Saturday, November 15, 2008
There is no shortage of advice, criticism, analysis and expert opinion offered on Barack Obama, eleven days after his election to the presidency. This pundit, labeled a cultural critic and senior editor of the New Republic, has some tough criticisms of Obama's declared kinship with Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Obama's publicly declared kinship with Lincoln is long-lived and meticulously fashioned.
Imagery plays such an important part in politics: Tippacanoe, Old Hickory were two of the earliest. Lincoln is a near-saint in American politics and society, and to connect oneself with Old Abe is smart.
Mr. Obama's close identification with such an admirable figure is itself admirable, and it seems as sincere as it's calculated to please and impress. And yet there's something puzzling about his obsession with a president whose tenure was entirely taken up with conducting the bloodiest war the modern world had seen, and whose eloquence and intelligence we perhaps would not be aware of if the republic's imminent dissolution hadn't inspired him to remarkable feats of self-mastery and self-expression. For at times, Lincoln's mighty rhetorical gift led him into morally dangerous or emotionally disconnected waters.
Of course it's calculated; Obama is a politician. Puzzling? Abe Lincoln did not become eloquent and intelligent because of the Civil War, but the War did require his intelligence and eloquence to govern a divided nation in the throes of an insurrection based on retaining slavery.
Along with the eloquence, and the geography, there are more than a few social and psychological parallels between Mr. Obama and Lincoln. Aside from the connections Mr. Obama himself likes to point out -- humbly born, adversity-afflicted, self-made men -- there is the unwitting testimony to the two men's affinity made by Lincoln's commentators, and even his friends.
Edmund Wilson and William Herndon are quoted as calling Lincoln "intent, self-controlled, strong in intellect, tenacious of purpose" and "not impulsive, fanciful, or imaginative, but calm and precise."
There is a significant difference, I think of course, between Wilson and Herndon. Herndon was Lincoln's contemporary and law partner; Wilson, an American writer and literary critic, was born in 1895, fully 30 years after Lincoln was assassinated. To couple Wilson and Herndon is a choice some, I among them, would not agree with readily. It seems a slippery choice, a questionable choice, to make: elevating Wilson to the level of Herndon is debetable, to say the least. Herndon knew Lincoln; Wilson wrote about Lincoln.
Yes, Edmund Wilson is venerated by liberal intellectuals, yet that hardly qualifies him to be regarded as an authority. Of course, a mere peek at the Wikipedia article on Wilson reveals much: He was the managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1920 and 1921, and later served as Associate Editor of The New Republic and as a book reviewer for The New Yorker. His works influenced novelists Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Floyd Dell, and Theodore Dreiser. He wrote plays, poems, and novels, but his greatest strength was literary criticism.
Wilson was an editor at The New Republic; Siegel is a senior editor at the same publication. Seems an almost-incestuous (intellectually) relationship.
My point is that citing Wilson as an authority is, at the least, questionable. Even though Siegel quotes Wilson in a largely innocuous manner, he uses Wilson as a building block in his argument. And just what is that argument?
But it is easy to miss the most significant relationship between Lincoln and Mr. Obama. For Mr. Obama, the most important point of similarity derives from a most fundamental difference.
President-elect Obama will be ruling during a time of economic crisis; President Lincoln ruled during a time of civil war.
The American Civil War ended the institution of slavery in the South: the self-made white president who prosecuted the war created the conditions for the self-made black senator.
To me, this seems quite a stretch; it reaches the level of absurdity. Defeating the Confederacy ended slavery, indeed, yet there would pass another century before an United States Congress would pass legislation explicitly legitimizing the right of blacks to vote. Not to minimize what Abe Lincoln did, for I am an unabashed admirer of Father Abraham, but it bears repeating that a century would pass after Appomattox before the US Congress legislated what Lincoln and Grant (and countless others) fought to make fact.
Yet, I'll follow our editor's logic: No American politician has ever prided himself so self-consciously on his linguistic gifts as did Lincoln, or worked so hard to cultivate them. But his legendary and indisputable eloquence had a double edge.
Granted (no pun intended, yet pun acknowledged), Lincoln worked at his linguistic facility. Of course he did. Let me consider: 1862: telegraph is high-tech; battles rage in Virginia, merely a few miles from the Nation's capital ; newspapers are the only means, other than rumour and gossip, of getting news out to the public. In the middle of this, the President of the not-entirely-United States needs to manage the news spilling out of Manassas and Fredericksburg, all the while contending with only with Lee, but also with Little Napoleon, his own Army's General George B. McClellan (not the one our very own Governor Sarah Palin thought to be the current, circa 2008, commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but the actual Army of the Potomac Commander-in-Chief). Eloquence would seem to be an important attribute, lest fear and misinformation serve to undermine the confidence of the populace in the eventual thriumph of the Union and its Armed Forces in the common struggle against insurrection and the defense of slavery. Lincoln had no radio, no television, no web; he had words as his primary, perhaps only, means of rallying the peoples in the defense of, and abiding solidarity with, the campaign in defense of the Union and battle to defeat civil insurrection.
Mr. Obama, too, can fall into the trap that waits for people to whom words come quickly and easily. So states our editor, to whom words seem, also, to come readily. Is then our editor also possibly a victim of said trap?
Our editor states that Obama writes about how he gazes at Lincoln's portrait, believing that Lincoln "still cherishes his memories -- of an imperfect world and its fleeting, sometimes terrible beauty." But it is difficult to imagine Lincoln cherishing the memories of the deaths of his two beloved sons, or of the incredible carnage that he unleashed in the Civil War. "Imperfect world"; "terrible beauty" -- these are mellifluous yet weak words for such unspeakable experiences.
Our editor supposes a great deal. He implies, nay states, he knows what not only his contemporary is thinking, but also what his antecedent was, or may have been, thinking; seems quite a reach.
Further, and I do not mean to imply I know what Abraham Lincoln was thinking 145 years ago, perhaps the President of the United States in 1863 was considering the world before his Presidential eyes, and not (just) his father eyes. As a father myself, I know I would be devestated by the death of a child of mine; yet I can perceive that, were I not only a father, were I by some miraculous historical happenstance, a President, I might rise beyond my personal tragedy and misfortune, and see the fate of my country. Considering the fate of my Nation, I might well "cherish memories of an imperfect world and its fleeting, sometimes terrible beauty."
In spite of the tragedy of losing two children, I might well cherish, I dare imagine, memories not of the incredible carnage unleashed by the Civil War, but of the Union handed down to us by our forebearers. I vehemently disagree that President Lincoln unleashed the carnage of the Civil War. The States that seceeded from the Union would have fought for slavery no matter who became President of the United States. It fell to Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, the Republican nominee, to defend the legacy of Washington, Jay, Jefferson and Hamilton. Indeed, they of the South, sought to undo the Union. Their actions unleashed that terrible carnage. Abraham Lincoln sought to defend the Union, at all costs. Lee, Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and that entire clique were the ones that unleashed the terrible carnage by defending slavery and defying the authority and legitimacy of the Union of the United States.
Such unspeakable experiences were unleashed by the Rebels, not by Lincoln. President Lincoln understood that only the utter and complete defeat of the Confederacy, only vanquishing the Rebellion wholly and completely, would end slavery and save the Union. Robert E Lee understood it as well. Mere days after surrendering to General US Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, General Lee urged all other Confederate forces to surrender, and all of the Confederacy to accept defeat, and to accept Federal supremacy and victory.
Mr. Obama, like Lincoln, has a very powerful sense of himself as an agent of historical destiny.
Obama understands the role that the populace carves out for their President: part myth is of it. Abe Lincoln understood it, too, eventually. It is not enough to be Chief Executive, for the Nation is not simply an Organization. The President of the United States is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the Nation, but that is only part of what he is, and the Civil War and the Great Depression-perhaps of 2008 call for more than just occupying the Oval Office.
Indeed, Mr. Obama's words sometimes leap with a degree of vanity beyond a clear meaning, just as Lincoln's own grandiloquence sometimes led him astray.
Yes, even our editor concurs that speech, the very words that our President uses, are subject to very careful and meditated scrutinity. All the more reason, I would argue and contend, for flowery speech and melifluous rhetoric. Times call(ed) for it.
To say, as Mr. Obama did in Grant Park, that Lincoln's America was "far more divided than ours" is to engage in, as the English teachers used to say, invidious comparison. Why compare our America to Lincoln's at all?
Well, hell, for one, I do not recall my English teacher speaking of invidious comparison. Well, that's my problem. But I will say that I see a reason for comparing our 2008 crisi to Lincoln 1861 crisis: our Nation is indeed divided, not between slavers and abolitionists, but between the very few and the very many. We are facing a very severe crisis. We are on the precipice of a calamity equal to, and perhaps greeater than, that faced by our antecedents in 1929. If not for what FDR did, namely Social Security, the SEC and the FDIC, we would now be in a greater shithole than that in which Herbert Hoover put this Nation in 1929.
When Mr. Obama talks about a "divided" country, he seems to mean a country in which critical social and economic issues have yet to be resolved.
That is one man's opinion; I do not agree. I do not see the basis for the arguments our editor is making. To me, he seems to be searching for a basis for arguing, as if arguing is more important than considering that perhaps we might give our new President-elect a bit of time to get his act and Administration going and working.
Some folks simply need to disagree. Our editor seems to fit in with that crowd.
Compared, however, to the politics of the riven 1960s, or the McCarthyite 1950s, or the imploding 1930s, our last few elections have been like springtime walks through the park.
I disagree; Lee Atwater and George HW Bush were no picnic. Willie Horton was a 1980s way of screaming NIGGER without using the word itself. The 1960s were riven, indeed, by the US pursuing a war strategy based on Anti-Communism, predicated on not allowing the VietNamese exercising self-determination after defeating French forces at Dien Bien Phu. And consider that in 2008 the Democratic Party nominee was attacked for "pallying around with terrorists" or being a Socialist or Communist.
Abe Lincoln was called worse, in explicit terms, yet the intent and meaning were similar: do not trust this man to be our leader, for he is evil, and dangerous. Ironically, Abrham Lincoln proved to be the President who saved the Union.
As the 1860 election ran its course, after Lincoln secured the Republican nomination (after ugly and contentious attacks from Seward and Chase, among others), the choice was between the Rpeublican Lincoln who affirmed his defense of the Union, Douglas, who defended slavery, and Breckenridge, a Confederate apologist who would eventually become a military officer of the Rebellion.
Our editor attacks President-elect Obama on numerous counts: Mr. Obama's low threshold for "division" could be the reason why some of his critics claim to see in him a contempt for the sometimes sordid expediencies of mere politics, as if Mr. Obama considered any heated argument, by definition, an aberration of democracy, rather than as one of its essences.
Some of his critics? Doth our esteemed editor include himself therein? If so, why doth he refrain from declaring himself a critic?
Do sordid experiences of mere politics include Willie Horton and John McCain illegitimate dark child? It is difficult to comprehend what our (sarcastic voice) esteemed editor (end of sarcastic voice) means. Does he merely wish to be skeptical, or is there intellectually valid basis to his harangue?
And no one wonders whether blaming principled disagreement on malicious "division" already begs the question of which side is right -- the side crying malicious "division," of course -- and of whether that right, as Lincoln would have said, makes might.
No one wonders? Whom, pray tell, is no one? Lincoln would have said? Is our esteemed editor entitled any more than President-elect Obama to suppose what Old Abe would, or might, have said? Pray tell.
Insofar as Lincoln had ideas about the society and the politics of his day, his questions would have left Mr. Obama disappointed.
Again: is our editor any more knoeledgable of Be's mind than Obama?
Though Lincoln was kind and rich in empathy himself, he would not have cast a sympathetic eye toward redistributing wealth between lucky rich and unlucky poor.
Say what? President Lincoln ruled in an age of concentrated wealth which makes our hedge fund-infested day seem downright democratic, perhaps indeed populist. To cast President Lincoln as a defender of "lucky rich" seems a stretch, at best, perhaps even an absolute falsehood.
No, Mr. Obama's Lincoln is the wartime Lincoln who barely knew a minute's peace; the militant Lincoln who elevated preservation of the Union over his abhorrence of slavery; the Christlike Lincoln who brooded mysteriously over first and last things; the divinely appointed Lincoln who felt that he could not escape history because he embodied history. Calm, precise, and methodical he may have been, but Lincoln was, in his own mind, that very "towering genius" that "thirsts and burns for distinction" of which he spoke when he was a young man. Not everyone, even his supporters, would agree with President-elect Obama that such an image is "soothing."
Lincoln came to see that preservation of the Union and the ending of slavery were one and the same; ending slavery became the reason for waging War against the Rebels. President Lincoln stated that ending slavery and defeating the Rebellion were one and the same. He did not elevate the preservation of the Union over his abhorrence of slavery; he equated the two as one.
Lincoln did not feel that he could not escape history; agreed. He did accept that he embodied history. Calm, precise, and methodical he may have been, but Lincoln was, in his own mind, that very "towering genius" that "thirsts and burns for distinction" of which he spoke when he was a young man. Not everyone, even his supporters, would agree with President-elect Obama that such an image is "soothing."
Well, as a supporter of President-elect Obama, as a student of Lincoln and as a student of the Civil War, as a student of modern Us politics, I do think of Barack Obama, and of Abraham Lincoln, as soothing figures.
Out of the crucible of war comes the leader of peace. Abraham Lincoln waged war to save the Union and for peace. Unlike cheap pretenders such as Nixon and Reagan, to name two of his most reprehensible successors, Lincoln did want and value peace. Not discounting or ignoring his political nature, it is easy to state that Lincoln waged war to make peace, to save the Union.
A centure and a quarte, and then some, after Abraham Lincoln's presidency, it is