Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I am passionate about history. Even as I was training and earning my two degrees in history, I never lost the passion for history. It’s who we are, what we’ve done, and can help us decide what to do in the future. Harry Truman was the last president not to have a college degree but he was steeped and learned in history. He never stopped reading and learning and doing. In looking over his quotes, one stands out today:
There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.
Of all the personal attributes Barack Obama possesses, his knowledge of and understanding of history should stand up with his personal discipline and even-tempered persona. The President-Elect knows his history. His speech last night is but the latest example of it. He referenced Lincoln, the Founding Fathers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and echoed Franklin Roosevelt in his optimistic yet sober reading of where we are as a nation.

In a society that often does not know its own history (just groan anytime you watch Jay Leno ask history questions in his “Jaywalking” segments), it was nice to see Americans, Republicans and Democrats, know that they are living through history this year and turn out to vote. Obama’s candidacy is obvious: first African-American man to win the nomination of a major party and, now, the presidency. But John McCain is also historic. He will likely be the last Vietnam War veteran to run for the White House. The Civil War, which last four years, produced nine elections with a Civil War vet on the ballot (1868-1900). World War II, also four years, produced twelve election cycles with a WWII vet on the ticket (1952-1996). The Vietnam generation—more or less a ten-year war—produced only five elections: Clinton twice, George W. Bush twice, and John McCain.

One note about historic days: Most often, we all wake up on a historic day not knowing its going to be historic. On the morning of September 11, 2001, none of would have predicted the day would turn out the way it did. Ditto for December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, December 12, 2000, January 28, 1986, May 8, 1945, or October 24, 1929. Most days are normal until something happens, usually bad. Very few times do we know in advance a particular day is destined for history. November 11, 1918 is one and July 20, 1969 is another. For months, we have known that November 4, 2008 was going to be historic, no matter the outcome.

Now, just like September 12, 2001, December 8, 1941, November 12, 1918, or November 23, 1963, we live in a different world. Sure, the sky is still blue and the grass still green and our children still have to learn spelling words, but there feels in the air something different today. It’s history. We live it every day but, sometimes, we just have to be reminded that it is something we have to know, cherish, and learn from. Without history, how can we move forward? With history as our guide, anything is possible. Truman knew it. Obama knows it. And, today, we all know it.