Is this the time to look to the past for a reason not to be stuck in the past?

Is this the time to look to 1940, and then to 1945, for guidance about the presidential election of 2024?

And is the fact that a Republican lawmaker from Arkansas — apparent presidential aspirant Sen. Tom Cotton — is heading here, to the state that customarily holds the first presidential primary, a sign that the GOP may be willing to break the hold Donald Trump has on the party — even as increasing numbers of Democrats are hoping that Joe Biden does not seek a second term?

Let’s look to a statesman who did not heed his own advice, an English political figure who was the man for the future in 1940, when he entered office and arguably helped save the world from fascism. Eleven years later, he was resolutely the man from the past, when he returned to office an ossified version of himself, freighted with timeworn lessons of history and burdened with the weight of British imperialism.

In what has become known as his “Finest Hour” speech, delivered on June 18, 1940, a week before the fall of France in World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Parliament, “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, John F. Kennedy riffed on the same subject in an address in Frankfurt, Germany. Six years ago, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, then running against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, made basically the same point — but was called out for mangling the quote by Richard Langworth, the Churchill scholar who lives here in New Hampshire.

In 2016, Langworth argued that Churchill’s use of that same notion in 1945 might have greater relevance than the original quote. Now, two years before the next presidential election, those remarks may be even more apt. Let’s have a look:

Let us advance then into the future with the same confidence and dogged determination which all the world admired in those days when our national life and, may we not say, the freedom and glory of the world were at stake.

Churchill was talking about Great Britain, but these words ring true in the United States, where our confidence is shaken, and where the determination that stirred us to assure that freedom prevailed in an era of dictators, bestowing glory on our country and values, seems to have eroded.

If every measure is taken, as it should be taken, if every effort is made, as it must be made, if every act of comradeship and audacity is performed, as it will be performed, there is no reason why we should not lead our country out of its hideous lapse and error in domestic affairs, just as we ... did in the great world struggle.

Throughout our history, politicians have employed a “make America great again” theme, sometimes without those exact words (see the July 4 invocations of prominent American figures from Daniel Webster to Kennedy, who invoked the glories of the Founders’ generation) and sometimes with those exact words (as Ronald Reagan did in his 1980 Republican National Convention speech and, shortly thereafter, in his Labor Day speech). Now, not all Americans are willing to use that phrase, so closely identified with Trump. But, public opinion polls make clear, voters of all political stripes are eager to be led out of our “hideous lapse and error in domestic affairs” and are ready for national “comradeship and audacity.”

Here, happily, we have not got to fight the terrible foreign foe, but only to regain the goodwill and revive the morale of our own fellow-countrymen.

This surely is the American challenge of our age. It is not the first time that this country has faced this task.

Another often-misquoted remark from Abraham Lincoln offers us some perspective. The accurate version is from his first major speech, delivered in 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, when, reacting to a spurt of mob violence that he believed threatened American institutions, he said: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

At a time when sober Americans speak all too easily of the prospect of civil war, the country confronts a possible choice between a sitting president still operating with the convictions and customs of the ‘70s — now a half-century gone! — and a former president who can’t move off what didn’t happen two years ago.

The argument for a Biden campaign: An incumbent is unusually well-suited to win a presidential election; in recent years, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were all reelected. The argument against: He’s the oldest president, he seems detached, and his poll numbers are in free fall.

The argument for a Trump campaign: He’s tanned, rested and ready, the way Richard Nixon was; he’s motivated and he has a loyal cadre of voters with unmatched zeal. The argument against: The House committee examining his conduct surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has cast him in so poor a light that both the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, owned by Trump’s media ally Rupert Murdoch, have deemed him dangerous to American democracy, with the Post arguing that he is “unworthy to be this country’s chief executive again.”

The argument for a new set of pugilists: Both men are artifacts of a vanished world.

They were, in their time, the answers to legitimate national demands: one for a redemption of the hopes of a vast group of dispossessed Americans alienated from the prevailing elites, the other for a redemption of American values after the disruption of a tumultuous four years, when all the norms of White House behavior and international comportment were disrupted. With rumps of both parties — establishment Republicans, left-leaning Democrats — dissatisfied with their leadership, the question is whether the American people, if not the presidents they once elected, are ready to move on.

David M. Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

© 2022 David Shribman

Distributed by Andrews McMeel Syndication

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