Trump's muddled view of American history

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tags: American History, Trump



Each past president has engaged with historical tomes, and venerated their political heroes, to different degrees. Two past presidents -- Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson -- served as leaders of the American Historical Association. And President John F. Kennedy, according to historians, read Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" about the origins of World War I, which helped him navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"I think that most presidents have a pretty good sense of where they locate themselves in the American tradition. They've spent some time thinking about the past, and they've spent some time reading history," Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, said in an interview. "They may not know in advance of the presidency where they're going to end up in history, but I think they have a sense of who their role models are, where they fit in the larger story of American history, what they connect to."

Clinton, Shesol said, was a voracious student of history, who "really understood himself to be in the tradition of the reformist presidents" and had "a sense" of what elements of the new frontier of John F. Kennedy made sense for him ... and which aspects of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society needed to be fought for and preserved."

President George W. Bush was a devoted student of Lincoln -- Wehner said he used to bring historians to the White House to meet with Bush so he could learn from them -- and he engaged in a reading competition with adviser Karl Rove to see who could read more books in a year.

During his campaign for the White House and throughout his presidency, Barack Obama routinely made references to Abraham Lincoln. At times, he seemed to use the bully pulpit of his office to deliver history lessons to the nation, particularly in the ways in which he embraced and addressed the Civil Rights movement. Obama also had regular dinners with some of the nation's leading historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro and Douglas Brinkley. The dinners, Brinkley said, focused not on the present, but on the past.

"I would talk about Theodore Roosevelt and conservation or Doris Kearns Goodwin would talk about Lyndon Johnson and civil rights," said Brinkley, an author and CNN presidential historian. "Here was a president not only reading books about American history, but trying to learn from them."

While not every president is as dedicated a student of history, Sheshol -- the former Clinton speechwriter -- said, "all of them have engaged with it to some extent and have some kind of relationship with it."




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