Should the Candidates Be Talking More About History?

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Mr. Heffner, a senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., is co-founder of Scoop08.com, a national student newspaper dedicated to coverage of the 2008 presidential race.

At the National Book Festival this past August, Michael Beschloss, an American presidential biographer and award-winning historian, urged the nation to choose a president with historical knowledge—a task he suggests the electorate has ignored in the past two presidential campaigns.

In a Q&A session after presenting his new book Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, a member of the audience asked Beschloss if he could “expound” on characteristics voters should look for in the next president.

“Please make sure it’s someone who reads some history and understands the real lessons. We have never gone wrong with doing that,” he replied. Warmly receiving Beschloss’s words, the audience roared with applause.

With the exception of the blow-up over LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr., history has barely entered the campaign debates in 2008. Why are the candidates and the mainstream media so reluctant to engage in such discussions?

Edmund Morgan, a professor emeritus of history at Yale University and a 2000 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, put it simply.“I suspect one reason is that none of the candidates know much about history,” he said.

Morgan also cited the debate formats as making meaningful historical allusions nearly impossible, “You don’t have two people debating each other and you don’t have a single topic set for debate; you have questions thrown out almost casually by the public or by newspaper reporters. For one reason or another, the debates have not been framed historically.”

Appreciating the “freshness of the moment” is more important than understanding the candidates’ policies in a historical context, according to Joyce Appleby, a professor emeritus at UCLA and a Thomas Jefferson biographer.

“I think they’re good debates of modern policy issues,” Appleby said. “I don’t like historical analogies. They’re usually glib.”

She said it is important for the candidates to understand their own history, but that historical knowledge is “something a little deeper” and advised the candidates to shy away from using historical analysis to govern their policies.

Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt biographer, H.W. Brands, said of the recent presidential debates, “I don’t find these…to be lighter on history than others; historical issues generally have played a small role in shaping presidential elections.”

“I think they would be well advised to pay attention to history, but historically, they don’t. Americans tend to think that history applies to other countries but doesn’t apply to them.”

“A candidate who does pay attention to history might lose,” said Brands--a political risk that Beschloss would be sure to identify as “presidential courage.”

Kathleen Dalton, a visiting professor of history at Boston University, said an historical test would be “perfectly legitimate” and could be used as a “screening device” to see if candidates have a coherent understanding of the past.

However, Patricia Cline Cohen, a professor of American history at UC-Santa Barbara, asks if voters really can measure knowledge of history in their elected officials when “we conduct campaigns with only short-answer expectations for complex policy questions of the present.”

“I don’t expect campaigns will ever be the place to conduct PhD orals with presidents—nor would the general public benefit from that,” Cohen said.

“First thing I would say is that a couple of our great presidents have also been historians: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Not only have we had presidents in the past who knew something about history, but they wrote books about it,” said Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston University.

But Wolfe believes that most Americans are uninterested in history in 2008. “Americans themselves don’t know much about history. Today history is almost taken as pejorative. ‘We don’t want history lessons from our politicians,’ the vast majority of people would say.” Hence, political candidates are less likely to use history to woo voters.

“It’s ultimately up to the candidates [to engage these questions] and it requires a certain kind of leadership,” Wolfe added.

However, he warned that a president’s knowledge of history does not mean that its lessons have been absorbed. “One of the worst of our recent presidents is Richard Nixon who had a much vaster interest in history than other presidents.”

“[I think that] the Kennedy/Nixon debates were a high point—there’s been a decline since the 1960 campaign.” Asked if any particular issue might prompt a more historical-rooted debate, Wolfe said, “If Iraq can’t do it, I don’t know what can.”

As a presidential candidate’s credential, Sean Wilentz, a Bancroft Prize-winning professor of history at Princeton University, sees “historical understanding difficult to calibrate” in the current political environment. “But I believe strongly that the more that candidates’ views and positions are historically informed, the better,” Wilentz noted.

Wilentz said he worries that a more “pointed [historical] discussion” might “detract from debating where we should be headed as a country.” But he added, “An awareness of where we’ve been—not just over the past forty years, but since the founding—informs plans for the present and future.”

From its birth, Wilentz said, the United States has moved to form “a more perfect union.” He believes that the candidates should “speak to that history and to their own ideas about how they would lead the nation toward being more perfect.”

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Maarja Krusten - 2/19/2008

An interesting essay.

Nixon indeed was a history buff. He read history books in addition to the briefing papers submitted to him by aides. As HNN's readers know, I spent years listening to Nixon's then unreleased tapes during the 1980s while I was an employee of the National Archives. If you look at the descriptions of some of the tapes that have been released in the past ten or so years, you see references to Robert Blake's biography of Disraeli. That struck me when I was working with the tapes as I had read and enjoyed Blake's book when I was in college.

David Gergen, who served in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, from Nixon to Clinton, offered some interested insights on history, Nixon and Truman in an interview in September 2000. He said of Nixon that

"He was a serious student of geopolitics. He would had been an excellent professor, so in some ways he was a frustrated teacher. But the other part of it was that he read. He read deeply. I have never met anybody in the presidency who so consistently wanted to read history. And he understood something that Churchill said. Churchill once said about his own life, that because he read so far back, he thought he could see farther ahead. And I believe that to be true.

Nixon, when he was president, asked Pat Moignahan [posted transcript misspells that, it should be Moynihan], who was serving as his counselor in the beginning, to give him a list of books that he might read because he often woke up 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. He couldn’t sleep. He was anxious. He was restless.

And I remember how much he…[enjoyed?] reading a book about Disraeli, Robert Blake’s "Biography of Disraeli" and how he talked about that so often. I’ve still got that book on my bookshelf. And how that influenced him. He wanted to be another Disraeli, in fact.

Now you can misread history as we all know. I think he misread history sometimes with regard to de Gaulle. I think de Gaulle was too much his hero. De Gaulle was a great heroic leader in many ways, but doesn’t fit the American experience very well. He was not a small d, democratic. And I think Nixon worshipped him too much. But I do think that sense of strategy came from the fact that he read, and he read seriously.

Harry Truman once said that 'not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.' It’s a nice quote and it comes from a man, who was the only president…Harry Truman was the only president in the 20th century who never went to college, but he read and he kept reading. And he was one of the best educated presidents we’ve had in this country because he read so much.

You go back and read "The Buck Stops Here" or something. He dictated that shortly before he died. He died and his daughter finished it up for him. But it’s all dictated and it’s a history of the American experience. It’s just wonderful because if somebody just sitting here talking about what America was all about. I mean he has a long chapter on Andrew Jackson that just knocks your socks off. It’s just a really brilliant chapter."

Source: UVA Newsmakers at

Maarja Krusten - 2/19/2008

An excellent post, Mr. Hughes, on the challenges of incorporating history into campaigning. Clearly, knowledge of history enhances decision making by leaders, whether it derives from their own prior studies or reading or is reflected in briefing papers submitted to the chief executive by subordinates. But it can be difficult to use in a campaign for the reasons you cite. In some areas, it might be better for candidates to convey a general intellectual curiosity and willingness to learn from the past than to get into interpretive debates.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/18/2008

This idea falls down because Americans do not agree about their history. Often there are no correct answers. You see no "history" section on national testing for that reason, only math and science, and maybe reading comprehension. While most dates and facts are not contestable, many of the more important historical questions are. For example,what is the correct answer to these:

Why did we invade North Africa in World War II? What caused the U.S. to emerge from the Great Depression? Was J. Robert Oppenheimer a Russian spy? Did Ronald Reagan win the Cold War? Were George Washington and Robert E. Lee bad men because they owned slaves?

When you are running for POTUS you will try to avoid every such question, because whatever your answers you will lose support among listeners who disagree. If your opponent has a position different from yours, of course, you may choose to argue such a matter of history in order to help your cause, but not otherwise.

Michael Glen Wade - 2/18/2008

Excellent piece on an important, almost completely ignored issue. I intend to spread it about my Department (History!). And thanks to Tony Platt for the suggestion about Obama.

Tony Platt - 2/18/2008

Obama has a surprisingly sharp and interesting take on American history. Read his auotobiography.