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tv   Brian Lamb Susan Swain Jeffrey Rosen Michael Gerhardt Robert Strauss...  CSPAN  May 16, 2020 11:30am-12:51pm EDT

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slow down rapid heartbeats benjamin, i wish i had known that during my younger years when i was first called. announcer: join thomas jefferson and monticello this sunday at 3 p.m. pacific here on american history tv. next on the presidency, a discussion at philadelphia's national constitution center with three contributors to c-span's book, the presidents. noted historians ranked the best and worst chief executives. we hear from jeffrey rosen, michael gerhardt, and robert strauss. his book is about james buchanan.
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>> ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the constitution center. i am the president of this institution and this is such a happy day to celebrate the collaboration between the national constitution center and c-span. [applause] c-span has a mission to bring unfiltered information about the u.s. government to american citizens and that coincides with the constitution center's mission which i want you to reside along with me to inspire our guests and viewers. the national constitution center is the only institution in america chartered by congress to disseminate information about the u.s. constitution on a nonpartisan basis. beautiful. that was so well done. [applause]
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i was so thrilled when my friend and colleague susan swain, the head of c-span, came just a few months ago, or rather weeks ago, and said, we have this great new book on the president's. let us launch it at the national constitution center. it is such an honor to welcome back to the constitution center the great founder of c-span, brian lamb. [applause] he is america's greatest interviewer. i was honored to be interviewed by him for this book, as were my colleagues. welcoming him back to the center is so meaningful. now to introduce this program, it is a special pleasure to welcome back to the center, because susan has been here so many times, susan swain, among her many other virtues, a philadelphia woman. her relatives are here. please welcome susan swain. [applause]
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susan: it is a delight to be back. i always have the bad luck to follow him. it is hard to replicate that enthusiasm, but we are delighted to be here once again. welcome you all as you heard, this is my hometown, and in addition to our partnership with the constitution center, and we have the shared vision of informing you, although we do it in different ways, i am delighted to have some of my family members here, which makes it a very special occasion. thank you for coming today. guess what? it is c-span's 40th anniversary. 1979 in march the house of representatives went on television for the first time. the cable television industry created a service called c-span to bring congress into your living room 40 years ago. it is a not-for-profit company. our mission, as jeff said, is to give you unfiltered access so you can decide for yourself what is happening in washington. since we are in comcast home
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territory, i want to tell you the comcast folks are our largest cable affiliate and they have been on our board of directors since our founding and they are an important part of what c-span is today. so many thanks to them for what they have done for us for these 40 years. when we talked about c-span's 40th anniversary, we said, what are we going to do to celebrate this in a meaningful way? we decided to do this book, called "the president's," and that is subtitled noted historians rank america's chief executives. the reason why it was important for us is it allows us to showcase two very important aspects of our work over the years. the first is a survey of presidential historians and a real treasure trove of interviews we have collected over the 40 years. many of them done by brian, of presidential historians. here is a look at some of the names of people included in the
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book that are part of our collection here. you will see some familiar names. edna medford, ron chernow, richard norton smith, douglas brinkley, robert caro and others who are well-known contemporary presidential historians. the idea was to bring together presidential biographers featured in the book to talk about something other than the pantheon of presidents who are on mount rushmore. jeffrey rosen has written a biography on william howard taft and was interviewed by brian. as you know, in addition to his work here, he is a professor at gw law school, which made him particularly interested in the work of taft, who went on to become the chief justice of the supreme court. we have known him as a journalist, which he is in his heart and soul, and author of six books. michael gerhardt wrote a book
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called "the forgotten presidents" and brian will talk to him about a number of them. in our book, he has a chapter on jimmy carter. robert strauss is an area journalist. his presidential biography is my favorite title of all the biographies. "worst.president.ever." i'm sorry, but it is your only president, james buchanan. he is from the southern tier, not philadelphia, but he is our state's claim to fame and we are going to learn war -- more about why he is the worst president ever. the organizing principle for the book was the second resource i mentioned, a survey we have done of presidential historians three times. we did the first one in 2000 when bill clinton was leaving office. the second one when george w. bush was leaving office, and the third in 2017 as barack obama was leaving office.
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we worked with three well-known historians, edna medford, douglas brinkley, and richard norton smith as long-ago as 20 years ago to put together a survey with 10 leadership qualities. we sent it out to 100 historians and we worked very hard for geographic and ideological diversity and gender diversity over the years so we can represent different points of view as they are judging them. here are the qualities the presidents are judged on. so you might think about them as this conversation is going to unfold. public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with congress, vision and setting an agenda -- for some reason i always think of george h w bush when vision comes up. and pursued equal justice for all.
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the final one they wanted to add because the office of the presidency has changed so much over the course of our history. performance within the context of the times in which they served. why do we do these surveys? i will tell you a little story. i was standing at the register where the books are being sold and i heard a woman going, why is he on the cover of this book? i don't think that was such a great president. that's exactly why we do these surveys. we want people to get involved, interested, and passionate about our own history. we live in a society where lists do that. our email is filled every day with the top 10 of this or bottom five of that. doing this, even though it is by historians with an academic base, it provides a basis for you to get involved and have conversations around your dinner table about whether or not you think the historians did a good job of rating presidents you know and presidents you are just learning about. who is up or down over the
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course of time we've done this? andrew jackson has secured his place on the $20 bill for the next several years but he has gone down in the survey over time, from 13th place in 2000 to 18. woodrow wilson from six down to 11th. this boggles my mind because i like rutherford b hayes. he has gone from 26 to 32. grover cleveland, 17 to 23. i am sure historians will have some perspective on how society has changed and what historians are looking at them more critically. who is up? dwight eisenhower. when we first did the survey in 2000, ninth place. now he is fifth. bill clinton, when we first did the survey, he was coming out of the impeachment process. 21st place. now he has settled in 15th position. finally, from 33rd place to 22nd, ulysses s grant.
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one of the things we have found over the course of time is those big biographies that become big best sellers influence the views historians and society have of presidents. grant has had some of those in recent years. the top five overall, no big surprises. dwight eisenhower 5th, theodore roosevelt 4th, franklin roosevelt 3rd, we feel a little mount rushmore coming on, don't we? george washington 2nd, and guess who is number one? abraham lincoln. of course. the bottom five. [laughter] john tyler, tidewater virginia's favorite son who went on to join the confederate congress after he left the white house. the man without a party in the white house, he was also buried with the confederate flag on his grave. 39th spot, but not the bottom. warren harding.
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we are learning more about him as the years go by and his active love life. he is in the 40th spot. franklin pierce, new hampshire's only president, 41st position. franklin pierce had a very difficult time with sectionalism and came into office with an incredible tragedy, which i will tell you very briefly. he and his wife had three sons. two of them died before he was elected to the presidency. the third son, 11-year-old benny, was riding on the train with his parents in new hampshire as they made their way to washington. the train had a tremendous accident, benny was thrown out of the train and was killed. the president carried his son's lifeless body back to his wife on the train, and that is how they started the presidency. of course, he had a hard time assembling his cabinet. his wife spent much of the first years in the white house in the second floor writing letters to her departed son. a very difficult personal start and a very difficult time in our
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nation's history. 42nd place, andrew johnson, the first president to be impeached. i will leave it at that because of time. and there is good old james buchanan, mr. strauss. worst president ever. quickly on the modern presidents, ronald reagan is the only one in the top 10 in ninth position. george h w bush at the 20th spot, in between the two adamses. which i think is interesting, since he is a father and son duo as well. it will be fascinating at the end of the trump presidency when we survey again. because we just went through three days of national scene setting of his presidency. presidential funerals are a very important tool presidents use to put their image into public mind for posterity. we witnessed an awful lot of themes being repeated throughout his funeral, about his integrity, as a war hero, being a decent man, etc. bill clinton we mentioned at 15th. george w. bush is in the 33rd spot.
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the last survey, his first time, he was one spot lower. he was in the bottom 10 and he moved up by virtue of adding another president to the mix, i am afraid. he has some difficult things for the assessment of time. it will be interesting over the course of time to see what happens with his rating. and finally, barack obama in his debut in 12 position, a good start to his assessment. we have -- the idea with this is to get you interested and showcase the work of wonderful historians. we have an incredibly rich website attached to this book for you -- yours to peruse at your will. every one of the interviews from which this is drawn is listed there. you can watch the video from it. all of the chapter references. if there is a reference to sectionalism or a certain war, we have linked all of them so you don't have to do the work. you can go through history as you are interested and learn more about that period of time.
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these are the three presidents featured with our three historians today. i am about to turn the podium over. how did they do? william howard taft, his highest score was in administrative skills. does that surprise you? lowest score, public persuasion. it rings true. total score, 528 out of 1000. jimmy carter, his highest score, equal justice for all. does that make sense? lowest score, crisis leadership. there we go. total score, 506 out of 1000. and james buchanan, he was in the cellar for all of them. i'm sorry. [laughter] he was so low, he was 30 points below andrew johnson. sorry about that. his highest score was 41st position, administrative skill, and his lowest score was the number 43 spot in seven of the 10 categories. how about that? 245 out of 1000.
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i can't wait for you to tell us stories about this man. i'm gonna sit down and enjoy this wonderful panel along with you. thank you for your attention. [applause] two things. we are going to have cards passed out for you to ask questions, which we will do the last 15 minutes. also, everyone's books will be available afterward if you're interested in learning more. i want to tell you about our book, because c-span does not make any money off of the sales of this book. the very small amount of royalties we get from the sale goes to the c-span education fund, which makes free teaching materials for high school and middle school teachers. if you buy a book, you support teachers and schools. thank you for your attention. [applause] brian: i only have one quarrel with you. you referred to ronald reagan as the only modern president in the top 10. for someone like me, eisenhower -- [laughter]
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lbj and fdr are still modern. in my lifetime. thank you, susan, and the book not be here without your editing, which has been tremendous. but let me start with our three historians. would you start off by telling us a little bit about why you even got into the writing of history? robert: i was a journalist who worked at the daily news. channel three, among other places. i was always interested in it. my father bought me statuettes of the presidents when i was a little boy, so they were sort of my guide. he bought me a book of facts about the presidents, which is like moneyball for presidents. it tells you when munroe's mother died and all of those sort of things. i was always involved with that. i am also a contrarian, as my wife will tell you.
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to write about the worst president was more fun than figuring out who the best one was. >> it is a good question. i'm still trying to figure out the answer. a couple of different reasons. the first is that i am a constitutional law professor. in my field and my classes, everybody is totally absorbed by the supreme court and focuses all the time on the supreme court. i am fascinated by other institutions that are intertwined with constitutional law. the presidency, congress. i have been particularly interested in how the president impacts the understanding of the constitution and its development
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over time. the second reason, i think of myself sometimes as a child of watergate. i grew up in the shadow of watergate, and watergate shaped a lot of my understanding of constitutional law, particularly the conflict between presidents and congress. and so, out of that shadow we get jimmy carter. but we also get nixon and ford. it also changes i think a lot of how we view constitutional law these days. that is another reason i got interested. jeffrey: i am a journalist at heart, so i only write on deadline and to assignment. [laughter] the first biographies i wrote were assignments. i did not know about either man and i was excited about learning about an underappreciated figure and was excited to share him with the world. i resonated with the writing history because when i was a
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kid, reading presidential biographies was the most inspiring thing i did. i read a lot. i remember going to the library of congress for the first time, the adams building, and being so filled with wonder to think that all of the books in the world were in that building. learning more about adams and jefferson and reading biographies of truman, mccullough's biography about the bookish kid with the glasses who read and learned leadership through reading. the amazing fdr biographies by doris kearns goodwin about how another bookish boy found his life in books, i just resonated so much with these heroic stories and that's why i find writing biographies to be such an inspiring experience. brian: i want to go back to robert strauss's book on james buchanan. all of you can jump in on this.
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it does not have to relate to just james buchanan. he waffled about everything. >> right. [laughter] brian: i picked this right out of our interview. why did you say that? robert: at some point, the buck does stop. the president is the point where it has to stop. most of our great presidents, the guys you had up there, made the decisions. they were not all great decisions. i would say the japanese internment was not a wonderful decision. but sometimes it comes to a head. buchanan was the ultimate diplomat. first of all, he was the best party giver of the middle of the 19th century. [laughter] there are positive things. [laughter] he was apparently a really nice guy, had no enemies, but he was always trying to please people.
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he was a diplomat. he was ambassador to russia and ambassador to england. and he was really good at it -- at, you know, having the czar over for lunch. so, like i said, there were certain things that were good about him, but he did waffle. brian: michael, the carter chapter came out of your book. any of the other 12 other than jimmy carter, were they wafflers? >> they were wafflers. one of the more interesting things we learn about presidents who get rated lowly, it is because they were not wafflers. they were stubborn and sometimes in destructive ways. i would not say carter was stubborn in a destructive way. but carter was not a waffler.
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carter came in with a strong sense of what he wanted to do and part of his problem is he did not listen to other people. he felt he was morally right about different issues. he charged ahead and it turned out sometimes that was good and sometimes it was bad, sometimes it was popular, sometimes it was unpopular. that was the story of his presidency. some of the other folks, william henry harrison, he died 30 days after becoming president. but in those 30 days, he was stubborn. he had to be stubborn in some respects. he had to push against henry clay, who wanted to be the power behind the throne. harrison didn't want that to happen. it turned out to be the defining moment, in a sense, of his short presidency. a lot of presidents end up becoming unpopular or rank low precisely because they will stake out a position, not listen to other people, not react to the context or events at the time, and end up losing the presidency and the historical judgment of the presidency. brian: do you think he is right about william howard taft being
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among the list of the 12 that were the minor presidents? jeffrey: sure, as a presidential leader, and the c-span survey is exactly right. for presidential leadership, taft is low, but on administrative skills he is incredibly high. but the power of michael's book which i learned so much from -- [laughter] no, if you want a book about constitutional legacy of the presidents, read michael's book. he is the only one who has written about their constitutional visions. as michael said, taft is among the 12, characters who are not great as presidential leaders, but have a strong constitutional vision. in taft's case, he was trying to defend that madisonian constraint presidency and congress at a time when the new populist presidency embodied by woodrow wilson was rising up. the question of waffling is really interesting. if you are too sure of your constitutional vision as taft and the other minor presidents
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show, you refuse to engage in the arts of public persuasion. taft said i will not play a part for popularity. if people don't like my vision, so be it. and instead of lobbying congress and speaking to the people, he would write legalistic speeches and expect that would be persuasive. i was trying to think about the difference between waffling and deliberating. the great presidents took a while to make up their mind. if you think about harry truman and the bomb, he did a lot of reading, including literature, before he made up his mind. or roosevelt waiting so long before he felt the american public was ready for world war ii, seizing the moment. lincoln changing the purpose of the world from preserving the union to eradicating slavery. the real vice perhaps is a lack of deliberation, and waffling is not the only way to avoid deliberation. you can refuse to deliberate because you are too sure of your principles in advance and that was the case with taft.
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brian: in the book jeffrey rosen wrote about william howard taft, i cannot remember, there was a quote, somebody called him a great hater. you wrote about him. did you see that in him? michael: he had his moments. and in those moments he could be not just angry but hateful. brian: did it work? michael: it did not work for him. one of the more famous hates he had was for louis brandeis. it was mutual. but i think that ended up working more for brandeis than taft. taft was to some extent, reflective of his time. he, like many people, reacted negatively to brandeis in part because he was jewish. there were other issues, too.
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to some extent, when a president becomes that way, somebody who hates something -- notice lincoln tried really hard not to hate the enemy. even right before he died at his great second inaugural address. he is still trying to hand out a hand to the other side, to find a way to bring people together. great presidents do that. awful presidents do not. brian: robert strauss, can you expand on any of the presidents you studied? were they haters? robert: that is interesting. my guy buchanan did not seem to be a hater. he did not get along with one guy in particular, stephen douglas. that's one guy. he was an influential person. it doesn't seem that there were that many haters. even when you go way back to when we were in philadelphia,
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adams and jefferson politically were against each other, but they had a history before and history after that they were able to -- those political difficulties. it also seems to me that that is part of being a politician. trying to bridge your hatred in order to get things done. brian: tell the story about the charles evans hughes appointment, william howard taft, and the court, and who ended up on the court instead of charles evans hughes when taft was president and why. jeffrey: william howard taft pined to be chief justice of the united states. his father told him chief justice is more than to be president. the best job he had was being on the u.s. court of appeals. he unwillingly becomes president because his wife and theodore roosevelt make him do it. all the time he is still pining
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to be on the supreme court. finally a moment arrives and the chief justice has to be replaced. taft desperately wants to take the seat himself. and he says, i cannot help but note the irony of signing the commission of someone whose job i want. he is about to appoint charles evans hughes, the obvious candidate, the dynamic, young, former governor of new york, admired by all. he's on his way to the white house when the phone rings. it is taft and he has canceled the interview. taft appoints in his place, an overweight southern democrat whose only qualification is that taft hopes he will die in time for taft to take his place. [laughter] so white becomes chief justice and he serves about 10 years, and taft as a former president stops by every couple of years to say, how are you doing, do you want more cheesecake? [laughter]
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tragically, white refuses to expire. happily for taft and without any warning, white drops dead all of a sudden. taft lobbies hard and has done that has to mobilize all of his forces and persuades harding to appoint him and he achieves his lifelong goal. he teed it up perfectly. he goes on to become the second greatest chief since john marshall. it is a wonderful story of forward planning. [laughter] brian: he appointed in one term six members of the supreme court. as you point out michael gerhardt, jimmy carter, zero. all three of you, talk about the importance of or the lack of significant when you cannot appoint somebody. making court appointments
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something presidents want to do it becomes part of their legacy. add taftuld hasten to did not kill white. i'm going to bury that after all. but that is something that is important because presidents can do certain things. i can imagine the current president something happens to justice ginsburg and others hope that nothing happens. fate whatever word you want to use for it ends up presented the presidents with some opportunity. taft got his maybe sooner than and lincoln different opportunity.
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he had to decide, what do we do? the south oaks like it is going to secede. -- the south looks like it is going to secede. i cannot say that carter was pining a way to make an appointment. every president who had served a full term got that chance. carter got none. i think it is another reason why he gets downgraded as president because he does not get to make that important appointment. he makes a lot of influential lower court appointments including two circuit court judges. stephen breyer and justice ginsburg were both appointed to the appellate court by jimmy carter. brian: george washington had 11, obviously he started things out. fdr, nine. william howard taft, six. go to dred scott.
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how that all happened during james buchanan. >> there is a theory that probably is true that buchanan wanted the dred scott decision to happen. what he definitely wanted was he came into office saying he was going to solve the problem of slavery. i do not know that he had a particular solution, but here was this case winding around. dred scott, the former slave, had gone up to minnesota with his master, comes back to st. louis. the master dies. he says he is free because he was living in the territories that were not supposed to have slavery. the court case comes. roger tawny is the supreme court justice. these guys are all related.
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the court is split 5-4. not conservative and liberal as today, but southern and northern. buchanan apparently had the discussion with tawney before he was elected and said, what are we going to do about this? he said, i cannot have a 5-4 major decision. no one is going to buy into that. if you can convince somebody to change his mind -- well, anybody here go to dickinson college? well, you are responsible for the civil war. [laughter] buchanan went dickinson, connie went dickinson. there was a third supreme court
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justice that went to dickinson. went to him and changed his mind. the case was sort of 7-2 but sort of 6-3 with the current opinion. most vile of the supreme court cases came to be because of dickinson college. [laughter] brian: jeffrey rosen in michael gerhardt's book, he talks about jimmy carter. he makes this statement. "he was a tremendously good man." how often -- first of all, do you agree with that? and how often do you say that about the 44 men who have been president? >> before answering that, i am -- i must put in a plug for our new civil war exhibit, which i want you all to see downstairs. which has dred scott's freedom petition. the original petition that dred scott filed. -- an xgned with an ax
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because he could not write. it is that story as you say so well that set off the civil war by requiring three constitutional amendments to overturn the dred scott decision. was carter a good man? i cannot look into his heart but he famously characterized his own heart during the 1976 presidential campaign. he seems to be a good man, but are most presidents good men? is there a correlation between private virtue and public virtue? brian: let me add. >> that is an easy question, brian. thanks a lot. brian: michael gerhardt also said this about jimmy carter. that he had integrity. he was demanding. he was an outsider. he brings up the fact that he gave amnesty to all those who dodged the draft during the vietnam war. talk about the good and the most
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integrity-written president. >> let me start with my guide. taft was a very good man. we talk about him being a hater. that is because he had a strong sense of personal loyalty. when he felt it was affronted, he would lash out. his feud with brandeis was ambition. he wanted to be appointed to the supreme court. he had this fantasy that woodrow wilson what a port him over brandeis. the thing about taft is he made up with brandeis. he was so devoted to the institutional legitimacy of the court he would join brandeis's decisions. they would set aside their disagreements to converge. they ended up working together well. taft shows there is no necessary correlation between virtue. he was an incredibly devoted husband. taft lovingly nursing his wife back to health after she had a stroke and taking hours to teach her to speak again. incredibly devoted to his kids,
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who did so well. robert taft, a republican in the 20th century to his daughter, helen taft who became a distinguished history professor and president of bryn mawr. none of that means you are a leader because leadership requires things like deliberation, flexibility and the willingness to listen to your opponents who may not correlate with public virtue. just thinking aloud, i remember reading one anti-nixon historian who said that nixon was the only truly wicked president we had had. i do not think that is true. i love residential biographies and as a recent biography shows, there was such a human side to nixon. he was so vulnerable. he did a great deal of good in foreign policy. even his failed attempt to connect with his wife and kids, you cannot help but empathize with the humanity of it.
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brian: can i interrupt and say that, evan thomas said that nixon was weird. >> he was weird,, but that should not disqualify any of us. brian: you agree that he was weird? >> yes, he was definitely weird. asking fred malik to count the jews was weird. calling william rehnquist renchberg was weird. he did not like to be touched. there is the sign of him -- the teeth marks on the aspirin bottle. he was awkward, so he could not open the aspirin. for me, that weirdness -- it was the awkwardness which stemmed from his mom and dad. we are here on our comfy chairs. you have to go back to relationships with the mom and dad to understand anyone's character. his weirdness came from that demanding mother.
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similarly, reagan's inaccessibility with his alcoholic father. each of us is complex in his own way. i have not really answered your question about whether you need to be a good person to be a good president. my instinct is no. i guess i would like to know -- brian: the other presidents that michael gerhardt writes about, martin van buren, millard fillmore, franklin pierce, chester arthur, grover cleveland, jimmy carter, benjamin harrison, how about this whole business of being tremendously good and decent? >> we had this -- if you studied history, you probably in high school went from jackson to lincoln, right? there are other guys in between, several of whom he mentioned.
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there is a fallow period of the presidency -- i do not know that historians would always say that, but it is pretty much that congress ruled. we had great congressman. even if you did not agree with jefferson davis or john calhoun's politics, they were prominent men. of course, henry clay and daniel webster. so, i wonder if they were sort of fellows well met. and not made for the presidency. made for the presidency as we view it now as a strongman. a roosevelt or a reagan or somebody like that. >> it is a great question. i think that presidents do not have to be good, but they have to recognize good in other people. they have to achieve something
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good. that is a commonality in the presidents we have rated highly. lincoln was a complex guy. he was a complex character. the guy that has been rated the highest president of all time. lincoln was also something else, which i think is another characteristic of the great presidents. he was extremely good at reading other people. stephen douglas, who you wrote about and of course, lincoln -- had to go up against douglas a couple times. what is really interesting is douglas was a hater. he did not hate lincoln. in fact, when douglas learned that he would face lincoln, he said, -- i am paraphrasing -- i
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really like lincoln. he is a good guy. which is extraordinary coming from douglas because he would not say that about anyone else. he would not say that about anyone else. people who ended up working with lincoln would tell you he is difficult. he would tell you what he was thinking. he would go back on what he said. he was very pragmatic. he had a lot on his plate. presidents have to deal with that. at the end of the day, president -- presidents i think have to think about goodness because they have to achieve something that is good because that is what is going to be lasting. brian: in a few minutes, we will go to questions. i do not know where the little cards are. no cards? ok. we ought to. all right. what are the chances we talk about and think about the presidency too much?
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>> well, they are high. the framers thought that congress would be the most powerful branch, a vortex sucking all else into its jaws. the judiciary would be the least dangerous branch but the chief magistrate was supposed to be a constrained office that would take care that the laws were faithfully executed and that the commander in chief exercising the will of congress, but not a popular leader. this was taft's whole point. the degree that he has constable -- constitutional significance, it is that he marked the year, 1912, that the presidency was transformed from a constrained and constitutional into a populist office when you have both wilson and roosevelt saying the president as a steward of the people who directly channeled their will. then, you have a different vision of the presidency. taft thought it was a threat
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for the madisonian separation of powers that could lead to demagogues and the mob and favor withcurrying factions by making demagogic appeals. therefore, threatening liberty. today, we are seeing the fulfillment of some of those fears not only because of the current incumbent but because of social media, it allows presidents to communicate directly with the people in a way that madison would have found a nightmare. direct communication between the president and people is the worst thing that could be imagined because of the danger of demagoguery. the president is so salient. he occupies so much airtime to -- so we can personalize the government in him or her and the danger is that he will distract us through his tweets and from paying attention to look at the questions of public policy and
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constitutional law that require a lot more time and attention then quick takes. so yes, we are absently paying too much attention. >> we also started with the greatest american, george washington. we started out with a strong president or a least a person who was publicized to be a strong president and a significant man nonetheless no matter what you would have said about his presidency whether you agreed with his politics or not. he was a general. he was a guy on the white horse. i do not know that his horses were white, but he is the single guy. if our first president was martin van buren, we might not have said that. i do not know that the first presidents of other european countries, but i would bet that many of them, charles de gaulle,
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another strongman. maybe that is the point of why we discuss it. >> i think one reason why people think about the presidency a lot is because one thing that gets left out of the equation a lot of times in thinking about great leaders is they need followers. they need the people. they need the people not just to vote for them but to support them. and they need to enjoy interacting with people. taft hated it. lincoln actually liked it. the great storyteller. lincoln would stop almost anybody and say, let me tell you a story. this is part of the brilliance of spielberg's movie. there is more real in that than not. the other thing about presidents is to some extent, they reflect
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something else the american people sometimes want. that is a king. they go back and forth on it. they like to look up to somebody. they want to look up to somebody. the presidency can occupy a position no other leader can occupy, which is key or at least always in as camera. people are always telling stories about them. we have days dedicated to them. not to supreme court justices. not to great members of congress but we do have president's day. it is a little bit of a reflection of how to some extent, we threw off the king. but there is a little bit in the american people that want there to be good in the president so they can revere them and honor them to some extent like a king.
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brian: should we be trying to rate them? i know it is even in the subheading of your book. is it a good idea? let me tell you a quick story and see what your reaction is to this. at c-span, we get a lot of students. for some reason, i get a lot of ohio students. the name of the school remains in my head, not yours. they are great students, great kids. i asked them, what have you done since you have been in washington? invariably they get around to we have been at arlington national cemetery. these are ohio students. i said, what did you see? they said the john f. kennedy gravesite. i will ask them, who else is buried in arlington national cemetery? they have no idea. it is a president that served for four years.
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nine years as the chief justice of the supreme court. his obelisk is within walking distance. they have no idea. they do not even know who liam howard taft is. what does that say about either history or civic buses -- classes? the assassination, of course, is a global story, but fill in the blanks on all of that. >> we rate everything. colleges and law schools and museums and opera houses and so forth. but i think the c-span ratings are helpful. we learned so much about history from susan's incredible introduction of why the presidents were good and bad. and, the fact that c-span's historians identify taft's greatest strengths and weakness, public persuasion, i think that for all of the presidents helps us evaluate leadership shared at -- leadership.
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have heroesps us and put that in a perspective. it makes as have a conversation like we are having now. which i am learning a lot from. your question, which i'm still pondering over, you asked, can you be good and be president, i thought, were the top presidents good? you think about roosevelt, number three. such a complex person. he had at least affairs of the heart if not more with his secretary and spent a lot of time with his distant cousin, walled off from his children who thought they did not know him. an unusual marriage with eleanor. it is precisely that compartmentalization that allowed him in some ways that allowed him to give up all of the empathy. that and polio gave him a
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feeling of empathy with the most downtrodden. he was not able to lavish on his intimates but was the world. thinking about that is interesting. it is important as citizens. ultimately, what the consultation center and c-span are trying to do is inspire people to be good citizens. that involves making judgments on leadership and what you think the constitution means. that is why -- i said we were paying too much to the president on a day-to-day basis, but presidents are the way into history because you need to tell stories. you have to personalize it. you have to connect. you have to be a kid and be inspired to learn more to read those books. in that sense, i think writing -- rating them is fine. >> i think we rate pretty much everything. as jeffrey was saying. i do not know when this became true, but maybe it was always true, that the president is the
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most well-known person in america. maybe muhammad ali was more well known. they had babe ruth and herbert hoover. in general, he is the one who represents america in some way. both internally and externally. i do not see how you cannot say that donald trump is not the most well-known person in america. that makes it different even from the english system, which is parliamentary. the heads of parties. theresa may is not prime minister. who is the next guy? he might last for a few months. iddene a celebrity-r
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country anyway. the president is a celebrity. i know there are a lot of people who must read ashton kutcher's tweets but not as many as donald trump's. >> that's a really good question. is not just because americans like to rate things. it's because presidents care about ratings. presidents care about something else. they care about being remembered. stories help that. presidents, i think, intensely want to be remembered. even not the great presidents. one of the defining things for presidents is how they are constantly comparing themselves to other presidents. even if we do not rate them, they will rate themselves. lincoln right before his second term is talking and basically
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saying, what are you guys thinking? i think i am doing pretty well against the others. that is paraphrased. he was much more eloquent. he was thinking about it. that rating effort is being done not just by americans but i think by presidents. they are thinking, how do i compare against the others? brian: i'm going to ask susan to come up. this is such a trite question, but i love it anyway. if each of you could invite three former presidents to the table for a dinner, for a conversation, which three would you invite? >> of course i would want to have buchanan. you should have seen the list of food and liquor at his inaugural ball. barrels of this, cauldrons of that. now that i have studied him, i
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would want him there. but then i would want him to be compared to somebody wonderful. i think washington in a certain way, even though he was so popular, he was enigmatic. i would like to hustle him down. brian: he had that horrible teeth problem. >> he could probably do ads in between football games. and i would like to talk to nixon too. he seems the most complex of our modern presidents. brian: who would you have? >> i do not think it would be any of the presidents at the beginning of the 20th century partly because they are covered so much. we know them better than all of the other ones. a lot of them are on tv as well. that allows them to be remembered better.
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i would cast farther back. of course, i would think of lincoln. who would not want to sit down with lincoln, hear those stories and talk to him? i will mention another one and that is william henry harrison. let's give him a chance to speak. i would invite him as another one saying, what would you have done in those four years? the other one might be someone like james madison because he was there. and involved with so much not just with the founding but with the birth and development of america. he would have been my third. jeffrey: you have taken madison. we need him back. there is an amazing moment in the civil war exhibit when lincoln in 1840 and frederick douglass discover madison's notes being published. that was the year's notes of the
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convention were published. those are so important that they convinced lincoln that we the people of the united states as a whole are sovereign and secession as constitutional. they persuade frederick douglass to change his conception of himself as a citizen. he sees that madison said should be no position on properties of men. so what an amazing thrill and necessity it would be for all of us to talk to madison and find out exactly what went on. you have to invite jefferson to see if you can have a better dinner party. also, to talk about music and science with him. just channel his genius and conversation, which was supposed to be so incredibly sparkling. i love the question. there are so many. i would like so much to meet harry truman who just seemed so authentic, staying up nights reading. burning a hole in the pillow
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with a bowl because he was determined to teach himself about the ancient greeks and rome. learning about the american century as it was present from this strong, proud, humble, brilliant leader. brian: susan. susan: you were talking about haters before. jeffrey rosen, in our book we tell through our interview the rift between theodore roosevelt and taft and how just like adams and jefferson, they came together late in life. would you briefly tell that story? jeffrey: of course, roosevelt was taft's mentor. he persuaded him to run for president. he said he would be the greatest resident since washington. they have this painful falling out precipitated over a series of misunderstandings and political differences including taft's decision to bring antitrust suit that roosevelt refused to bring. then, roosevelt breaks his promise not to run again.
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taft is persuaded that roosevelt is a demagogue threatening the constitution. he runs for president unwillingly to defend the constitution against roosevelt's demagoguery. he prefers wilson to roosevelt and then reporters see him on the campaign trail after he has denounced to roosevelt. he said roosevelt was my closest friend. he convulses in tears. it was an incredible drama. they do make up soon before roosevelt dies. they run into each other by accident in a hotel dining room. they come up slowly and they approach each other. they start talking and clasping each others hands. the whole dining room sees them and breaks out in applause. roosevelt dies soon after. taft is always happy that they made up. susan: i love the room applauding because they knew their leaders had come back together again. to the questions from the audience. how has the availability of
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universal and instant information impacted our -- presidents which would be , different from their predecessors? michael: well, i think -- of course another great question. all leaders care about information. i think almost all presidents want more information. they want to get informed. why not? you will better understand something if you get informed. ding able to gather information more quickly and better and the developments that have occurred with technology would be something that all presidents would want. and everything about it is you would not want them to abuse it. how they deal with that information is often times the defining thing about their presidency.
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susan: if either of you have thoughts, please jump in. is there any correlation between good and bad presidents and legislative experience coming into office? >> well, in the last election, a lot was made of hillary clinton's resume. there is no one with a better resume, ostensibly, than james buchanan. he was a state legislator in pennsylvania. he was a member of the u.s. house, a member of the u.s. senate. he was secretary of state, he was ambassador to russia. he was ambassador to england. he had been up for a supreme court justiceship a couple times. it sort of came to nothing. he had no great legislative triumphs. he was sort of a last man left to be nominated. he was not exactly nominated for his power.
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they were not going to have franklin pierce back. he was a disaster. it was like the phillies sometimes with the relief pitcher. bring somebody else in. extensively, he was a plotter to the top. i also had a thought that perhaps abraham lincoln did not have a big bar to jump over to become a great president. maybe you are comparing before and after. it is hard to say that about lincoln. susan: do you have a thought on that? michael: i think legislation is critical, especially a presidency that will be endure or be remembered. presidencies are remembered in part because of their speech, their rhetoric, they are sometimes remembered because of the awful things they have done for affairs they had but they are also remembered for achievements with legislation.
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and other president often -- and another president often forgotten or rated low is john quincy adams who achieved no legislative success. while we rate lincoln the highest, and legislation is part of what he achieves, of course, he creates the possibility for there to be legislation done in the future. he saves the union. >> a possible counter. passing legislation as president might be important, but think of how few of the greatest presidents did have legislative experience including roosevelt. minor state legislator in albany and so forth. johnson may be the only serious legislator who had legislative achievements. greatness -- do you have a constitutional vision? not just, do you pass laws? but do you transform understanding of the constitution. there are three republics in american history. the founding republic.
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the middle republic, the reconstruction republic. lincoln is the anchoring figure. then, the progressive era new deal republican roosevelt. that one. when you ask, what is the next constitutional vision, you see ronald reagan aspiring to repeal the new deal republic through transformative supreme court appointments. bruce ackerson was here. he argued that had reagan succeeded in his appointment of robert work, he would have been as great a president as roosevelt and lincoln because he would have been led to a new republic. with one more supreme court appointment, a republican president might achieve the resurrection of the republic. and whether you think it is a good or bad idea, it would be just as transformative as the transformations of washington, lincoln and roosevelt. >> i just wanted to add one quick thing to that.
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it may help us solve the great mystery. often times, people say, about lincoln, he did not really do anything before he became president. didn't have much of a resume. i think one reason why lincoln gets elected is because the -- is because what people cared about in the 19th century is what they still care about now. they care about vision. they care much less about experience than a president's judgment. lincoln had both. many of our great presidents, that is what they have. susan: jeffrey, i'm going to turn to you for this new timeframe. why has wilson dropped so many points? jeffrey: his views on race. the president who re-segregated the federal government is not a president who can speak to our time. that is one important reason for progressives now questioning wilson.
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at the same time, conservatives and libertarians are questioning wilson. george was here two years ago. he is coming back next wednesday to talk about his new book. george says, the defining question for whether you are a conservative today is who you would have voted for in the election of 1912. conservatives would have voted for taft. anyone who voted for wilson or roosevelt is a progressive. george traces to woodrow wilson, the questioning of the separation of powers, the birth of the imperial presidency, the rise of demagoguery. lots of conservatives and libertarians blame it all on wilson. that is a tough series of critics to have from both sides. susan: related to that, maybe for you to start on this, to -- do shifting cultural views impact the ways historians rate presidents? michael: absolutely. part, because we are all embedded in culture. we are all bound by culture.
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presidents as well. they can try and break a lot of things, but they can't recount of their culture. they might be able to change the culture. lincoln's vision encompasses, let's change our culture by getting rid of slavery. let's break the chain so to speak and begin a different way of thinking. then, unfortunately he died. i think culture is critical for a president because it defines the context in which they operate. susan: will take about 10 more minutes with questions. anybody wants to tackle this one? discuss jfk's place. is it camelot? >> he did not pass much legislation. things he wanted to he found not too much success in congress for.
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people who don't like, are in , but inor of our age the cuban missile crisis, we thought we were going to blow up. i would not call it a great successful presidency, except culturally. except the idea that the youth involved. any of these things that he represented as opposed to the old times. it is probably now why we are having a resurrection of eisenhower. we are remembering those old times as not so bad. >> i am thinking as robert was speaking, silence is not something that helps a presidency. this reminds me of one of the greatest stories of any president. that is calvin coolidge. coolidge did not like people all that much. he also was burdened by the
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death of his son when he was president. he also did not like to speak all that much. there is this great story that arises with coolidge when he is at a dinner party. a woman sits next to him and says, i made a bet with someone i can get you to say more than three words. he said, you lose. [laughter] susan: not surprisingly, we have four or five cards that went to ask about the incumbent president. i will use this one. perhaps again, michael, because you just talked about historians being a part of the culture in which they live. will historians be able to look at president trump in a nonbiased way? michael cohen it will be difficult, but that's what great historians have to do. way to beto find a dispassionate about their subjects so they can write about them in a way that will improve
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understanding and enrich our understanding of history. president trump, it might take some time for people to be able to put him into perspective that is what story -- what historians do. he is also a president who cannot stop himself from talking. so the more he provides -- for more he he speaks, the provides ammunition for people to judge and later. inregardless of who wins 2020, it is possible supreme court will overturn roe and gay marriage both of which are out with public majority pro-opinion. i'm going to use the president's ability to appoint and what the majority of the culture might be
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saying in public opinion polls. to help people understand that. >> it is a very important question. we just did podcasts on both of these questions. a plug for the we the people podcast for every week, i get to call up the top liberal and conservative scholars in america. we did a two-part podcast on roe. since 1973, the polls have been consistent that about two thirds of americans have supported the right to choose early in pregnancy and a stronger majority, 80% or more, however have supported restrictions on the right to choose later in consensus was mirrored in the 1992 casey decision. the debate has been transformed with the fascinating new debate of fetal life, when life begins, and the fascinating effort by some states to declare life
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begins at conception. it is not supported by large numbers even within those states. the position does not have a super majority or human majority -- or even a majority support in the writer states. conventional wisdom is you need another supreme court appointment to change the balance of the court cleanly to overturn roe rather than just chipping away at it. marriage equality does have majority support. it is for that reason that many conservatives and libertarians think that even the roberts court will not be in a hurry to overturn the marriage equality decision. even as it might chip away at her overturn roe and that is the answer to the question that over the course of time, michael and many other wonderful scholars have written about those. the supreme court has tended to mirror the broad currents of public opinion on the rare chain -- on the rare occasions when it challenges them. it will often provoke backlashes that lead to judicial retreat. what is so dramatic about this moment we are about to enter
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into. imagine the scenario the questioner signals and what i mentioned before comes to pass. president trump wins. he has another supreme court seat. say the court did overturn roe or even overturn the marriage equality decision, which are not inconceivable. that would put the court in conflict with the majority of public opinion. it could lead to the striking down of federal laws such as regulations that are supported by a majority of the american people. what happens next? the democrats might be talking about court packing, about not funding the courts. the definition of a constitutional crisis is when government breaks down. one branch does not fund the other. these are some of the scenarios that might play out. it is a long way of saying that
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the court get strongly out of step with public opinion and the public has a way of fighting back. susan: this will be the last from the audience. it is about eisenhower inching ahead of truman and wondering what happens considering that truman gave us the marshall plan, integrated the armed and -- armed forces and stopped the expansion of communism in korea. michael: it is another great question. i'm thinking about eisenhower and truman. they did not like each other. it would bother truman a great deal to know that eisenhower just inched him. i am sure that eisenhower would just chuckle. i think the fact that eisenhower to some extent has begun to rise a little bit is there seems now -- is that there is a distance now and we've gained a little more perspective on it.
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eisenhower was a president who was also not a man of many words. he was a man whose deeds and actions -- even as president -- have become important. jeff mentioned earlier, eisenhower had to enforce the civil laws, but it took them some time. much of the story of his presidency is how long it took him. that may be critical. he did not fail in the end. at the end, he ended up valuing something. i will come around to the fact that one of the things that are important our values. cash is values. what are the values that animate a presidency and defined them? over time, the presidents who are regarded as great are those who embrace values that the american people as a whole embrace. president that do not do that, buchanan, fail. president who do that, like lincoln, are remembered. susan: the last question is about our poll. it says, showed the 10 categories be weighted? should jackson's genocide not
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count more than some other categories? our historians made the decision early on to be consistent over time and rate each category evenly. i would argue that the survey does take into account and that is why jackson's poll numbers have gone down in two major areas. pursue justice for all and moral authority. our shifting understandings of his role have affected his poll numbers enormously. it does get weighted in the court of historians opinion. if you are a math whiz, go to that website thepresidents. all of the ratings are there. you can play with the survey results yourself by knocking off one of the categories and see what happens to the results. have a little fun with it. i would like to thank you all for your attention and have you join me in thanking brian for his questions. [applause]
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susan: all five of us will be at the table if you would like your book signed by everybody. we are happy to accommodate it. thank you to you and your colleagues for hosting us. [applause] ♪ >> the presidents. from public affairs. available now in paperback and e-book. biographies of every president organized by their ranking by noted historians from best to worst. and features perspective of our nation's chief executives and leadership styles.
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visit our website,, to learn more about each president and historian featured. order your copy today. wherever books and e-books are sold. group -- transport poses new dangers. the danger of death is worldwide. >> sunday, on american history tv, 1948 film the internal fight. -- eternal fight. >> unwittingly, the traveler became a carrier of deadly germs. the germs stayed and spread. >> and sunday -- >> john hancock created congress as a committee of the whole. ingather amongst ourselves
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individual caucuses and decide how we want to proceed. then, he appointed another committee of five men to draft our declaration of american independency. >> from a virtual tour of monticello with jefferson interpreter. >> i served years in public service and often thought heaven had given me a position, to my great delight, it would have been upon a small spot of ground well watered and for a good market with produce. gardening is one of my greatest delights. >> this weekend, on c-span3. this is american history tv, covering history c-span style with lectures, interviews, and discussions.
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48 hours, all weekend, every weekend, only on c-span3. >> next, scott mingus, co-author of targeted tracks talks about the importance of the cumberland valley railroad. this was a one track railroad writing from maryland to pennsylvania. union used to move troops, ammunition and supplies and was often under attack. the gettysburg center in pennsylvania hosted the stock. >> i've known scott for a number of years but i did not really know scott until i reviewed the bio he sent to me. is a scientist and consultant


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