How History Informs Our World

History has always been a tactile thing to me, and I like to think that I come by it honestly. I grew up on Missionary Ridge, a Civil War battlefield where you could still find Minié balls in the ground and in trees more than a century after Union troops broke the Confederate line in the autumn of 1863. As a boy, I played World War II, wearing my grandfather's old gunnery-officer Navy helmet from the Pacific. Years later, a secretary to Winston Churchill gave me one of the signed pictures of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt that had been presented to members of the prime minister's party during the White House Christmas of 1941—a souvenir that reminded me of the old lyric "I danced with a man who's danced with a girl who's danced with the Prince of Wales."

It is true that living in the past—to be a kind of History Channel Miss Havisham—can be bad for the mind and the soul, preventing us from engaging in the battles and causes of our own time. But when we are at our best, history and heroes enable us to look ahead, not backward. We are the sum of the stories we tell ourselves, and those stories are necessarily rooted in our experience, and by how we choose to interpret the experiences of others. These mechanics of memory create a new, present reality that then determines the future. To understand where a leader might take us, or what a friend is really like, requires understanding what they look to, and what they make of it.

There are moments around the NEWSWEEK offices when the interest many of us have in the past provides others with plenty of ammunition. A few years ago, Jonathan Alter and I were standing outside a small kitchen here, intensely debating the comparative significance of Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins in FDR's life. A colleague who needed an answer to a question about the issue of the magazine we were working on came by, shook his head sadly and somewhat pleadingly said: "Can't we please talk about this century for a minute?"

We could, and did, but in fact all the centuries run together. It is tempting in a discussion like this to cite a Certified Great to make the case, from Shakespeare ("What's past is prologue") to Faulkner ("The past is never dead; it's not even past") to Churchill ("The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope"). But we do not need an eloquent benediction to see an obvious truth: the future and the past and the present are all mixed up together.

What we choose to remember is critical, since the narratives that play in our heads shape everything. Churchill saw himself as another Marlborough or Nelson, defeating a Continental foe, and there was a happy ending. George W. Bush thought of himself as another Truman or Reagan, but the story would have turned out better if he had been willing to play the role of president more as his own father did.

This issue of stories and fathers seems particularly relevant at a time when we are about to choose between two presidential candidates who have thought deeply about history and family. It is interesting that both John McCain and Barack Obama are authors of books about their fathers; they clearly believe that, in Wordsworth's phrase, the child is father of the man.

Epigraphs from McCain's "Faith of My Fathers" and Obama's "Dreams From My Father" say much about their views of the world. McCain quotes the old hymn—a favorite of FDR's, the war president under whom McCain's father and grandfather served—from which he drew his title:

Obama cites a verse from I Chronicles. The passage is from a prayer of King David's at the end of his life: "For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers." Obama stops his quotation there, but the verse goes on: "our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding." Both the section Obama quoted and the one he did not speak to the same theme: life is transitory, incomplete—and incompletable.

The two men, then, have more in common than either might cheerfully acknowledge 17 weeks from Election Day. McCain's faith—in country, in his fellow prisoners, in himself—endured the dungeons of Hanoi, ultimately shaping a man with a wry, tragic sensibility. Some things work out, some things do not: the duty of the honorable man is to fight in the cause of the right, and perhaps the forces of light will edge out the forces of darkness.

Obama is just as pragmatic, and there is more tragedy in his view of the world than one might think. His rhetoric of hope is so powerful that the candidate's understanding of leadership as a fallible thing can go unnoticed.

The unsentimental passage from I Chronicles ("our days on the earth are as a shadow") "does speak to a certain sensibility that is part of my makeup, and that traces itself back to the circumstances of my birth and the absence of a father," Obama told me. "Growing up oftentimes means that imperfection and weakness and evil are all part of the human condition as much as joy and happiness and good are." The Obama narrative, like the McCain one, is grounded in the recognition that politics and life will never be perfect, but they can be better. "It's not pessimism," Obama said. "One of the things I am always trying to reject is a false choice between blind optimism and despair and cynicism. What I at least am always after is a hardheaded realism that does not extinguish hope."

Both nominees hear distant drumbeats. "I have a lot of role models and a lot of heroes, and I need them because I have been a flawed servant of my country," McCain told me. I asked him which presidents he bore in mind as inspirational figures. "On the obvious plus side, Lincoln, TR and Reagan are people who are in many respects my role models," McCain said. And who, I asked, do you think of and say, "I don't want to be him"? McCain replied: "One I was thinking about very recently because of this anti-free-trade, protectionism sentiment that understandably is being bred by our severe economic problems is Herbert Hoover. In 1930, he signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act and there were other actions that the administration and Congress took that sent us from a recession into a deep depression. And my study of history is that Herbert Hoover was at least acquiescent, if not very active, in taking all the wrong steps, which again not only didn't help the situation but exacerbated conditions which led to the most severe depression in the history of this nation."

Obama shares McCain's love of Lincoln. "When I think about presidents, I start with Lincoln, and not just because I'm from Illinois," Obama said. "I think he embodies those qualities that are the very best in America: upward mobility, an embrace of the future and an ability to stand fast on principle while acknowledging the other side of the debate." Washington's leaving office after two terms impresses Obama, too: "Our first president was someone who could step outside his own ambitions."

And the examples he wants to avoid? "You know, I have to admit that I don't spend a lot of time reading about failed presidents," he said, then went on: "There is a long list of presidents who did not rise to the times—Hoover, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson. Many of them are people who did not see, for example, the fault lines of slavery, or the dangers of depression."

McCain just finished a 1904 book of Theodore Roosevelt's about hunting, and is now reading Philip Bobbitt's "Terror and Consent." Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," is a hero of McCain's. "He's everything I always wanted to be, and has always been larger than life," McCain says. "I reread it all the time, and cry when he says, 'Maria, we won't be going to Madrid'."

In the pages that follow, a collection of NEWSWEEK writers contribute essays on things they think are important—arguments, insights and facts that can form the raw material for all sorts and conditions of stories. From Lincoln vs. Darwin to war presidents to whether politicians should pander, the issues raised will take you on excursions into the past or to unexpected precincts in the present.

Lincoln was the commander in chief of the Union armies that triumphed at Chattanooga. Understanding that greatness and humility are not mutually exclusive, he was always essential but not central in the drama that played inside his own head. When a Northern minister visited the White House during the Civil War and told the president how glad he was that God was on the Union's side, Lincoln corrected him, saying: "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side." He knew that pride goeth before a fall, and courage is not the same thing as hubris. That is a story worth telling ourselves often.