Friday, February 25, 2011
The Politician America Loves to Love
Try naming the greatest American presidents, and three immediately leap to the head of the class: Washington, Lincoln and FDR. It’s elementary; they all took office when the country was on the verge of falling apart, and all three, in different ways, kept that from happening.
For various reasons Washington and Roosevelt haven’t entirely captured the imagination of today’s public. Washington was an aristocrat and slave owner, had an aloof personality, and wasn’t terribly quotable. His genius was to lend the force of his quiet personality and authority to a new and precariously situated government so it could function and establish itself. Good administration makes bad drama.
FDR rewrote the social contract, gave people hope in the country’s darkest economic hour, and saved capitalism from itself. A lot of capitalists, and their fellow travelers in the punditry, have never forgiven him.
Lincoln, however, has become the great American icon — the one politician (and he was definitely a politician) almost all of us seem to admire and respect. I was reminded of that this week when the Rotary Club of Gilroy, CA invited me to give my talk “Lincoln’s Greatest Speeches and Why They Worked” as a Presidents Day program.
In the talk I attempt to trace the evolution of Lincoln’s thought and rhetoric from the Cooper Union speech of February 1860, which probably won him the presidency, to the Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, which, with its hauntingly beautiful closing sentence, leaves you wondering how much better a country this would be if he had lived to the end of the term.
It’s not original scholarship, but rather a synthesis of existing literature on Lincoln, with a few thoughts of my own thrown in. The point, if there is one, is that over the years he moved from precise legal argument to broad moral concern expressed poetically and even quasi-religiously, though he was not a conventionally religious man.
You wouldn’t think a subject like that would be of general interest, and if it were about anyone else, it probably wouldn’t be. But even people who have no use for history seem to be fascinated by Lincoln, perhaps because they want to believe in leadership unvarnished and somehow more pure than what they see on TV today.
America’s love affair with Lincoln has been going on for a long time. In 1922 H.L. Mencken wrote that there are four kinds of books that never lose money in the United States — detective stories; novels with lurid sex themes; volumes on spiritualism and occultism; and finally, books on Lincoln.
I see the fascination whenever I give the talk. Typically, at least a dozen people come up after the meeting to talk about the presentation. If there’s time for audience questions, they come fast, furious, and on the most amazing subjects. This week I was asked what kind of suit Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated. I said I didn’t know but it was probably black and ill-fitting; then a woman in the audience raised her hand to say she’d just been reading about it, and that it was a Brooks Brothers suit. I’m taking her word, but leaving it out of the talk.
Seven score and ten years after Lincoln’s presidency, even most white Southerners have reluctantly accepted the end of slavery, and the rest of the country regards his role in ending it to be an act of great statesmanship. It was, but let’s not forget Harry Truman’s definition of a statesman: A dead politician.