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Looking back at presidential courage and folly

President Reagan stalks out of a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 about abolishing nuclear weapons. (ronald reagan library)

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989, By Michael Beschloss, Simon & Schuster, 430 pp., illustrated $28

President George Washington's rented home in Philadelphia, briefly the nation's capital, had been, by the early 20th century, replaced by a public restroom. That doubtless would have cheered many Americans during the period that opens this new book from presidential historian Michael Beschloss . It's 1795, and a treaty negotiated with England by presidential envoy John Jay calls for humiliating curbs on America's trade, including with its Revolution benefactor France, in exchange for avoiding a war that could kill the new nation.

Men whose commander Washington had been during the war for independence now toast to his early demise. Critics compose an odious ode: "May it please your Highness, I, John Jay/Have traveled all this mighty way/To show all others I surpass/In love, by kissing of your --." (And we thought talk radio devolved public discourse .) Yet Washington, knowing the country is not prepared for another war with Britain, signs the treaty.

"Washington gave his country a gift that was almost as important as his victorious Revolutionary command -- the gift of peace," Beschloss writes. Almost 20 years later, when war with its former colonizer finally did come, the nation was strong enough to defend itself. The first president set a precedent: A leader "must use his unique standing -- even if it made him unpopular or cost an election -- to convince Congress and the American people to accept unpopular notions that may be in their long-term interest."

Historians will judge whether our current president's war policy and the attendant plunge in his popularity will be recalled as a profile in courage or folly. "Presidential Courage" is an engaging reminder that unpopular presidential acts are not necessarily wrong-headed ones. Beschloss's rundown of nine presidents who defied public or party to pursue the national interest has little new for those versed in history. Sadly, many people aren't, and this is a breezy and fun (if not exceptionally literary) survey.

Beschloss sidesteps hero worship, acknowledging presidents' mistakes even in their moments of courage. Andrew Jackson killed the national bank, a forerunner of the Federal Reserve, in the face of corrupt behavior by the bank's president. But Jackson, who'd flunk high school economics today, failed to put in place a more honest central bank to provide sound currency, sentencing generations of Americans to economic downturns that might have been mitigated.

Two of these case studies resonate in the din of current events. It is one of history's ironies that Harry Truman, who privately used anti-Semitic slurs, officially recognized the new state of Israel in about the time it takes most of us to dress and brush our teeth. Today, disapproval of Israeli treatment of Palestinians reaches many quarters in the United States and Europe, tingeing some of the discussion with anti-Jewish prejudice. Truman's recognition of Israel in the election year of 1948 was marbled with political calculation, but in the end it was principle -- his longstanding admiration for Wilsonian human rights and his belief that a Jewish state, after the Holocaust, was a logical extension -- that guided his decision.

Beschloss's concluding example is Ronald Reagan's 1986 near-deal with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to abolish nuclear weapons. Their talks in Iceland collapsed when Reagan refused to bargain away his "Star Wars" anti-missile defense. But these and other negotiations with the Soviet Union antagonized the president's conservative supporters, presaging today's debates over the right mix of muscle and diplomacy in the fight against terrorism.

Too bad, said Reagan, who lived to see his Cold War philosophy ( "We win and they lose!") peacefully realized. "Like the most effective American presidents," Beschloss concludes, "Reagan ultimately proved that he was not the captive of his political base but its leader."

Rich Barlow writes the Globe's "Spiritual Life" column.