Getting to Know the American Presidents

Emeritus UNC College of Arts & Sciences history professor William Leuchtenburg talks his new book, 20th-century presidents, and the personal experiences that shaped his understanding of them.

Portrait of William Leuchtenburg in his study, in front of a typewriter.Photo by Dan Sears
William Leuchtenburg is the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at UNC. He’s written 15 books on the American presidents, eight of which are solely on Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) — of whom he is the world’s leading scholar.
July 7th, 2016

William Leuchtenburg met the eyes of a towering Lyndon B. Johnson in September 1965, as they made introductions in the White House Oval Office. Leuchtenburg spent the next two hours in an intimate interview with John F. Kennedy’s former vice president. In fact, Johnson indiscreetly vilified his predecessor, asking, “What is it that Kennedy ever did that compares to what I did?”

A Washington Post reporter once compared the 36th president to a St. Bernard who licked your face for an hour and pawed you all over. “Johnson was so overpowering that I understood what a commentator once said to me — that you could plug him in because he had so much electric power,” he remembers. “Or, what one of his aides later said to me: ‘He’s one of the only men I’ve ever met that, at any moment, could take off his strap and belt me.’ He was a force of nature.”

Leuchtenburg, a historian who taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for 20 years, has spent his whole life getting to know the American presidents. He’s written 15 books about them, eight of which are solely on Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). In fact, he’s the world’s leading scholar on FDR, a man he’s idolized from the time he was 9 — when he first heard his presidential nomination during a 1932 radio broadcast. Upon FDR’s death, a 23-year-old Leuchtenburg wandered around New York City lost for days. “It did seem as though I’d lost my father,” he admits.

In his most recent book, “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton” (2015), the 93-year-old scholar presents an anecdotal account of our nation’s 20th-century presidents. Each one overflows with wit and intrigue, and reads more like a literary novel than a history book. His words are shaped by research and real-life experiences — he’s met a handful of these leaders, some of whom had a greater impact on his life than others. Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson are two of them, both of whom were forced to follow in their predecessors’ shadows. Here’s a view of their lives from Leuchtenburg’s perspective.

The go-getter who never gave up

“It’s really too bad about Harry,” Leuchtenburg told a coworker. It was 3 a.m. in Kansas City on election night in 1948, and the results for the nation’s 33rd president still hadn’t been announced. Like most of the country, Leuchtenburg was sure Harry S. Truman would be defeated. “Truman was ahead,” he recalls, “but a famous T.V. announcer at the time, H.V. Kaltenborn, told viewers to keep waiting for the rural return.”

Nobody thought a president succeeding the man who got America through the Great Depression and most of World War II would survive a second term. “Truman was always talked about and depicted as the little man following FDR,” Leuchtenburg explains. But, in truth, he was a man of average height and full of surprises.

Upon entering the presidency after FDR’s unexpected death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945, Truman was anything but “Mr. President” to both the American people and those in the White House, according to Leuchtenburg’s book. In fact, it wasn’t until two weeks after he took office that Secretary of War Henry Stimson felt confident enough to tell him about the atomic bomb. Four months later, Truman approved the drop of what he called “the most terrible thing ever discovered” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered five days later.

The war ended. And the strikes began. Workers in the automobile, steel, and railroad industries protested for one year after the war. No one thought Truman would be reelected.

But he persevered. He created the Department of Defense, National Security Council, Central Intelligence Agency, Atomic Energy Commission, and was the first president since Abraham Lincoln to truly make a stand for civil rights. In 1946 — nearly 20 years before John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act passed — he established a President’s Committee on Civil Rights. He desegregated the military and was the first president to ever address the NAACP.

And no one thought he’d be reelected.

Truman campaigned hard. He traveled more than 30,000 miles by train across the country, stopping in nearly every major city, met by hundreds of thousands of Americans waiting to see what the “gone goose” had to say. He spoke of civil rights and the housing crisis, criticized the Republican Party, and fulfilled his promise to “give [the American people] hell.” He gave 271 speeches and won over his listeners.

Still, no one thought he’d be reelected.

At 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, Leuchtenburg stopped for breakfast at a Kansas City drugstore. A radio announcer came on the air to report that the presidential election was still in doubt, but had come down to the state of Ohio. “The music came back on, but was again interrupted by the radio announcer,” Leuchtenburg remembers. “Harry Truman — to everyone’s astonishment — had been reelected president.

“I think his victory in 1948 is a result of two things,” he explains. “One, he took the initiative on civil rights to an extent that neither FDR nor anybody before Truman ever had. And the other was that, at a time when Western Europe was facing devastation, he became the sponsor of the Marshall Plan to provide U.S. aid to England, France, and other countries of Western Europe. Plus, FDR left him a legacy of a voting coalition that Truman, by his combative campaign, was able to bring to the polls in a fashion that nobody anticipated was possible.”

The poverty fighting bulldog

On a fall day in 1963, Leuchtenburg and Harvard historian Franklin Ford sat on the 50-yard line of Harvard Stadium, engrossed in a football game against Columbia University. Three seats over sat Harvard President Nathan Pusey and his wife. “During the second quarter, there was a rustle in the stands and people rose from their chairs,” Leuchtenburg says. “For a few minutes, you couldn’t tell what was happening. Then, President Kennedy appeared with his entourage. He stopped at our aisle to shake hands with President Pusey. He could not have looked more full of life.”

Three weeks later, around midday, Leuchtenburg headed to his local shoe repair store in Dobby Ferry, New York. Upon entering the shop, he noticed the owner wore an odd expression on his face. “He looked stunned,” Leuchtenburg says. “I thought maybe he was having some kind of psychotic episode. And then, finally, he blurted out: ‘The president has been shot.’” Leuchtenburg bolted out of the shop, hopped in his car, and sped home, where he flicked on the television. “President Kennedy is dead,” a reporter announced. “It was the first time my children probably ever saw me crying,” Leuchtenburg recalls.

Like Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson lived in the shadow of his predecessor.

“There were a whole series of Kennedy supporters who couldn’t stand the sight of Johnson,” Leuchtenburg explains. “They treated him as though he was a usurper. There were even some people who thought Johnson was responsible for Kennedy’s murder. That’s, of course, extraordinarily excessive and completely groundless. But whatever Lyndon Johnson did, there were people saying that all he was doing was carrying through Kennedy’s program or that Kennedy would have done it better.”

But, also like Truman, Johnson persevered. Shortly after JFK’s death, he called upon Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to honor the work of his predecessor. He declared a “war on poverty” and established the Economic Opportunity Act, which created a Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Head Start, Community Action Program, and the Food Stamp Act of 1964. He also convinced Congress to make an $11.5 billion tax cut. By the end of 1965, 1 million unemployed Americans found jobs. By 1969, the poverty rate had decreased by 9 percent since 1959.

The Civil Rights Act finally passed five months later and created an Equal Opportunity Commission to ensure fairness in hiring. Immediately after, Johnson knew in his heart that the decision would cost him the support of most southern states.

In 1964, Leuchtenburg worked as an election analyst for NBC, writing material for anchors David Brinkley and Chet Huntley. On election night, “it was so clear well ahead of time that Johnson was going to win,” he says. “I wrote the script for the election the Saturday before Election Day — that’s how obvious it was what the results would be. And that was the only time I’d known anything like that to happen.”

On Nov. 3, 1964, Johnson won 44 states and Washington, D.C., making his win the biggest popular majority in American history. He became the first president of a southern state to make it to the White House since Zachary Taylor in 1848. “When the returns came in 1964, showing this enormous Johnson victory, reporters expected him to be elated,” Leuchtenburg says. “Instead, they found him crabby. When they puzzled out why, it was because his returns didn’t exceed that of FDR’s in 1936. Roosevelt stood in his way of having a higher reputation in the history books.”

The man who was there

From the campaign trail to the White House to the news desk, Leuchtenburg was there for most of the 20th century presidents. He spent countless hours with Eleanor Roosevelt after FDR’s death, helped Robert Kennedy organize JFK’s historical archives after his assassination, and, quite literally, was on the receiving end of a clumsy Gerald Ford crashing into him while waiting in a cafeteria line for lunch. “I had always thought that the newspaper accounts of Ford’s clumsiness were unfair to him,” he says. “He had, after all, been an All-American football player. After this, I thought the press might have had a point.”

For more than 30 years, he’s worked with American filmmaker Ken Burns on documentaries like “Baseball,” “Prohibition,” and “The Roosevelts.” And he’s given lectures on the American presidency nearly everywhere imaginable, from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, to Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, to Moscow State University in Russia.

With all these accomplishments under his belt, he considers “The American President” to be the “perfect capstone of [his] career.” But, in truth, he’s not quite done yet. Today, he’s working on three different books, but his focus rests on a history of the American presidency from the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to 1900. “How many of these are going to be carried to completion is yet to be seen,” he says, “but I’m certainly going to do my best.”

William Leuchtenburg is the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of History at UNC-Chapel Hill. He taught history for 20 years there before retiring in 2002. Prior to that, he taught at Columbia University for 30 years. He’s written 15 books on the American presidents, eight of them on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of whom he’s considered the leading scholar in the nation.