Friday, November 9, 2012

Obama and History

According to this piece in The New York Times, Barack Obama is not a "history buff."  I am not sure what this means, but my hunch is that he is not interested in anecdotes or stories from the specific events in the past, nor does he read history for entertainment or enjoyment.

According to Jodi Kantor's article, he is only interested in the past for the ways it can help him govern.  He naturally gravitates towards a useable past.

Here is a taste:

From the first time Barack Obama summoned the country’s leading presidential historians to dinner, they saw that the type of discussion he wanted would be different from their talks with previous Oval Office occupants. 

There was almost no small talk, for this was no idle exercise. Though Mr. Obama knew many of his predecessors’ stories cold, he was no history buff: he showed little curiosity about their personalities and almost no interest in the founding fathers. His goal, the historians realized, was more strategic. He wanted to apply the lessons of past presidential triumphs and failures to his own urgent project of setting the country on a new path. 

Does the past teach us lessons?  Of course it does.  It is natural for us to look to the past for people and events that will help us navigate life in the present.  As I will argue in a forthcoming book, this is an important use of the past.  But it is not the only use of the past.  Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Tim Schoettle said...

Interesting. You've got my attention. What use might the President make of the past, other than as a way of understanding triumphs and failures so as to succeed? That's a good question. Philosophers have a similar issue. When science is taught there is often little attention paid to the past. Philosophers wonder why philosophy should be any different. Once we have the truth why do we need the past? That is a good question? I think we do need the past, but articulating why is not easy. My one line answer is this: Without history we are stranded in the present, with no perspective on ourselves and no real understanding of who we are and what we are dealing with.