Do we want our presidents to be steeped in history? Of course we do, is the reflexive answer. Cue Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, who wrote, in The Life of Reason (1905): “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Full confession: I hate that line. Or, to be more precise, I hate how it is intoned—drilled into our skulls—at the broaching of the question of why history should matter, to anyone. It is really not such a simple question, to be answered with what has become a conversation-stopping bromide.
The question comes to the fore now, as with seemingly everything else in our culture, because of Donald Trump. America’s 45th president is not, to be kind, a student of history. He has, for one thing, scant appetite for books, and that’s where history tends to be found. And so he managed to garble, and has been widely mocked for garbling, the place of Andrew Jackson in American history, by declaring in a recent interview that Old Hickory might have been able to prevent the Civil War. The difficulty is that Jackson, our seventh president, served in office from 1829 to 1837 and died in 1845, sixteen years before the shooting started at Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor.
There is, though, an instructive counter-example on the supposed benefits of knowing history. Back in the 1990s, while the Balkan Wars raged, Bill Clinton was widely criticized for being in thrall to a book on the history of that region, Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts. Published in 1993, just after Clinton took office, the book seemed to make the case for the Balkans as a land of ancient enmities, so riven by tribal hatreds that an intervention by an outside power was apt to fail. Six years passed before Clinton took action with NATO air strikes against Serbia, which helped bring the wars to an end. Clinton’s reward for his tardiness was this headline in the New York Times: “The Dangers of Letting a President Read.”
How much, then, do we want our leaders to look to the past? As usual, Winston Churchill, a prodigious writer (and reader) of history in his own right, struck the proper balance, with his riff on Santayana’s dictum. The problem with not paying attention to history, he told the House of Commons in 1948, is not that we are doomed to repeat it but that a refusal or an inability to keep the past in mind would make for “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.” Presidents should understand history for perspective, in other words, without letting history become a ball and chain. Take that, Santayana intoners.
Paul Starobin is the author of Madness Rules the Hour: Charleston, 1860 and the Mania for War (PublicAffairs, 2017). He lives in Orleans, Massachusetts.
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