chapter  1
16 Pages

Misapplied History

Presidents love to read history. George Washington devoured information about the Roman Republic, and was particularly inspired by the story of Cincinnatus, the great military leader who retired to his farm rather than become dictator in 458 BC. Franklin Roosevelt apparently read as much about the founders of this country as the founders did about the Romans. In his memoirs, Harry Truman wrote that, “I had trained myself to look back in history for precedents,” and other presidents seem to operate the same way. Even George W. Bush, often caricatured as the most uncurious, unintellectual of presidents, found the time to read presidential biographies while in office. The pressure and isolation of the White House encourages its inhabitants to seek the guidance of their predecessors, to learn from their experiences and hard-won wisdom. This seems to make good sense; after all why wouldn’t presidents seek to learn from the past? Satayana’s famous warning (“those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) has inspired many a policy maker to look back through the historical record to try to find precedents with lessons applicable to present dilemmas.