In legend and lore, controversial U.S. president Andrew Jackson may have been a man for all time, but he certainly wasn’t around during the time of the Civil War – as President Donald Trump suggested in an interview that caused a stir this week. The origins of that conflict, perhaps the central event of American history, has been the subject of innumerable theories, so there was little reason for Mr. Trump to wonder out loud “why there was a Civil War” in the first place.
Sam Cooke, Herman’s Hermits and Donald Trump – they don’t know much about history.
But knowing history – indeed, mastering history – is an essential part of the American presidency. Perhaps the contretemps over Mr. Trump’s historical missteps might prompt him to spend less time watching cable television in search of “fake news,” and instead spend his evenings with a good book – many good books, beginning with biographies of his 43 predecessors.
He has a lot of catching up to do. Former president Woodrow Wilson wrote several books about American politics before entering the White House. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were history majors in university, and the latter, often ridiculed as unschooled and uncurious, once read 95 books in one year as president. Theodore Roosevelt read histories of the early Syrian, Chaldean and Egyptian civilizations in his second year in the White House.
One of the best-read chief executives was Abraham Lincoln, whose speeches are laced with Biblical references – “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” – and who loved the classic autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Shakespeare’s writings (even reading aloud from Macbeth about the death of Duncan shortly before his own assassination). “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican, right,” Mr. Trump once said of the 16th president. “Does anyone know? Lots of people don’t know that.”
In fact, most people do. One of them was John F. Kennedy, who considered Allan Nevin’s biography of Lincoln one of his favourite books. As a sickly boy, Mr. Kennedy read about King Arthur, along with biographies of Melbourne, Marlborough, Talleyrand, John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun. He repeatedly returned to Pilgrim’s Way, written by John Buchan, who was known later in life as Lord Tweedsmuir and who, from 1935 until his death in Montreal in 1940, was governor-general of Canada.
“I had had a better education, came of better stock, and had better health than most – these were my sole advantages,” Mr. Buchan wrote. Mr. Trump can claim two out of three.
In recent days, Mr. Trump has expressed surprise at how difficult his job is, which he might have discovered had he read Joseph J. Ellis’s biography of George Washington, or any one of the four volumes of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, or even dipped into the splendid biographies of John Adams and Harry S Truman by David McCullough. All were bestsellers, and all sit on the bookshelves of many of Mr. Trump’s neighbours in Trump Tower.
He might borrow some of them the next time he is back in Manhattan. For it is essential that a U.S. president dealing with questions about the economy understand FDR’s approach to the Great Depression and Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics. And it is indispensable that a president dealing with continuing questions about race understand the Civil War, its aftermath in Reconstruction and the civil-rights movement. With immigration, a principal Trump theme, a few days reading City of Dreams, Tyler Anbinder’s remarkable new history of immigrant New York, would be a prudent investment, and a great pleasure.
Mr. Trump’s new reading offensive should not be prompted by the notion, popularized by George Santayana’s precept, that those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. History is descriptive, not prescriptive.
There are several tragic examples of how the “lessons of Munich” on the eve of the Second World War were misunderstood; the war in Vietnam is only one of them. But the lessons of the beginnings of the First World War might provide caution. Mr. Kennedy surely thought so, for early in his presidency he asked his inner circle to read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August to understand how one miscalculation can lead to another, and to tragedy, in diplomatic affairs.
Thomas Jefferson read almost everything of value available in his time. William Ewart Gladstone owned 32,000 books. “Not all readers are leaders,” said Truman, whose home library of 1,100 books in Independence, Mo., included biographies of many of his presidential predecessors, “but all leaders are readers.”
Time to start cracking open those books, Mr. President. “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life,” said Mark Twain, who published the landmark memoirs of president Ulysses S. Grant. Sometimes a president needs at least two of the three.