If you have watched my show for just two minutes or met me for 20 seconds you know one thing about me: I love history. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop talking about it. I love old things, I love relics, anything that came before me that history has blessed…I’m honored to see and hold.
Maybe that makes me odd but I don’t think so.
I think Americans love their history. We are a young nation but we love to learn about our past. And there is a good reason for that. Our past is where we discover who we really are as a nation, just as children inherit certain things from their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Our nation has inherited certain things from those who came before us. And it’s critical, we know what those things are. Otherwise, we leave our inheritance on the table. And it just will wash away.
That’s why I wish that the person who sits at this desk, and the people who advise him, took the time and topped thinking about the next news cycle, the next attack ad. And just stopped. And walked over to the bookshelf right here and read one of these books. They’re not just there for decoration!
They are there because our history tells us who we are. What we built. What problems we faced and how we overcame them.
The people who work in this office, not just now, but in every administration, ought to spend a lot of time studying history.
Because if they did, they would learn soon enough that some of the biggest problems they face are small compared to those which have come before. That some of the solutions they think will work have been tried and have failed before. That America may never have been perfect, but that America has been better than this. And America can be better than this again.
The problem we have Is that the people who sit behind this desk have so much going on around them. And they confuse action with accomplishment. They don’t spend time doing something that would solve a lot of their problems. They don’t read. They don’t study. They don’t learn from the past.
History is the greatest weapon against one of mankind’s strongest enemies: forgetfulness.
Forgetting is such a human trait. I go to the supermarket, and I forget to buy a gallon of milk. I come into the office, and I forget my keys in my car. Someone asks me: ‘Glenn, how old are your parents?’ And I forget. I have to think about it before I answer.
But forgetting to buy milk is one thing. Forgetting our nation’s history is another.
Let me give you an example.
This nation was once attacked on its shores and the enemy worked to infiltrate our populations. They placed in our cities sleeper agents. Gathering intelligence. Preparing for the day of attack. They watched. They listened.
So this nation took action. We discovered the plots. We disrupted their plans. We found those who were guilty. And we hung them. Because in America, we have always believed that treason and treachery is a crime punishable by death.
Today, our nation faces a similar threat. The enemy has slipped past our thinly guarded borders. And we don’t know where they are. But when we discover these plotters we don’t know what to do! We say: ‘There is no precedent for this!’ And so people sitting at this desk and working in this office - they simply make things up as they go along.
They bungle prosecutions. They expose vital intelligence. They give comfort to the enemy. And they allow treachery and treason to build further. All because they didn’t know their history.
They didn’t know that a prior administration – seventy years earlier –faced the same issue. Developed a plan. Took action. And solved the problem.
The cost of this historical illiteracy can be measured. It can be measured in the lives that have been lost. To terrorist attacks in our cities, at our military bases, all because our leaders didn’t study their history.
They didn’t read. They pretended like they were the first Americans to face a challenge.
But they were not the first. Not even the second.
The circumstances change. The cast of characters change. The culture changes. But in the end the challenges are the same.
Prosperity or stagnancy.
Freedom or dependency.
Justice or injustice.
Unity or disunity.
The individual or the state.
These are the choices that every American has known. Every generation of Americans has been asked to choose. These are not new choices. And our problems are not new problems.
What’s new is ignorance.
Ignorance of history.
Ignorance of what America stood for 236 years ago.
Ignorance of what America has learned in those years.
Ignorance of the successes.
Ignorance of the failures.
You can get ignorant by not learning. Or you can get ignorant just by being arrogant. By thinking you know more than those who came before you. By thinking that you know what you need to know. That’s arrogance.
And we see it today.
Wouldn’t it be great if the president sat behind this desk and spoke to the nation once a week for 43 consecutive weeks each time talking about a single president? One man, one president - five minutes. Just a little message about each former president.
Each time, saying: “This president – Jefferson, Grant, Arthur, Truman… whatever…He led the nation for so many years. He tried to do these things. He succeeded here and he failed there. And this is what I learned from his time in office. So I thank him for his service to the nation.”
That’s it. Five minutes. Just a simple acknowledgement that nobody – not even the president – is above it all. Above his predecessors. Above history.
And here is my hope: that if the current president, or any president, stopped to learn some history, stopped to think about what history teaches him, he might realize that America is better than he thinks. Is stronger than he thinks. More independent. More industrious. More capable of great things. That he does not need to wave a wand, give a speech, even sign a law that will solve a problem. That Americans are quite capable of solving themselves. America is better than its leaders. And that if Americans are trusted and if Americans are encouraged, Americans can restore this nation. Can rebuild it. Using the original blueprints. Using the original documents.
And just maybe if we had a president sitting at this desk who appreciated that history is the best adviser, we would begin to recognize that history is alive! And history is to be celebrated. Honored.
Let me close with one story, because it tells you why history matters.
This desk is called the Resolute. It was a gift from the British. It came from a ship called the HMS Resolute. The Resolute was a ship in search of the explorer Sir John Franklin in 1852. And on that search, deep in Arctic Seas, it had to be abandoned by the crew.
Three years later, an American whaler, the George Henry, found it. Broke it free from the ice. Towed it to port. And America restored it. Outfitted it. And gave it back to the British Crown as a gift.
The ship spent three more decades in service. Then it was retired.
Queen Victoria had an idea. She ordered that craftsmen use wood from the ship to make a desk. And she gave that desk to the president Rutherford Hayes. It has been in the White House for all but a few years ever since. And it has been in the Oval Office for nearly four decades.
Maybe it’s easy to read that history and think “Well, that’s just stuff that happened way, way back. And everyone in the story is dead!” And if you think that, you probably are bored by history. Or, If you’re like me, you love that story because it tells you something about a friendship and about national honor.
It tells you in one story: Why America and Great Britain share a special friendship. A friendship both nations have fought and died to preserve.
And from that story, you learn what it means to sustain that friendship over decades.
That story might have helped the current president when he was thinking about what to give as a gift to the queen and to the prime minister in his first year of office.
Maybe, instead of an iPod and some DVDs, he might have looked at this desk and thought: “We can do better. We should do better.” And for once in his presidency he might have avoided a mistake just by studying history. Just by acknowledging that he’s not the first smart guy to sit in that chair.
That’s how history is. It’s like an instruction manual for the world. An instruction manual for the president. An instruction manual on America.You can be president and not read the instruction manual, but you know how it is with instruction manuals. Whether it’s a TV or a mobile phone or a country, if you don’t read the manual, you won’t know how the dang thing works. You won’t get to use all the features. And in the end – it might break on you because you didn’t read the manual.
So even if our president won’t study our history, you should. Because one day, we’re going to have to fix this mess and it would be good if you’ve read the manual first.
Thanks for watching.
May God bless you, and may God bless this Republic.