[Note: Writer Working has taken a long hiatus here because of travel, during which a fair amount of disappointing reading got done but nothing worth commenting on here.]
Michael Beschloss covers a lot of familiar ground in his own version of JFK’s Profiles in Courage, but Presidential Courage provides new views of the territory. From Washington’s defense of the John Jay treaty with Britain to Reagan’s conflicts with disarmament and SDI, Beschloss gets down into the seamy and distasteful combat, the raw struggles with their own ideas and character flaws that the presidents faced over the issues of their day.
Despite his venerated status, Washington was in danger of impeachment over the treaty. He took high moral ground, but the steps to the high ground started in the gutter with a jeering, name-calling congress and press. JFK was dragged into the civil rights struggle kicking and screaming because he considered other issues–mostly international ones–more important and wanted the Negroes to please wait until a better time. They wouldn’t, of course, and he was forced to champion–and eventually see they were right–the cause of desegregation and voting rights. Ironically, the congressional act that brought these things to fruition probably wouldn’t have happened without his assassination.
Reagan gets widespread credit for ending the cold war because his insistence on the star wars missile defense reputedly made it too expensive for the Soviets to continue their opposition to the west. This is a simplistic, monochromatic explanation of the events, but he believed in that (and in many other things, such as imminent armageddon), and that belief gave him the guts (if not the sagacity) to stand up to Gorbachev.
Other instances, such as Lincoln and emancipation, Jackson and his fight over the national bank, Truman and Israel, all paint pictures of men who overcame intense personal distaste or prejudice to act in the interest of the common good. Probably Truman’s anti-semitism is the most egregious example of a man overcoming inner demons.
It’s an interesting, if not particularly inspiring account of these men and their struggles, and worth the read.