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The Problem with Politicians as Historians

For generations, political leaders have attempted to shape their image. Today, it is US President Barack Obama’s turn to attempt to define his legacy – and, as his presidency winds down and attention turns to the election of his successor, he has already been busy.

STANFORD – “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” quipped Mark Twain. For generations, political leaders have been lending credence to that observation, as they have attempted to shape their legacies, taking credit for what worked and blaming predecessors or political opponents for what failed.

Many politicians continue to spin the facts even after they have left office. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once boasted that, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” And, indeed, his multi-volume opus on World War II contains not only many of his most memorable lines (“their finest hour,” “so much owed by so many to so few”); it is also packed with justifications for his actions during the war.

Churchill’s writings may be biased, but they offer remarkable inside information and details that are not readily inferred from memos and briefs, which usually are incomplete and guarded in style. As historians know, there is great pressure to remember the past as the victors want it remembered. As Napoleon Bonaparte once put it, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”

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