Monday, December 26, 2005

Saint Lincoln

A Boston Globe op-ed by Robert Kuttner, titled What Bush could learn from Lincoln, generates a lot of heat from defenders of the Bush administration. As is natural, since Kuttner's piece mostly is another attack along the well-trodden "Bush is a moron who doesn't ever admit he's wrong" path. Expect return fire.

But Kuttner chooses an odd set of armor for this latest run at Shrubbie the Impeachment Chimp. He contrasts the supposed politico-moral failings of Bush to the supposed politico-moral virtues of Old Abe. It's an ill-advised tactic at best, because when you comb through the histories, you find Lincoln went much farther than Bush in just about every realm where Bush-haters currently cry "foul."

Kenneth Anderson draws the anti-model to Kuttner as well as anyone, so I'll let him do it:

Kuttner and his antiwar confreres, for example, might seem like shining examples of Copperhead Democrats, eager for peace no matter what, having concluded that Lincoln was a simpleton whose only character trait was a stubborness and resistance to reason that had already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands in a lost war. As for democracy in the Middle East, Kuttner et al. might be thought to resemble those in Lincoln's day who thought that blacks were simply incapable of participating in self-government. As for religion, Kuttner et al. might be thought to resemble most closely the anti-war Democratic newspapers of the day - along with many of the sophisticated newspapers of Europe - who were appalled by the religiousity of the Second Inaugural Address and accused its author of offering "puritanical" theology in place of public policy, and who believed that Lincoln was invoking the mantle of the Almighty in order to shield his own policies from criticism - Lincoln was guilty, in their eyes, of being at once a believer and a hypocrite, which is not that different, so far as I can tell, from how Kuttner sees Bush. As for the belief that Lincoln acquainted himself with a wide range of opinion through his wide reading, whereas Bush lives apart from newspapers and criticism - well, ironically, both elite Radical New England opinion and elite New York Democratic anti-war opinion believed that the ill-educated Lincoln lived in a world shaped by Western frontier prejudices and that he was simply outside the mainstream of what American and European elites "knew" to be the real world, not so different from what Kuttner et al. in the "reality-based community" like to think of themselves and President Bush.

But Kuttner can sidestep all that obviousness, because he's really basing his column very narrowly, on a single new book: Doris Kearns Goodwin's examination of the internal politcs of Lincoln's administration and especially his cabinet. I haven't read that book yet (my beloved wife just got it for me for Christmas), but the rough outline of the story of Lincoln's cabinet is one I know pretty well.

Kuttner uses this story to paint Lincoln as a uniter, not a divider; a centrist who was patient with men who plotted against him; a hands-on and involved leader.

Well, again, the context matters. And the first point to bear in mind is that Lincoln's real, serious opposition was out of the picture -- the Southern Democrats. The Republican political gamble that put Lincoln in the White House made them decide their interests were safer outside the union than within it. Lincoln wanted to reel them back at any cost, so he rebuffed every effort they made to negotiate a peace with him.

So much for the peace-minded uniter.

Even in dealing with his political rivals, Lincoln made compromises and chose the path of inclusion because he had to. American political parties usually are big tents, but few have been more loosely stitched together than the early GOP. It was such a patchwork creature that its opponents expected it to fly to pieces after every election. Old-school high tariff Whigs and erratic, violent abolitionists and anti-Catholic Know-Nothings, who had beaten the hell out of one another rhetorically through the early 1850s, held hands and pretended they were friends because they saw no other way to capture power except in an alliance.

Lincoln simply couldn't afford to irritate any one wing of his inchoate party, which had more wings than a tailgate party. And each of the men in his cabinet represented a faction. Lincoln himself was an obscure man-without-a-faction -- that was a principal reason he had been chosen in 1860, as a compromise.

Not only the party was divided: The immediate danger Lincoln faced in 1861 was not only the South's armies, it involved the further destruction of the Union. The Northern cities, especially Philadelphia and New York, were commercially tied to the south and there was talk of breaking away. The border states, from Missouri to Delaware, still had not made their choices. The upper Mississippi ("the West," in Civil War terms) resented the dominance of the old North almost as much as the South did, and for many of the same reasons. With the lower Mississippi now in foreign hands, their farmers had good reason to treat with the owners of their main supply route. The Pacific coast was but loosely connected to the rest of the nation, and the Mormon colony in Utah dwelt uneasily under U.S. government control.

Each choice Lincoln made, each man he courted into his administration or promoted, even his Supreme Court picks, was carefully weighed for sectional influence. Lincoln's position of power was simply too weak to allow him the luxury of offending important men, of which there were a great many in Washington in 1861.

By invoking Lincoln and comparing him to Bush, Kuttner does us all a favor by inviting us to get to know our history better. He especially does a good deed on behalf of those of us who want to innoculate the nation against the Bush Derangement Syndrome that's spreading in the Democratic Party and the media (but now I'm being redundant). America was a different nation then, and the presidency was different in scale. That's neither Bush's fault nor Lincoln's. But it made for different styles. English journalist William Howard Russell, living in Washington in 1861, recounts scenes of the president trudging up to the White House from the post office, alone in the rain, with a parcel under his arm. Or visiting a general's headquarters, unannounced and, again, alone, and waiting till the officer had finished his nap before interrupting him. They were remarkable to Russell, accustomed to British pomp, as they are to us, accustomed to American pomp. They were commonplace then.

All of which makes me puzzle over the other half of Anderson's reaction. He claims Lincoln is "above the fray. ... Lincoln cannot, should not, be invoked ever in a partisan way in the moral discourse of the United States, because the whole point is that he belongs to all of us."

It is a mistake to look to the Redeemer President for vindication or repudication of particular policies in the present day, however tempting that exercise is for pundits. Fools rush in, etc. The reason is not that Lincoln and the Civil War are outside of history and outside of our ability to learn from them for the present. The difficulty is that we have placed Lincoln, through his martydom, outside of history, in the ordinary, day to day sense, and above all, in the partisan sense.

Well, that "he belongs to all of us" will come as a surprise to a great many people in the South, who remember what his armies did to their land and homes. But more importantly, I am eager to put Lincoln and the Civil War exactly back into the mainstream of history, and make them available for modern comparisons. In fact, I've done just that on several occasions. How else can we learn how far you can bend the rules in America and still join the national pantheon? How else can we learn the way a nation under the rule of law makes compromises in the name of a crusade, then recovers them?

Lincoln was a powerfully partisan man; he was a politician through and through. To forget that, or to willfully ignore it, is a disservice to us. It makes early America seem a golden age of pure philosopher-kings, and makes the present scene look hopeless and shabby. America has no saints. It has human beings whose memories we revere, not because they were perfect, but because their will to do good for us made them better men than they were by nature. Your human heart can't love a saint until you can leaven his life with the usual human frailties.

The Duchess of Orleans relates that the irreverent old calumniator, Marshal Villeroi, who in his youth had known St. Francis de Sales, said, on hearing him called saint: 'I am delighted to hear that Monsieur de Sales is a saint. He was fond of saying indelicate things, and used to cheat at cards. In other respects he was a perfect gentleman, though a fool.' " [Ambrose Bierce]