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The Lincoln Model January 17, 2009

Posted by neoavatara in History, Politics.
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http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/01/17/lincoln.obsession/index.html

Barack Obama is not shy about hiding his admiration of Abraham Lincoln. He is taking  a train whistle stop tour like Lincoln, and will be using the Lincoln Bible at his swearing in.  And he claims that he faithfully read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals when deciding on his own cabinet.  I stongly recommend the book myself.

The symbolism of the first African American president using every connection to Lincoln of course is obvious.  Lincoln, before and after his death, was portrayed as a hero, then a martyr, to the cause of emancipation.  He very much singlehandedly refused to allow the nation to disintegrate.

But to use platitudes to understand Lincoln is also misleading.  Goodwin makes much of the Team of Rivals to look like a positive.  She does, in her defense, record these difficulties, but never really goes deep into how much of a headache they were to Lincolhn.  It caused Lincoln much distress.

An LA Times editorial, linked here, also made similar points.   First, Lincoln asked his rivals to work with him largely because of his own deficits as in coming president; this was a positive, because Lincoln has the self confidence to allow ‘bigger men’ to work under him.  His acceptance of these rivals did alienate close friendships that had lasted for decades.  This was most famously stated by Chicago Tribune Managing Editor Joseph Medill in 1861:

“We made Abe and, by God, we can unmake him.”

You wonder if the Clintons, Pelosi, and Kennedys have similar thoughts.

At the height of the war, when he needed the most support, he had a Cabinet crisis.  Two opposing delegations started infighting, one supporting Secretary of State William Seward, the other Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase (who both thought they would make better presidents; Seward grew out of that thinking, growing fond of Lincoln; Chase believed he was superior to his dying day).  Lincoln himself stated that “We are now on the brink of destruction.”  Chase would actively try to run against Lincoln in 1864, until Lincoln secured the nomination, and showed Chase the door.

Simon Cameron, another top vote getter, was barely mentioned by Goodwin.  He was named Secretary of War, but was quickly removed because of incompetence and corruption.

Attorney General Edward Bates was disgusted by all the infighting, and resigned during the first term.

Only Seward, and later Edward Stanton, who was of the opposing party and would become an excellent Secretary of War (remind you of Robert Gates?) would last the entire Civil War.

Why do I bring this up?  Because the ethos built around the ‘Team of Rivals’ concept by Goodwin is too simplified.  It wasn’t the team that succeeded.  It was Lincoln, the man himself.  He was the one that was able to prevail, whether the war was going badly, whether his confidants were infighting and backstabbing, or his family was falling apart.  It was the man’s greatness by itself that sustained his presidency.  Sure, Seward and Stanton were essential for victory, but much less so than Lincoln himself.

Additionally, Lincoln was above all a pragmatist.  He was a constitutionalist, until it was impossible to be one.  He suspended habeas corpus.  This was later ruled unconstitutional in ex parte Merryman, but not after Lincoln achieved what he wanted.  He instituted military tribunals even though civil courts were still functioning (this was later overturned as unconsitutional in ex parte Milligan).

Obama would be wise to understand the difference between strick ideology and reality.  The same goes for his cabinet.  He has picked a reasonably well respected group around him.  Many are ‘rivals’.  Hillary of course.  Biden as well.  Richardson is now gone.  But of course, many have their own ideologies, their own goals, and he would be wise to remember that.

Obama must ultimately chart his own course.  Looking to heroes like Lincoln, especially with the profound symbolism of his election, cannot be avoided.  But Obama must learn the true lesson of Lincoln:  Be true to your own beliefs.  If he is manhandled by others, he will have really forgotten the lessons of Abraham Lincoln.

t1homemallwidecnn

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