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ROBERT L. MARONIC: Should The President Have A “Historian In Chief” at The White House?

When I was in high school I often associated the British monarchy with the “despotic” King George III and his “oppressive” rule over the thirteen original colonies until the final de facto British defeat at Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781. Later, as a Roanoke College undergraduate in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, especially after taking an interesting sophomore-level survey course in British history (1603- present), my views slowly began to change.

I learned that many well-to-do colonial Americans, especially New England Yankees, showed a lot of ingratitude in not paying their fair share of taxes in 1764 (Sugar Act) and 1765 (Stamp Act) extending to the Intolerable Acts (1774) in order to pay down the huge military debt incurred against the French and their Indian allies during the French and Indian War (1754-63) or Seven Years War (1756-63). I also learned that taxation without elective representation was a legitimate American complaint in resisting British taxation.

I learned that merciful Major General Robert Ross’ burning of the White House, U.S. Capitol and three other major federal buildings on August 24, 1814 was in direct retaliation, but not proportional for the American looting and burning of the Canadian Parliament in the capital city of York (Toronto) the previous year on April 27, 1813. I surprisingly learned that Queen Victoria was a rather attractive young woman in 1843, and how it was the British Royal Navy who ultimately enforced the Monroe Doctrine during the nineteenth century.

I learned that the U.K. abolished slavery, and compensated their slave owners when they emancipated 800,000 African slaves in the Caribbean from Jamaica to Trinidad along with other slaves in South Africa and Canada on August 1, 1834. Unfortunately, the slaves were never compensated. I learned that Abraham Lincoln later emulated the British in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862, but was unsuccessful in the state of Delaware because self-righteous and hypocritical Radical Republicans in Congress and the Delaware state legislature opposed him.

Thus, ended all of Lincoln’s legislative attempts for compensated emancipation in the three other border states of Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri.

I honestly never had any interest in the British monarchy in the twentieth century except for King Edward VIII’s abdication on December 10, 1936 thanks to my mother’s fascination with the subject until I became an admirer of Princess Diana after watching her televised wedding on July 29, 1981. Her beauty, smile, fashion, compassion, and her outward maternal affection shown toward her two sons William and Harry greatly intrigued me. I became a semi-Dianaphile. Why King Charles III eventually divorced her in 1996 to marry Queen Consort Camilla was truly beyond my understanding. I am truly looking forward to the accession of King William V.

As a teenage congregant at St. John’s Episcopal church in Hagerstown, Maryland I always knew that Queen Elizabeth II was the head or “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England and “Defender of the Faith.” One of her major ecclesiastical responsibilities was to appoint or remove the Archbishop of Canterbury, who also headed the worldwide Anglican Communion of “over 85 million people in over 165 countries” along with her frequent duty of  “appointing archbishops, bishops, and deans on the advice of the prime minister.”

Despite this knowledge, I was theologically and politically neither for nor against the queen in the 1970s and 1980s. I was neither an Anglophile nor an Anglophobe. However, I fully understood that the U.S. had inherited the British Empire with Pax Americana replacing Pax Britannica after 1945, and wondered if the U.K. was about to live through another long Elizabethan era, which it eventually did for seventy years from 1952 to 2022.

My previous hunch was later confirmed when Queen Elizabeth II’s mother, the 101-year-old Queen Mother, died on March 30, 2002. She truly had staying power like her eldest daughter Elizabeth, who died on September 8, and lived to be ninety-six.

I once privately met the former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson (1964-70; 1974-76) at Hollins University in October 1987 before a Green Drawing Room reception in Main Hall, and briefly talked to him in an adjacent hallway after he had given an evening lecture earlier in the Jesse DuPont Chapel. I especially remember asking him how upset London was after President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of the British Commonwealth nation of Grenada on October 25, 1983. I do not remember his exact answer, but he was less than thrilled about Reagan’s decision not to consult London before invading the island country. We talked briefly about a few other topics relating to his lecture, but I mainly remember him as a down-to-earth and friendly man.

It was only during the early second administration of President Bill Clinton (1997 to 2001) that I truly began to realize how much of a potential resource of political wisdom and knowledge Queen Elizabeth II was to all her prime ministers and vice versa during their weekly private meetings. Of course, the queen was also quite knowledgeable about international affairs from her frequent trips to  “more than 100 countries,” diplomatic visits to “more than 150 visits to Commonwealth nations” and thousands of diplomatic audiences in London since 1952.

From February 6, 1952 until January 20, 1997, Queen Elizabeth II consulted weekly with nine prime ministers: Winston Churchill (1951-1955), Anthony Eden (1955-1957), Harold MacMillan (1957-1963), Alec Douglas-Home (1963-1964), Harold Wilson (1964-1970; 1974-1976), Edward Heath (1970-1974), James Callaghan (1976-1979), Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and John Major (1990-1997).

During and after Clinton’s administration the queen consulted with six additional prime ministers: Tony Blair (1997-2007), Gordon Brown (2007-2010), David Cameron (2010-2016), Theresa May (2019-2019), Boris Johnson (2019-2022) and lastly, Liz Truss (2022-present). I am confident that most of her prime ministers greatly benefited from her vast knowledge and advice in both domestic and foreign policy as she benefited from them.

What the U.S. needs is not a king or queen, but an eminent American historian or an esteemed elder statesman or stateswoman, whom the president could permanently consult with for an hour or more per week much like how Britain’s fifteen prime ministers consulted Queen Elizabeth II from 1952 to 2022. Of course, this person would have a salary, pass a security test, etc., and would preferably be a distinguished American historian possessing a vast repository of American history for both good and bad.

This person could privately and confidentially advise the president on both domestic and foreign policy outside of the jurisdiction of the Oval Office, West Wing and Cabinet. This sharing of historic knowledge between the president and his advisor could be especially helpful to a future president without much legislative or executive experience (Trump), someone with an engineering background (Hoover and Carter), a former governor with little foreign policy expertise (Bush 43) or just someone, who needs a nonpartisan second opinion for greater historical perspective (all of them). This person would have been especially valuable giving advice to President George W. Bush before he invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

Plus, the United States unlike Communist China does not play the “long game” rather well either politically or economically with a typical American CEO’s constant focus on short term profits. The U.S. Foreign Service is a prime example where diplomats are routinely and constantly transferred from one country to another every two to three years. This is a major hindrance to diplomatic expertise regardless of the country.

In regard to “human intelligence,” the military, irrespective of branch, still regards foreign language expertise as mostly the domain of an enlisted person and not an officer. It was also only after September 11, 2001 that college students could use their federal financial aid to study abroad. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda quickly changed that myopic attitude. A historical advisor or historian in chief could definitely provide both a “long game” perspective and a valuable second opinion on foreign policy.

I suspect that my proposal would require Congressional legislation in which the House of Representatives or Senate would have to determine the job description for such a position requiring Senate confirmation. I personally would prefer this person to be an expert in American history regardless of age or gender such as someone like the deceased David McCullough, Victor Davis Hanson or Ron Chernow and certainly not a former K Street-lobbyist lawyer and Wall Street sharpie similar to the current “Counselor to the President.”

The White House already has an overabundance of self-serving and self-aggrandizing lawyers and opportunists, who are far more interested in their own careers, book deals, personal financial gain, etc. than the country’s best interest. Our next president whether Republican or Democrat could definitely use a historical advisor or historian in chief, especially to avoid future wars in our increasingly interdependent world.

As the British royal (Anglo-Norman) motto of “Honi soit qui mal y pence” states, “shamed be whoever thinks ill of it.”

– Robert L. Maronic

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