Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lincoln: Too Great to be on the Penny

I know he's on Mt. Rushmore and that he has his own monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but somehow, I think I never realized the true greatness of Abraham Lincoln.

A few years back, when Barack Obama was debating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, I recall news that "Team of Rivals", an historic account of the Lincoln Presidency, had been a driving influence for Obama.  Since he was so unknown at the time, I took an interest in that book as a source of insight as to what the young candidate might be about.

However, given my habit of buying books at a faster rate than I read books, I didn't get around to cracking the weighty, and densely written tome until recently.  After seeing the Spielberg film, that is reportedly based "in part" on the book, I decided it was time.

This is not a book review, though if it were, it would be glowing.  This is just a short collection of thoughts I felt like sharing:

Lincoln exploded from relative obscurity and gained the Republican nomination for President through a shrew political strategy.  The newly formed Republican party was an amalgamation of three former parties, each headed by a well-established, political heavy-weight.  Each of those heavy-weights had their own,  strong pocket of support, and each was considered to have a good shot at the nomination; Lincoln was considered an also-ran.

Knowing that each powerful faction would attack the other two rival factions, Lincoln set out to be everyone's second choice. In this way, he stayed out of the direct line of attack and, as each rival candidate was rendered "unelectable" by the press from the other two, Lincoln secured the nomination.  When all three came together to support him in the election, the Republicans carried the day and had their first President.

The title of the book comes from Lincoln's sharp break with tradition of the time.  He eschewed the custom of awarding plum cabinet jobs to his closest supporters and like-minded allies, and instead, appointed political enemies to several key cabinet positions.  This would be like Obama nominating Newt Gingrich for Secretary of State and John Boehner as Treasury Secretary.  From what I gather, it was as unthinkable then as it would be today, but he did it.

It is clear that even Lincoln's contemporaries recognized the historic magnitude of his character.  Leo Tolstoy, renowned thinker and writer of the time, said "the greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln".  Perhaps the metaphor got away from Tolstoy but, if not, that's an enormous difference to draw between any man and the greatest known leaders of the day.

Maybe (probably) I wasn't paying attention in school but I never knew that Lincoln was assassinated as part of a plot to kill him and two other key figures.  On the same evening, Lincoln was shot, Secretary of State Seward was stabbed in the throat (but survived), and Vice President Johnson escaped harm when his would-be assailant had a change of heart.

Finally, the book made clear that political divisiveness was as sharp in Lincoln's day as it is today.  A speech by the President would have been hailed as a visionary milestone by one media outlet, while characterized as short-sighted hypocrisy by another.  The key difference I think is that, in those times, the masses understood clearly that all press was agenda-driven. I can't say for sure that is the case today.

Overall, great guy.  Too great to be on the penny.