The hoopla that now surrounds the presidential primary season has once again convinced me that unless you are a political junkie, you are sick of the campaigning for president before it has even begun. And yet, as someone who has taught American history for almost 30 years, I am constantly amazed how the men and woman running for the highest office in the land consistently botch their historical knowledge of the country they wish to lead. Indeed, one doesn't even have to pay that much attention to what is being said to realize that these folks need some history lessons.
I pay particular attention, as I always have, to all those wannabes hoping to get right with Lincoln. Already this campaign season, no fewer than six candidates (four from one party and two from the other) have misquoted Lincoln, misrepresented what he stood for or downright got his life confused with other presidents in American history. It serves no useful purpose to mention their names because none of the people running now or in the recent past, for that matter, should ever be mentioned in the same sentence with Abraham Lincoln.
It would appear then that our leaders have plenty of trouble learning from history. Perhaps it's because business and political leaders always look forward instead of backwards? Warren Buffet once said, "It's more important to look out the windshield than in the rear view mirror." But a few glimpses in that rearview mirror might have avoided a number of historical and political blunders, and assuredly would have avoided the scandals and coverups that have embroiled so many in recent years. At the very least, and this is the part that will always amaze me, looking backward, even ever so briefly, would help prevent our leaders from making the same mistakes that others before them have committed.
The efforts that former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales went through to forget the past essentially cost him his job. Such forgetfulness has also been the Achilles heel of countless disgraced congressional members, business leaders and presidents. It constantly seems that our leaders have to learn the lesson anew that the attempt to cover up the scandal, mistake, misdeed, misjudgment or misreading of a previous historical event is often worse than the initial action itself.
Richard Nixon paid the ultimate price for his error in judgment in 1974. More than two decades later, Bill Clinton paid a similar, if not as drastic price, a price that has, nonetheless, tarnished his legacy. Martha Stewart, Jeffery Skilling and others have demonstrated that business leaders are no better than our political ones in suffering from historical amnesia.
Not long ago, a student of mine asked me why America continues to make the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps it is ignorance of the past or maybe a sense of arrogance and superiority that one is above the law and history. Are our leaders today so self-assured and self-righteous about what they do that they believe that they are invulnerable? One need only read their papers to see that such giants as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were plagued with self-doubt when making monumental decisions or sending men into war. And, yet, we see none of that in our leaders today, and most likely it is because they don' t know their history.
Thucydides, the grandfather of all historians, born 400 years before Christ, begins his famous description of the Peloponnesian War by explaining that human nature is the cause of historical events. Because human nature is unchanging, he believed, it is mandatory that leaders look to the past to understand why events occurred if they are ever to avoid making those same mistakes.
A fascinating new book, "The Great Upheaval," by Jay Winik, takes a panoramic look at critical events in the 18th century, intertwining the tumultuous events taking place in America, France, and Russia. The stars of his book, of course, are Washington and Jefferson, but also playing prominent roles are Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, all of whom were great leaders offering lessons to be learned by today's generation. It is very easy to see from this reading of history that there is a feeling of intoxication that the powerful get when they view themselves as invincible. Business leaders as well as heads of state succumb to this temptation. When everything is going well, it's hard to imagine that anything could go wrong. So, one trait of the great leaders in this book, as diverse as they were, was their determination to surround themselves with people who could tell them when things are going wrong and give them an historical awakening. They all required these reality checks to help them lead.
But today's leaders -- at any level -- seldom do this. They have an unhealthy sense of their own uniqueness and are convinced that those events around them are peculiar to their time and therefore historical precedent is of little value. Pearl S. Buck once wrote that "knowledge of history as detailed as possible is essential if we want to comprehend the past and be prepared for the future." Our leaders would be well-advised to heed this advice, and we would be well-advised to pay special attention to what they are saying as they seek our vote or support. History does not have to repeat itself, but it will if we fail to respect it.