Contemporary Issues Forum discusses greatest presidents, 2016 election

Michael Beschloss, a New York Times colmnist and Emmy award winning contributor to NBC and PBS Newshour, shared thoughts on presidents and the upcoming election at the Contemporary Issues Forum on Wed., April 13 at the Jorgensen Theater. (Jackson Haigis/Daily Campus)

In an election year, no one can escape the barrage of political ads and debates. Authors and historians like Michael Beschloss, however, live for this kind of discussion. Beschloss brought his analysis of what makes an American president great and how the current candidates stack up to the Contemporary Issues Forum Wednesday evening.

Beschloss is an award winning presidential historian and the author of several books.  He is a New York Times columnist and an Emmy award winning contributor to NBC news and the PBS Newshour.  Beschloss shared many unique and insightful viewpoints during the lecture.

“I thought the event was eye opening to see someone who has studied as much as Michael has.  Someone in his position doesn’t have the same bias because they are reflecting on the past and it provides a totally new point of view,” said Kelley Gifford, a freshman at E.O. Smith High School. “The further away you get from the moment, the point of views diminish, but in this instance we [the audience] are given the chance to make our own assessments,” she said.

The best way to understand a president, Beschloss argued, is not typically through the traditional means that people study history. Instead, Beschloss told a series of entertaining anecdotes that he had learned about various presidents and their administrations. One such story involved President Lyndon B. Johnson driving his semi-amphibious car into a river with a terrified intern in the passenger to seat to see what he would do.

“[Johnson] wanted to find out, when the crunch comes, will they try to save their president or themselves?” Beschloss said. “These are things you may not think of in terms of study a president, but they can show you a lot.”

These kinds of stories are unique to the job of a presidential historian and it was one of many he shared at the event.  After his lecture, Beschloss and UConn President Susan Herbst had a question and answer session where he spoke about presidential history and the qualities he thinks makes a good president. These qualities included someone who is grounded in history and reflects on it in decision making, the ability to work across the aisle, the ability to work effectively under dire situations and their personal human characteristics.

Herbst also asked Beschloss questions about the upcoming election, including his thoughts on the possibility that no candidate will have enough delegates to clinch their party’s nomination going into their respective conventions.

“I would love to go back to the days when conventions went beyond the first ballot,” Beschloss said enthusiastically.

Following the question and answer session, members of the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions at a microphone placed in the aisle. One alumni attending the event asked Beschloss “to give an example of a president who was adept at identifying their position in the moment and that would have been aware of their place in history.”

Beschloss responded by saying “No Question, FDR is an excellent example of that. He came into power at a time that called upon his leadership inherent to himself. If he had become a president in the twenties it would have been horrible. One thing that makes a good president is that he or she is suited to their own time.”

“I thought the event was terrific. Michael was obviously really well read and I thought his insights into what makes a good a leader was really well thought out and insightful,” said Joe Goldman, a social studies teacher at E.O. Smith High School.

Although the upcoming presidential election is likely to be unpredictable, Beschloss said that he knows it will be fascinating, and may change the way that Americans view their democracy.

“This is all likely to be very unpredictable…It will be absolutely fascinating to see what this means for our democracy,” Beschloss said.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.

Matthew Gilbert is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.gilbert@uconn.edu.