Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers from the Experts about Our Presidents

  • By Talmage Boston
  • Bright Sky Press
  • 500 pp.
  • Reviewed by J.J. McCoy
  • December 1, 2016

A jurist's probing questions about America's commanders-in-chief.

When future historians look back at this 2016 election season, what will stand out is the vociferously binary nature of the political discourse about — and between — the presidential candidates.

One can hope that come, say, 2060, those historians will see what lessons we contemporary Americans came to learn. Unfortunately, of course, we are in doubt of it today, given cable news as entertainment and a 24-hour broadcast cycle accelerated by the rise of social media with its conversational echo chambers geared more toward commercial exploitation than cogent information.  

Meanwhile, we are left to aspire to better ideas and brighter discussions about presidential politics and those who have held the world’s most powerful office. Attorney-author Talmage Boston’s latest book, Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers from the Experts about Our Presidents, gives us such, along with bits of intellectual balm via historical lessons that are applied through conversational anecdotes.

Having the hefty design and subject matter of a college textbook, but the structure of a month’s worth of “Charlie Rose” transcripts (with a foreword by documentarian Ken Burns, at that), Cross-Examining History features interviews about the presidency with notable authors, scholars, and political figures including David McCullough, Douglas Brinkley, and James Baker, respectively.

Drawn from 31 onstage interviews with presidential biographers and prominent White House insiders, the book looks at the author’s chosen list of the 20 “most historically significant” presidents’ personal qualities, political abilities, and subsequent contributions (with Bush 43 and Obama purposely left out because historians cannot yet fully contextualize their administrations).

On average, the results are encapsulated but engaging: 15-page discussions capable of whetting the reader’s mind for more study. While some space is wasted on pointless inclusion of recorded pleasantries (“We’ve run out of time. Thanks so much.”), the well-defined chapters and specified index (e.g., “Jefferson and the Exercise of Power Amidst Partisan Politics,” “Nixon’s Response to the Publication of the Pentagon Papers,” etc.) enable the reader to seek a topic or easily recall a particular point.

At a loss over how Americans chose between a TV personality and someone with a résumé boasting 30 years of public service? Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist H.W. Brands sums it up by reminding readers that “People liked Ronald Reagan. The reason he survived Iran-Contra was the same reason Richard Nixon did not survive Watergate.

“It was not because Iran-Contra was less serious than Watergate. In fact, in the eyes of the rest of the world, Iran-Contra was a much bigger deal than Watergate…But Reagan survived because people liked Reagan, and they didn’t like Richard Nixon. There’s this very simple thing: Political elections, when it comes right down to it, are a popularity contest. If people like you, you’ve got a big advantage over an opponent that people don’t like however smart and experienced that person might be.”  

Tired of ideological intransigence? Jefferson biographer Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia recalls how our third president was “an anti-partisan in a partisan age” between Republicans and Federalists even while he was a bitter rival of Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson felt that Hamilton and Federalists wanted to preserve the privileges of the rich and well-born, rather than “a political system based on the equality of all (white-male) citizens, that would require power sharing.”

Of course, Onuf notes, such fundamental tension isn’t so different today.

“We now have the moral equivalent of an aristocracy, because we have some families in America with dynastic ambitions, and yet voters keep returning them to office. It provides a horrifying image of a republic degenerating into and aristocracy or monarchy. The idea of this taking place in America was a nightmare to Jefferson. It’s why he was so much less concerned about what to do with slaves (since he always saw himself as a benign and benevolent master) than he was about the possibility that the gains achieved by the American Revolution would soon be lost because people like Alexander Hamilton had George Washington’s ear. To Jefferson, if Hamilton succeeded in gaining control of the federal government, then everything would go downhill.”   

Biographer Jon Meacham gauges how the political climate has heated up over the past 40 years. He recalls that while Bush 41 served as a Republican congressman during LBJ’s administration, he voted with the Democratic president 53 percent of the time; during the same amount of time under Nixon, he backed his own party’s leader by 55 percent.

“It tells you that [the elder Bush] came of age in a political universe where people actually thought about what they were voting on and actually thought it was a good idea to work with the president on issues where you agreed with him…He expected that to happen when he became president, and what happened? His own party walked out the front door on him…He wouldn’t have done that to a Democrat, and the idea that a Republican leader [House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich] would walk out on a Republican president was just anathema to him [and] one of the things that surprised him the most about being president.”

In fact, Meacham points out how, some 27 years ago, Bush first fretted about the path which led to where we find ourselves now. During a get-to-know-each-other chat in the spring of 1989 over beers in the second-floor residence of the White House, the president shared his worry with Gingrich that “your idealism may get in the way of what I think of as sound governance.”

Meacham concluded that “it was a different kind of politics then.”

Alas.   

A Washington-based freelance writer/editor, J.J. McCoy was a staff writer for the Washington Post for more than a decade.  

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