When Hal Bidlack asks about the Battle of Hastings, he generously assumes I know the year (1066, it turns out) and who was fighting (the Normans of northern France invaded England).
He goes on to talk about the battle's really interesting aspect, which for him makes that slice of 11th-century history come alive.
"Why did the Normans win?" he asks.
He pauses before answering, eyes gleaming with the enthusiasm that's likely enthralled students he's taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"They had one technological advantage," Bidlack says. "They had stirrups."
This simple advance, he explains, let their soldiers fight effectively from horseback and put an indelible stamp on European history from that point forward.
"Too often," he says, "history is just taught as names and dates."
Bidlack's historical sidenote from nearly 1,000 years ago might seem far afield in a conversation about his plan to run as a Democrat for the congressional seat now held by Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn. But it's also revealing. Bidlack, a 49-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, earned his doctorate studying American government. He clearly sees solutions to the nation's problems and lessons to be taken from careful study of history.
He also seems confident that the leadership skills he honed during 25 years in the military could help him serve the country further.
The hard part about contemplating a run for office, he admits, is having to talk so much about himself.
"It's a little embarrassing to me, to have to brag," Bidlack says.
That hesitance does not mean Bidlack is reluctant to speak. Eating lunch alongside "interim" campaign director Tom Ward, Bidlack talks rapid-fire about U.S. history, his policy positions and his qualifications to hold office.
He'll continue teaching government at the academy as a civilian through April. He plans to give his notice and formally announce his candidacy April 2.
He expresses some regret that he'll miss the last two weeks of the academic year, mostly during exams. But Ward suggests the campaign itself will be instructive: "In a sense, it's putting all you teach into practice."
No other Democrat has indicated plans to run for Colorado's 5th District seat, so it appears Bidlack's first competition will be Nov. 4 against the Republican nominee, whether Lamborn or one of his two primary challengers.
Bidlack admits it's likely to be a tough race. Jay Fawcett, also a retired Air Force officer, lost by nearly a 60-40 margin in 2006, even after a number of local Republicans backed him over Lamborn.
One difference this time, Bidlack points out, is that it's a presidential year, with high turnout potentially rocking a historically conservative region. (The district covers most of a six-county area from Colorado Springs west to Salida, Buena Vista and Leadville.)
He thinks voters will share his positions: He believes the Iraq war was a mistake; he thinks government must be fiscally responsible; and he worries the Bill of Rights has been eroded as government has claimed authority to snoop through citizens' e-mail messages and monitor their lives.
Bidlack holds positions that, some would say, could make him vulnerable in national security matters. But he emphasizes that in the Air Force, he served with the National Security Council and the State Department, and as a nuclear missile launch officer.
"I was literally a finger-on-the-button guy, defending our country," he says.
He is more reluctant to talk about a bit of happenstance that personalizes the effort to catch Osama bin Laden. Serving in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, he was at a doctor's appointment at the Pentagon when the building was struck by a hijacked airliner.
He declines to talk in detail about what he saw or did afterward, saying only that it was a day when the worst and best sides of humanity were on display.
"It would be shameful to try and capitalize on that," he says.
As for the public-speaking side of being a congressman, Bidlack's experience is deep, if somewhat nontraditional.
Besides his teaching, Bidlack has been giving performances for about a decade as Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation's founding fathers, both on the radio and in person.