Historian Michael Beschloss discusses the presidency

Friday, September 28, 2012

In the wake of Charlotte’s recent triumph as the host city to a presidential nominating convention, historian and author Michael Beschloss outlined the qualities that make a great president in a speech at UNC Charlotte.

His visit to campus on Thursday, Sept. 27, included an afternoon discussion with more than 200 students, faculty and staff in the Student Union, followed by a well-attended evening talk Thursday night at UNC Charlotte Center City.

His appearance was part of the second annual Chancellor’s Speaker Series and the 49er Democracy Experience. Beschloss, who has written eight books about U.S. presidents, is the official NBC News presidential historian.

He also is a regular contributor to the PBS NewsHour and he co-authored, with Caroline Kennedy, the New York Times best seller “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy.”

His evening lecture focused on what he considered to be some of the qualities found in great presidents.

One was presidential courage. Beschloss said George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were “willing to do the right thing, even if it’s unpopular, it may not get them re-elected, or worse.”

Another necessary trait was excellent oratorical skills. Presidents must be able “to tell Americans about what might be unpopular and get them to accept it.”  Beschloss said Lincoln was successful with this in pushing for the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War.

A third skill that is needed is the talent to cross the aisle and work with the other side. “I don’t just mean a Democratic president who’s able to work with Republicans.” A president must have the “imagination to understand why” someone with drastically different views believes in them, he said.

Finally, Beschloss said great presidents have a strong sense of history while making tough decisions, often without the benefit of having all of the necessary information.

“These guys look different decades later than they did at the time,” he said, adding that most historians agree that at least 30 to 40 years must pass to provide the proper context to judge an administration’s policies. “You have to know how the story ends.”