Friday, October 12, 2001

My first column for 2001 commented on the remarkable change in the demeanor of then president-elect George W. Bush, a transformation from uncertain winner to man-in-charge. The spectacle invited a historic parallel and, because the events of the last days confirmed the validity of that parallel, I shall begin by reproducing the relevant passages.

“Students of history might contemplate the life of Henry, Prince of Wales, son of King Henry IV, affectionately known as Hal, one of Shakespeare’s favorite characters.

“In his early years, Prince Hal got into some questionable company and engaged in activities best forgotten, much of it connected with the excessive enjoyment of intoxicating beverages.

“When suddenly, upon the death of his father, he became King Henry V, many who had known him during his years of abandon thought little of the event. They figured only that they would now have an old crony on the throne. ‘King Hal, my royal Hal,’ exclaims Sir John Falstaff, expecting to encounter the same person who had spent countless rowdy nights in the tavern he calls home.

“The young king’s stunning answer to Falstaff is commended to the attention of friend and foe: ‘Presume not that I am the thing I was.’ “

The event to test the mettle of the young king arrived in the form of tennis balls sent by the dauphin of France, accompanied by sarcastic reminders of Henry’s youth. The message carried to the king by the French ambassadors was tantamount to a declaration of war. Henry V responded on Saint Crispin’s Day in what is known as the Battle of Agincourt.

The battle he won was against overwhelming odds. The French armies, led by highly experienced knights, vastly outnumbered the British. George W. Bush has had to overcome forces highly organized and pitched against him in his own land forces that no president in living memory had to face. He was treated not only with hostility but with contempt.

And then the hour struck, and George W. Bush faced Congress and the people of the United States. “He today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he e’er so vile,” exclaims King Henry as dawn breaks over the fields of Agincourt. I do not know whether the president’s speechwriters study Shakespeare, and President Bush does not command the delivery of a Lawrence Olivier.

Yet the world fell silent when he extended the call, even to the ever-so vile, to join him. And none could fail to hear the warning issued to those who would choose the other side. All understood there was a decision to be made, one time, irrevocable.

Lessons of history used to guide us in times of need. Certainly, the men who wrote America’s charters would have been lost without them.

But history, our own and that of the world, has been systematically taken from us. Disguised as “National Standards for U.S. History,” the effort was spearheaded by the history department of the University of California at Los Angeles, the ideology provided by one Gary Nash whose political views appear indistinguishable from the ones I had been fed while growing up in Soviet-occupied Hungary.

Since 1995, the “Standards” have taken over history instruction everywhere in the land with devastating results. Even valiant efforts, such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s High School for American History, are hostage to books that represent a collection of the irrelevant, the untrue, the downright anti-American.

As we slowly regain our common American identity, we must also reconnect ourselves to history. Our young need to understand we are defending more than a sense of security when we go to a ball game, or the choice of a dozen fast foods on every corner. They need to become aware of America’s place in the larger scheme of things.

It has taken the entire length of mankind’s existence to create a land in which people can travel societies’ avenues up, down and sideways, with nothing to stand in the way of someone who swept floors yesterday splitting atoms tomorrow. It has taken a most unusual propensity for living by the law to have avoided all the tempests that were the undoing of other societies. It has taken the Founders’ divine inspiration and any number of minor miracles to erect an umbrella under which the wretched of the world became saviors of the world. Our young need to know.

And our enemies need to know. Godspeed, Mr. President. You have found the ways to let everyone know.

Balint Vazsonyi is a concert pianist and director of the Center for the American Founding.

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