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Michael Beschloss and Mo Rocca Discuss the Presidency at 20th Annual Gill Lecture PDF Print Email


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.


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Bronxville Overview

Bronxville is a quaint village (one square mile) located just 16 miles north of midtown Manhattan (roughly 30 minutes on the train) and has a population of approximately 6,500. It is known as a premier community with an excellent public school (K-12) and easy access to Manhattan. Bronxville offers many amenities including an attractive business district, a hospital (Lawrence Hospital), public paddle and tennis courts, fine dining at local restaurants, two private country clubs and a community library.

While the earliest settlers of Bronxville date back to the first half of the 18th century, the history of the modern suburb of Bronxville began in 1890 when William Van Duzer Lawrence purchased a farm and commissioned the architect, William A. Bates, to design a planned community of houses for well-known artists and professionals that became a thriving art colony. This community, now called Lawrence Park, is listed on the National register of Historic Places and many of the homes still have artists’ studios. A neighborhood association within Lawrence Park called “The Hilltop Association” keeps this heritage alive with art shows and other events for neighbors.

Bronxville offers many charming neighborhoods as well as a variety of living options for residents including single family homes, town houses, cooperatives and condominiums. One of the chief benefits of living in “the village” is that your children can attend the Bronxville School.

The Bronxville postal zone (10708, known as “Bronxville PO”) includes the village of Bronxville as well as the Chester Heights section of Eastchester, parts of Tuckahoe and the Lawrence Park West, Cedar Knolls, Armour Villa and Longvale sections of Yonkers. Many of these areas have their own distinct character. For instance, the Armour Villa section has many historic homes and even has its own newsletter called “The Villa Voice” which reports on neighborhood news.

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