By Ellen de Saint Phalle, Member, Board of Directors, The Bronxville Historical Conservancy
Apr. 25, 2018: It may take historians 30 to 40 years before they can fully and fairly assess a presidency, but it only took 90 minutes at the 20th Annual Brendan Gill Program for Mo Rocca and Michael Beschloss, with their combined scholarship and expertise, to cover several presidents in an engaging and informed conversation.
From Washington to Trump, the two shared fascinating facts and humorous anecdotes about leadership and the presidency to the delight of a standing-room-only audience.
Conservancy co-chair Erin Saluti welcomed the crowd and thanked the Gill Committee members for organizing the event. She recognized co-founders Marilynn Hill and Bob Riggs for their vision and hard work in bringing the organization to its 20th-anniversary year before inviting Hill to the podium to introduce the speakers.
After thanking Hill for her gracious introduction, Beschloss and Rocca settled into an easy conversation. With his usual good humor and quick wit, Rocca queried Beschloss on what first sparked his interest in history; the role of a presidential historian; his favorite subjects; presidential rankings; the importance of reading history; and whether historians compete with one another.
Rocca also invited questions from the audience, touching on Trump’s pardon of Scooter Libby; whether the presidency should be replaced with an executive committee or board of directors; how Obama’s presidency will be evaluated; Trump’s use of Twitter; the removal of historic monuments; and a divided nation.
Beschloss’s thoughtful responses included detailed anecdotes, including the boyhood visit to Lincoln’s home in Illinois that inspired his interest in presidential history and a much later visit as an established historian at Truman’s home in Missouri.
Rocca noted that the role of presidential historian is relatively new and marveled at the national interest as evidenced by the number of biographies appearing on bestseller lists. Beschloss agreed but cautioned that some biographers become too close to the subject writing in real time, and their perspectives are often clouded by admiration or disdain.
The distance of time, he argued, not only allows for greater objectivity but also often provides increased possibilities for primary sources. As time passes, individuals are more inclined to share their firsthand experiences, and diaries, journals, letters, or tapes often are released after death. Beschloss pointed to the hundreds of hours of tape recordings released years after LBJ’s death and the recordings discovered from Air Force One following Kennedy’s assassination, insisting these primary sources “reveal an awful lot” and allow the historian to get closer to his subject and time in history.
Beschloss also asserted the importance of reading history. Quoting President Truman, he said, “All readers may not be leaders, but every leader has to be a reader.” He added, “President Trump is losing a very important tool by not reading history.” Beschloss cautioned against judging Trump in real time or comparing him to past presidents, pointing out that what a president is known for or criticized for during his administration bears almost no connection to how he is assessed 40 years later. Beschloss and Rocca concurred that the role of every president is to unify the nation and every president is judged on his ability to unify the nation while in office.
Their conversation concluded with thanks to the audience, the Conservancy, and Sarah Lawrence College and an invitation to join them on stage for a champagne reception.
Pictured here: Michael Beschloss and Mo Rocca engaged in discussion on stage.
Photo by K. Salkey Photography
Editor's note: As a public service, MyhometownBronxville publishes press releases, statements, and articles from local institutions, officeholders, candidates, and individuals. MyhometownBronxville does not fact-check statements therein, and any opinions expressed therein do not necessarily reflect the thinking of its staff.