two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
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Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989

A-Presidential CouragePresidential historian du jour Michael Beschloss revisits the high points of nine administrations, from Washington to Lincoln to Kennedy to Reagan, and explores how their grace under pressure led to turning points in American history. He explains that these watersheds also came at great political cost; for example, John Adams’s defeat by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 likely resulted from Adams’s negotiations with France to ease escalating tensions between the countries. Beschloss also details Andrew Jackson’s battle with the Second Bank, Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting crusade, FDR’s advocacy of a draft before the 1940 election, and Harry Truman’s support of the creation of Israel in 1948. Often ignoring conventional wisdom and the advice of counsel, these presidents cemented their legacies by making difficult—and, according to Beschloss, necessary—decisions.
Simon & Schuster. 448 pages. $28. ISBN: 0684857057

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Presidential Courage alternates neatly between seedy stories of mudslinging and bloated campaign budgets to almost mythical tales of personal sacrifices. … While Beschloss’ historical method may nudge readers toward inapt comparisons—for example, the current war in Iraq cannot easily be compared to the Civil War or World War II—his selection of stories creates a rich vision of the office and its duties." Adam Goldstein

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 3 of 5 Stars
"As always, Beschloss has sprinkled his accounts with delightful trivia and newly discovered source material that enliven the peeks we get into the struggles inside the Oval Office—even before there was an Oval Office. … Too often, though, all that extra flavor stifles the storytelling." Jim Frisinger

Baltimore Sun 2.5 of 5 Stars
"A talented storyteller, Beschloss packs Presidential Courage with interesting anecdotes. … But Beschloss’ claims for presidential courage are not credible." Glenn C. Altschuler

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]f any book can be said to epitomize the genre of ‘presidential history,’ Presidential Courage does, for in 36 short chapters it succinctly narrates nine episodes Beschloss deems appropriate examples of brave leadership by the executive, which he defines in the preface as presidents making ‘courageous decisions for the national interest, although they knew they might be jeopardizing their careers.’ … I wish, however, that someone had criticized—and persuaded Beschloss to alter—his prose style." Mary Beth Norton

Providence Journal 2 of 5 Stars
"In some cases, Beschloss’ choices are obvious and familiar, but he does an admirable job of portraying them dramatically. … This book is also—surprisingly, given the author’s bona fides—extraordinarily uneven, and not particularly well organized." Stephen J. Nelson

Washington Post 1 of 5 Stars
"Presidential Courage is boring, repetitive and badly written. It tells us nothing we did not know before." Alan Wolfe

Critical Summary

Over the past two decades, Michael Beschloss has become one of our most popular and prolific historians, recognizable from his many television appearances and bankable in the mold of David McCullough, Stephen Ambrose, Douglas Brinkley, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Previous books include Taking Charge (1997), an examination of LBJ’s White House tapes, and The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany (2002). Critics are not as kind to Presidential Courage as to the author’s previous efforts, commenting frequently on a rushed, uneven, and unnecessarily episodic prose style (what Mary Beth Norton deems "the written equivalent of sound bites"). Beschloss’s thesis—that presidents are sometimes required to make unpopular decisions—forces on these profiles a sameness that, despite the author’s research, reputation, and obvious passion for the subject, undermines the book’s effectiveness.