The Executive Branch Doesn't Need a New Ornament

If the president had a Council of Historical Advisers, what would it tell him about the idea of creating a "Council of Historical Advisers"?


Split Enz

Should the White House have its own History Squad? The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson and his colleague from the political science department, Graham Allison, think it should. Writing in The Atlantic, the duo calls for a federally funded "Council of Historical Advisers" modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, with a chair, "two additional members," and "a small professional staff." These court historians would be charged with finding past parallels to current events and then using their discoveries to supply the president with advice:

In 2003, to take one example, when President George W. Bush chose to topple Saddam Hussein, he did not appear to fully appreciate either the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims or the significance of the fact that Saddam's regime was led by a Sunni minority that had suppressed the Shiite majority. He failed to heed warnings that the predictable consequence of his actions would be a Shiite-dominated Baghdad beholden to the Shiite champion in the Middle East—Iran.

There were indeed historians who made this argument in 2003. But there were also historians who wanted Bush to invade, as Gene Healy points out in a devastating response to Ferguson and Allison. "In fact," he reminds us, "there was a top-flight Middle East scholar, fully up to speed on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, who had the administration's attention in the run up to the war. That was Bernard Lewis, 'Bush's historian,' who 'deliver[ed] spine-stiffening lectures to Cheney over dinner in undisclosed locations' and pro-war thinkpieces in the Wall Street Journal." If a Council of Historical Advisers had existed in the Bush years, it's easy to imagine the president appointing Lewis to lead it. (As Healy notes, another historian who cheered for the Iraq war was none other than Niall Ferguson.)

Lewis, to be sure, is a significant scholar whose work is worth reading, and I say that as someone who often disagrees with him strenuously. But that speaks to a bigger issue. Bernard Lewis' considerable knowledge about what has already happened does not necessarily make him an expert on what will happen. One of the best things about history as a discipline is that it doesn't pretend to be a predictive science—or, indeed, to be any sort of science at all. That isn't a flaw; it's self-awareness.

History is certainly useful when making predictions. You can't make sense of the present without knowing about the past, and there is obvious value in finding historical analogs to current events. But Ferguson and Allison seem to be calling for something more: a new discipline they call "applied history," where scholars "find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences." The whole idea smacks of science envy, down to the models they cite: "You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics," they write. "But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians."

At any rate: If we had a panel of these applied historians at our disposal, and we asked them to look for past parallels to this council, what would they say the consequences of the Ferguson/Allison proposal would be? If they're frank enough to undermine a potential job opportunity—let's pretend, OK?—they may well conclude that the body wouldn't have much impact on the boss's decisions. As Healy writes, "Presidents have mostly used their pet scholars as ambassadors to academia and the chattering classes: they're valued less for their influence on executive-branch decisionmaking than for their ability to put an intellectual veneer on whatever it is the president's already decided to do."

And if the president does honestly want their advice? Then there's one more risk we need to keep in mind. Here's Healy again:


Presidents already have an unhealthy obsession with their legacies—wandering the halls, gazing at the portraits (sometimes even talking to them), and wondering how they'll stack up in the rankings game: "In 1996 Clinton privately grouped his presidential predecessors into three tiers, then spent a long Sunday morning with consultant Dick Morris discussing what he could do to join the top group."

The academic consensus on that question seems to be that, to become a great president, you need to dream big, break stuff, and "leave the presidency stronger than you found it." Given historians' generally demented judgments about which presidents belong in the top tier, we should probably be grateful Bill didn't have a Council of Historical Advisers around to consult.

NEXT: YouTube Says No to Sexual Humor, Profanity, Partial Nudity, Political Conflict, and 'Sensitive Subjects' In Partner Content

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. RE: The Executive Branch Doesn’t Need a New Ornament

    Yes, the executive branch does need a new ornament. How can any executive worth his copy of “Das Kapital” not want to expand his power over the untermenschen? Did Stalin hold back any of his power, or did he wisely expand his power over the Soviet People? Did Hitler restrict any of his power over the German people, or did he judiciously expand his power? Does Fidel Castro put limits on his power over the Cuban people, or did he wisely expand his power over them? This country needs a strong dictator in the executive office, and giving any new Dear Leader more power only accelerates the Glorious Peoples Revolution and control over us all. Denying any expansion of executive power would be a catastrophic decision, especially since we are all so close to becoming a true workers paradise.

    1. I’m beginning to see the light due to your posts, Unca J! You say you want a revolution? Well, you know . . .

      1. We all want to change the world.

        1. You can count me out.

        2. But we don’t know what to do?

    2. I love Big Brother.

  2. How about educating the *citizens* so they will know about past mistakes to avoid?

    1. The first mistake to avoid is the mistake of thinking that just because those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it doesn’t mean that those who do learn from history aren’t also doomed to repeat it.

      1. “This didn’t work the last six times it was tried… but if we do it now, it just might!”

        1. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

          1. +1 Sicilian death match.

  3. Walker makes a strong play for Posts Most Interesting Topics, and that’s on a mag that has a porn beat.

  4. Karl Popper is rolling in his grave.

    1. The neocon happy warriors are rewriting history themselves, The Atlantic editor who saw this paean to West Wing revisionism into print is none other than Bush ’43 speechwriter John Frum, of “Axis of Evil” fame-

  5. “Presidents already have an unhealthy obsession with their legacies?wandering the halls, gazing at the portraits (sometimes even talking to them), and wondering how they’ll stack up in the rankings game”

    What the Presidents need is someone on his payroll always telling them “remember thou art mortal, remember thou art mortal.”

    [inevitable joke]

    OK, the *bachelor Presidents* need such a person.

    1. We’ve already got enough Presidents who believe in ‘Count no man happy until he is dead.’

    2. They don’t need a staff, just a memento mori to follow them around whispering “Respice post te. Hominem te memento” endlessly, even when they sleep.

  6. This would be a useless boondoggle, unless you cut open the historian and read his entrails, in which case it might be at least entertaining.

    1. I nominate Howard Zinn for the first subject.

      1. “Jesus, there’s nothing in here but dirt and semen.”

  7. “a federally funded “Council of Historical Advisers” modeled on the Council of Economic Advisers, with a chair, “two additional members,” ”

    If Ferguson and Allison knew the first goddam thing about history, they would know that their proposed Council would end up with hundreds of employees and acres of office buildings.

    1. I’m late to this party, but this^

  8. I think Presidents should have a Council of Internet Commenters. Uhh, the salary shouldn’t be too high, but the benefits should be extraordinary.

    1. Good for the Venezuelans. I hope Maduro doesn’t start killing the demonstrators.

      1. With all the money he has mysteriously accumulated, now would be a good time for him to start shopping around for a country make his exile.

    2. In line for saltine crackers and one-ply?

    3. On TV this morning I heard someone say about Cankle’s latest speech “What the camera isnt showing us is that there were only a few dozen people in the audience”

      I have sorta resigned myself to her winning, but good god it would be sweet if she were crushed.

  9. Historians calling for a history panel? This reminds me of the time the Guild of Rat Catchers called for a presidential Rat Council to keep the White House advised on how a pack of rats would handle a current crisis.

    1. You don’t want another Pied Piper situation, do you? That’s what the free market leads to. Only a Rat Catchers Guild can keep murderous pedophiles out of their profession.

  10. Hey we could elect a president who wrote a work of history!

    “The punishments each master meted out he allotted rather as magistrate than as master. The offences which he punished would most of them have gone before a magistrate had the offenders been freemen. ‘On principle, in habit, and even on grounds of self-interest, the greater part of the slave owners were humane in the treatment of their slaves,- kind, indulgent, not over-exacting, and sincerely interested in the physical welfare of their dependants [sic],” said an eminent northern man of letters, speaking of what he saw in 1844.”

    1. “The demoralizing influences of the [slave] system were checked as much as it was in human nature to check them. Southern gentlemen despised a slave trader as heartily as any northern man did, necessary though his occupation seemed to be; sold and bought slaves by private arrangement when they could; and sought in every way to keep the worst features of the system at a minimum.”

      Hey, you’re right, Mr. President, slavery can’t be so bad! Let’s all vote Democrat!

  11. “In 1996 Clinton privately grouped his presidential predecessors into three tiers, then spent a long Sunday morning with consultant Dick Morris discussing what he could do to join the top group.”

    He could have stopped telling contributors that ‘he’d leave the light on for ’em’ in the Lincoln bedroom.

    1. “Hey, let’s see if we can get Hillary to be one of my successors. Then i’ll look great by comparison!”

    2. “Well, Bill, step one is to keep your cock in your pants. Because if you can’t, your legacy will be “The President who couldn’t keep his cock in his pants.”

      1. “In that case, no dice.”

      2. Okay, so how about the second tier?

  12. The Imperial Presidency rolls on unabated.

    Newly elected President Dean would take a meat axe to the trappings of the Imperial Presidency.

    1. These masturbation euphemisms aren’t very abstract anymore.

    2. You have more faith in Howard Dean than I do.


  13. To clear your palate, here’s a President-historian who is cooler:

    “Captain Manners stood at his post, as resolute as ever, though wounded again and again. A grape-shot passed through both his thighs, bringing him to the deck; but, maimed and bleeding to death, he sprang to his feet, cheering on the seamen. The vessels were now almost touching, nand putting his helm aweather, he ran the _Wasp_ aboard on her port quarter, while the boarders gathered forward, to try it with the steel. But the Carolina captain had prepared for this with cool confidence; the marines came aft; close under the bulwarks crouched the boarders, grasping in their hands the naked cutlasses, while behind them were drawn up the pikemen. As the vessels came grinding together the men hacked and thrust at one another through the open port-holes, while the black smoke curled up from between the hulls. Then through the smoke appeared the grim faces of the British sea-dogs, and the fighting was bloody enough; for the stubborn English stood well in the hard hand play. But those
    who escaped the deadly fire of the topmen, escaped only to be riddled through by the long Yankee pikes; so, avenged by their own hands, the foremost of the assailants died, and the others gave back. The attack was foiled…”

  14. I like Ferguson, but this is a very silly idea that could only come from a professional academic.

    1. …who saw “Home” with their kids and decided an advisory council of smart Boov was a great idea.

  15. Or how about a historical novel

    “She reached out and touched the top of his head, not knowing what to expect. Instead of moving away, Ethan moved his hand up and clasped her fingers. Epsey sat beside him, and he put his head on her shoulder as she held him close. She was overwhelmed with a desire to nurture her husband. She soon bared her breast and held him close against it, and he responded eagerly to this unprecedented intimacy. She was surprised by his passion, and thankful that she could help relieve his torment.” (p. 78)

  16. This idea is almost as dumb as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Secretary of the Future”.

  17. Why don’t we have one of those Ministers of Sports like other countries? Like all those loser at the Olympics?

    Why don’t we have one those Ministry of Culture like other countries?
    It would really revive our culture.

    1. I’m sold, but only if we can find someone like Sgt. Detritus as cultural minister. “Yeah we’ve got a really nice Opera House. It’s got a big roof and a chandelier and everything.”

    2. Luckily, political correctness has some actual value. A government office of culture (as it’s structured in Europe) is, well, kind of racist. European countries are ok with that type of racism, so bully to them. It’s something I don’t think we’d be able to get away with here.

  18. Ignatius Donnelly was never President (more’s the pity), but he was a U.S. Senator, and unlike certain other Senators (*cough* JFK *cough*) Donnelly wrote his own history books, as far as I can tell.

    In this book, Donnelly explores the history of Atlantis. I bet it’s more accurate than, say, Hillary’s memoirs.

  19. And the guy who wrote this was a Vice President.

  20. Who can forget ex-President John Quincy Adams’s expos? of the sinister secrets of Freemasonry.

    He’s dead now…coincidence?

  21. I think the President should have a council or surfers and motorcycle riders.

    And I think I”d be great for the job!

    I wouldn’t just sit around in an office either, oh no. I’d go our riding and surfing and surfing and riding. I’d go to beach barbecues and on beer runs. Grunion runs, Over the Line tournaments, bikini contests, testing new bikes–I could advise the new President on all of that.

    And all you’d have to do is pay me a little bit more than I’m making now. Also, I think I’ll need access to Air Force One or, if that’s being used by somebody, I could probably settle for something smaller.

  22. “Go ahead, tell me what you think, if it will make you feel any better.”

  23. Guess which historian became governor of the very same state which Ignatius Donnelly used to represent in the Senate?

  24. Is there a new version of Godwin’s law we can cite for people who ultimately base all their argument on Bush?

  25. Given that presidents are likely to be Ivy-league trained lawyers, they need historical advisers (both domestic and foreign history). The devil is in the details: no high paid Council, and a diversity of opinion. Maybe the advisers will remember, for instance, things like the effect of tariffs on free trade. e.g. Germany seriously pissed off Russia around 1895 with high tariffs on agricultural imports. Fighting WWI on two fronts certainly contributed to Germany’s loss then punishing Treaty of Versailles and then rise of Nazism. President Trump needs someone to whisper
    historical precedents and “unintended” consequences in his ear.

  26. These guys clearly have no vision. It’s not a presidential advisory panel that’s needed, in this dawning internet age, but rather an official US Dept. of Historical Accuracy. I urge all members to vote yes on the Saving History from Internet Tampering act.

  27. “In fact,” he reminds us, “there was a top-flight Middle East scholar, fully up to speed on the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, who had the administration’s attention in the run up to the war. That was Bernard Lewis, ‘Bush’s historian,’

    1) There, you see how well this idea works.

    2) Yeah, but he wanted to go to war, so he wasn’t a* historian-historian.

    * – Fuck that whole “an historian” bullshit

  28. an official US Dept. of Historical Accuracy.

    Memory Hole, here we come.

    1. Orwell was so quaint.

      He thought that, to make people forget the past, you actually had to destroy the records.

      But now we have politicians saying X, when a quick Internet search would find them saying not-X a few short years ago – and it doesn’t seem to matter.

      1. Nothing matters! Tee-hee-ho-ho-pppppptthh

  29. And what happened to all of the advisors that we’re already paying for? Do none have them have the sense to do pertinent research into the topics they’re supposedly advising the President on? Or perhaps their “advice” is limited to how a given policy polls with focus groups?

  30. Someone has read Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy too many times and thinks he’s Hari Seldon.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.