidents who made mistakes, whether it’s overly close relationship with a Supreme Court justice or exaggerating an incident to take us into war or not having a good enough view of the Constitution or putting people in internment camps. And Trump defenders can point to each of those things and I get it. And to say, well what is happening here, this particular thing is not as bad as this other thing that happened 75 years ago. I think the problem is that this president as far as I can see without the benefit of the passage of time is that he’s deficient in all of the areas at the same time. And so it may be true, Lincoln was not perfect. FDR was not perfect. Truman was not. Obama was not. No one is. But the pure aggregation of issues – lack of empathy, lack of understanding of history, lack of character – all those three things that you said are equal and essential are all lacking dramatically here and maybe that’s the difference.
Michael: [00:44:15] I think that’s true. And in terms of the Supreme Court specifically and I think also more generally, you know, if you or I were talking two or three years ago, before Donald Trump came to office, and let’s say, we were talking about Abe Fortas, I think you or I would have said two or three years ago, those are terrible negative role models for justices in American history. People realize that now and we’re not likely to see that ever again or at least in our lifetime. He’s shattering one democratic standard after another. And on the Court what I’m terrified by is this. There’s a very serious chance that Trump cases will come up to this Court and those cases and how they’re resolved could determine, I think it is not too much to say, if you and I are living in a democracy five or ten years from now or our children are, and in 1974, wonderful example, US v. Nixon came to the Supreme Court. Nixon had appointed, what, four of those justices including the Chief Justice? Nixon cynically assumed that at least some of them would vote in his favor out of the feeling that they owed him. And instead it was eight to nothing. And one of one of those justices recused himself as he should have – William Rehnquist – because he had been appointed by Nixon earlier to the Justice Department. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen. What I’m worried about is that that may not happen this time and it could have devastating consequences. I hope I’m wrong.
Preet: [00:45:46] We’re running out of time so I thought I’d mention this sort of at the other end of the spectrum of what you do is social media. You’ve written this great book that’s 589 pages long. It’s right in front of me. But you also are prolific in the shorter medium of Twitter and I’ve encouraged people to follow your Twitter feed and I do it now. I say you should do two things after you listen to this. You should buy Michael Beschloss’ new book and you should follow him on Twitter. And among the things you put on Twitter are these exquisite photographs from history. I don’t know where you get them from, but I love it. So explain to us why in addition to writing lengthy scholarly works on the sweep of history you go on this sinkhole of Twitter?
Michael: [00:46:30] And I must say I recommend Preet’s Twitter feed too which I have been on for a long time and I love and is excellent. One thing I do particularly as you know is these historical photographs and the photographs sometimes tell you as much, but there’s not much of a way to use them because you know, you do a book like mine maybe you can put in twenty or forty photographs, something like this. But oftentimes, they can tell you something about current events. For instance, as we speak we have just been through the weekend in which Donald Trump used rain as a reason not to take his helicopter to honor American soldiers in France. You can argue maybe it was for safety reasons. Maybe he didn’t want to go and used rain as an excuse. So I put up a photograph of JFK and Charles de Gaulle in 1961 honoring American troops and American and Allied troops in Paris in the rain and De Gaulle’s uniform is almost soaked and I just put it up without comment saying what it was. And it got, I think, 30,000 re-tweets and 90,000 likes. People sort of get it. History can tell you something about the times that we’re living through.
Preet: [00:47:41] That’s called shade, Michael.
Michael: [00:47:44] Right. Shade is the short answer.
Preet: [00:47:46] You do it very well.
Michael: [00:47:47] Thank you.
Preet: [00:47:48] Michael Beschloss, congratulations on the book. Thank you for this lesson on history and also on current events.
Michael: [00:47:53] Thank you I’ve loved our talk and I admire you, Preet.
Preet: [00:47:55] Thank you, sir.