In Columbia, historian stirs emotions about presidents

Thursday, March 11, 2010 | 9:28 p.m. CST; updated 11:39 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 11, 2010

COLUMBIA – Launer Auditorium at Columbia College was filled to the maximum Thursday night for the Schiffman Ethics in Society Lecture featuring keynote speaker, Michael Beschloss.

Beschloss, an award-winning presidential historian who has published nine books, spoke about "The Ethics of Presidents at War." Some may know him from the PBS special "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" or from NBC News. Beschloss also won an Emmy in 2005 for his part in "Decisions That Shook the World," a Discovery Channel series.

Beschloss started the ethics discussion quite candidly, marking his speech with little-known stories about presidents. "I'm really trying to get a bit of an idea of how these people were behind the scenes," he said.

One tale that kept the audience laughing was about the eccentric Lyndon B. Johnson, who went for a ride in an amphibious vehicle with some of his aides. When the duck boat hit the water, LBJ watched to see if his staffers would save themselves or save him.

Decades after an event or an election, hindsight is 20/20, Beschloss emphasized.

"That's why I think history is useful," he said. "As long as we're starting at the beginning, who better than to start with than Washington?"

Beschloss continued by telling six stories about six presidents and the ethical decisions they made, some good, some bad. He placed a premium on honesty in a president. He said the greatest presidents were those who were open and honest with the American people and could convince them that his decision was the right one.

Beschloss recounted stories of George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Beschloss lauded Reagan's straightforwardness.

After taking questions from the audience about the decisions made in the War in Iraq and the Vietnam War, Beschloss made a statement about past and future presidents concerning issues on war and peace.

"All that I ask is that presidents go to Congress for war declarations," he said.

The day started with a Q&A session with Beschloss, attended by faculty, staff and students of Columbia College. Much of the conversation kept to questions of the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq.

Liz Metscher, a freshman English composition instructor at Columbia College, attended the Q&A session and came back in the evening to hear more of Beschloss' stories. Metscher, along with others in attendance, held deep emotions about the Vietnam War.

"His Vietnam War comment just struck a chord with me, to hear how Lyndon Johnson was so torn in his decision," Metscher said.

"I can think of three people from my hometown who died in Vietnam," said Katherine Murrie, a Columbia resident. She added it was hard for her to hear that "pivotal moment where the wrong decision was made."

 Jonathan Dudley, president of student government at Columbia College and a member of MU Army ROTC, had one of Beschloss's books signed and in hand.

"One thing that I wanted to get out of this was to see what he valued in a president," Dudley said. "You saw those presidents who stuck by their guns, ... and in my opinion, confidence is an important value."

An Ethics in Society Lecture takes place every year at Columbia College as part of $1.5 million donation made by John Schiffman in 2000.

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