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Presidential Historian Compares Tumultuous Week To Past Administrations


With all the news coming out of the White House this past week, we wanted to step back and reflect how this presidency compares to past presidents over the years. So we reached out to presidential historian Michael Beschloss. He joined me in our Washington studio. And I started off by asking him, how do these past few weeks of turmoil compare to past presidencies?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, what you expect in the first year is a president to get a lot of big things done in Congress, especially when his party has control of both houses. So what makes this last week, I think, stand out even more is that it doesn't come from the backdrop of a president who's done very much. I mean, President Trump, these first six or seven months, he's gotten a Supreme Court justice confirmed. The stock market is up. But aside from that, the legislative record has been more barren than anything we've seen in almost a century.

His poll ratings are record lows, bad relationship with the leaders of his party in Congress who have been denouncing him this week, especially on the heels of what happened in Charlottesville. And another thing that you normally never see, which is his own generals, the joint chiefs of staff making it very clear that they disapprove of the way that he reacted to what happened in Charlottesville. So I think our heads are just reeling.

BROWN: You know, we hear a lot about moral authority in the White House. When the president was confronted this week about equating neo-Nazis and those opposing them, he said, quote, "I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane." And to a lot of folks, that was a sign he was actually stepping back from the moral authority that has come with this office.

BESCHLOSS: I think that's the nicest interpretation. Compare it to 1965 Selma. John Lewis was almost killed. You know, others were injured and killed. And Lyndon Johnson reacted to that by going to Congress and saying, this is a moral issue. We're all outraged by this. I want you to pass a Voting Rights Act. That's what moral leadership is. It's not to say both sides of the demonstration were essentially equal.

BROWN: Well, Michael, from a historian perspective, what are the greatest consequences you see for the country if we are facing some sort of leadership vacuum in the White House?

BESCHLOSS: Well, we've gotten to a point where a president has enormous power. You know, we've talked about relationship with Congress and legislative record. But the most important thing a president does is make war or peace. He's the one who has the nuclear codes. He can send our children to war at the drop of a hat almost. And so that's when the judgment of a president is actually more important than anything else.

During these last six months, we haven't seen too much evidence yet of how he would react, let's say, if, God forbid, there were an attack on the United States. That's something where the jury is still out. I just hope and pray that his judgment is a little bit more reliable than we've seen so far.

BROWN: I'm just curious - what's it like to be a historian in this day and time?

BESCHLOSS: Well, it's fascinating because it's a situation that we've never seen before. You were talking about moral leadership. Donald Trump has made it clear he doesn't think that that is a big part of the presidency. The founders would say, we protected you Americans by making a system that doesn't depend on having a president who's a moral leader. There's a Congress. There are courts. There are generals. There are governors of states.

And I think you're seeing leadership coming from other places. For instance, when Donald Trump asked all those state governors to give up private information about voters, about 40 governors, including Republicans, said, we don't think we want to do that. That's just what the founders would have liked to see.

BROWN: That was presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Thank you so much for joining us.

BESCHLOSS: Oh, thank you, Dwane. Have a great weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.