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Speaking with the past
What Would Abraham Lincoln Do? Presidents should be able to ask a computer.
A group of historians met in March with the President. Some have interpreted this as a signal that President Biden was trying to figure out his legacy even before his administration was truly underway. A different interpretation is offered by Jon Meacham, who coordinated the event and says the President wanted to know "how have previous presidents dealt with fundamental crises[?]".
■ The two reasons don't have to be at odds. In fact, anyone with even a sliver of awareness about the Presidency knows that we mostly remember our Chief Executives not for anything they ever promised on the campaign trail, but rather for how they responded to critical events -- George W. Bush on September 11th, John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt on December 7th, 1941. It's the unpredictable events that make the Presidency.
■ Moreover, we should want our Presidents to behave with an eye not merely on the present, but to the judgment of history. What's popular in the moment may not be what's right for the well-being of the country, particularly for generations to come. As Calvin Coolidge put it, "While it is wise for the President to get all the competent advice possible, final judgments are necessarily his own. No one can share with him the responsibility for them. No one can make his decisions for him."
■ In that sense, perhaps our Presidents should meet with historians more often -- like a Kitchen Cabinet, but composed of people there strictly to offer the advice of history. Presidential problems are never exactly the same twice, but they can be informed by previous experience. That's certainly why Presidents decorate the Oval Office with portraits and busts of their predecessors and other laudable figures.
■ Ideally, a President would seek to study and interpret the past on his or her own, since there is no substitute for organically learning a subject -- but not everyone is as voracious a reader as Theodore Roosevelt, who was said to tear through a book a day. Time and other constraints preclude most Presidents from becoming their own Presidential historians.
■ We should consider, though, whether a thoroughly modern invention could help -- even if only modestly. It has become clear that artificial intelligence has a lot of potential, but it depends mightily on the raw material it has been fed. Just a little of the wrong source material and things can turn quite rotten. However, it seems like there is abundant reason to consider experimenting, at least, with training artificial intelligence to behave like what one might call a "personality engine". While a search engine uses AI to query the world of knowledge, a personality engine would use AI to delve into the thinking of an individual person.
■ Presidents in particular leave behind long trails of raw material: Speeches, notes, autobiographies, letters, and more. Even though some of that material is now ghostwritten, it's always written to intentionally reflect the "voice" of the President credited with those thoughts and words. It seems likely we could take a former President's body of work and use it to train an engine of artificial intelligence to tell us: Given this problem, what would Abraham Lincoln do? It seems daft not to at least try.
■ The advice of modern-day historians is a worthwhile supplement, but it also comes filtered through the thinking of the individual historian. The unfiltered, AI-adapted version of former Presidents, meanwhile, might well be more authentic -- but certainly would need, from time to time, to be interpreted through contemporary standards. No President had to even consider the women's vote until Warren Harding, and even some modern-day Presidents have held loathsome prejudices on matters like religion and race.
■ But on many big-picture questions, the volumes of words left behind by prior Presidents may well offer aid to those considering the problems of today. If the advice is bad, it can certainly be ignored. But to really extract the advice of the past, a President surely needs more than two hours with some historians once in a term.