Abraham Lincoln and George Bush

History is the combination of the singular and the general. There are points in history when it is clear that the actions of a single person or a small group of people re-directed the flow of history. There are also large political and economic forces that drive history. For example, the Industrial Revolution altered everything from the availability of consumer goods and means and strategies for war making.

While it is possible to learn from singular events or individuals, it is not possible to predict with confidence when such singularities will occur. Americans have been uniquely blessed with the ability to usually choose the right leaders for the right times and the ability to suffer graciously through the less apt choices. President Abraham Lincoln was one of the singular individuals who changed history.

In drawing lessons from history, present day observers often reveal more about their own political perspectives by picking and choosing historical events to buttress their own judgments than recognize the broader truths of history. Writing in the Boston Globe, Robert Kuttner wants President George Bush to read and learn from Doris Kearns Godwin’s Team of Rivals about Abraham Lincoln. Through warmth of personality and “generosity of spirit,” Lincoln was able to pull together his political rivals into a cabinet that led a divided country through the Civil War. Kuttner argues that, by contrast, Bush wins by dividing rather than uniting.

It is more than a little presumptuous to expect of anyone the rather unique capacities of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln pulled together his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Indeed, William Seward was the odds on favorite to win the nomination, while Lincoln was the compromise candidate the party turned to at the last minute. In a very real sense, Lincoln needed a unity cabinet within his own party more than George Bush.

Perhaps Bush would have been better served by asking Senator John McCain, his competitor in the primaries of 2000, to be his Vice-President or to join his Cabinet. In 1860 William Seward and Salmon Chase carried with them large followings in the Republican Party. They brought their wings of the party to Lincoln’s Administration. At best, McCain has a modest Republican following with a large appeal to independents. It should be remembered when Bush chose Dick Cheney, Collin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld for Vice-President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense, respectively the general consensus was that he had selected experienced and mature advisers. The Cabinet was not viewed as divisive.

Kuttner’s real argument is that Bush has been unnecessarily divisive and he appeals to Lincoln to diminish Bush. While one might be able to find an ill-chosen statement or two, Bush has been largely collegial. He has certainly not engaged in the vitriol of the Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean who proudly proclaimed, “I hate Republicans and all they stand for.” Nor has Bush matched Democratic Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid who had to apologizing for telling high school students of Bush, “I think the guy is a loser.” Even in the heat of a political campaign, Bush never labeled an adversary’s policies as “unpatriotic” as General Wesley Clark did when he was running for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

It is impossible to argue against the proposition that we would all be better off if Bush had more of the qualities of Lincoln, especially Lincoln’s rhetorical capacity. However, there are some intriguing similarities between the Lincoln and Bush Administrations that Kuttner might have observed in Team of Rivals if his mind were less welded shut with ideology. Here are a few examples:

Team of Rivals begins with a quotation from the New York Herald of May 19, 1860 after Lincoln won the Republican nomination:

“The conduct of the Republican Party in this nomination is a remarkable indication of small intellect, growing smaller. They pass over… statesman and able men, and they take up a fourth rate lecturer, who cannot speak good grammar.”

Perhaps this snobbish arrogance with regard to Lincoln could serve as a salutary lesson to those on the Left who divide their time between arguing that Bush is a dolt or an evil genius.

During the Civil War the “Peace Democrats” or `Copperheads” were a faction of the Democratic Party who constantly argued for peace, searching for a compromise that would leave the country divided with slavery intact. Has Kuttner considered the lesson that perhaps some Democrats are yielding to the same temptation with regard to the War on Terror?

Seward was a leading light in the Republican Party, a well-educated lawyer from New York. As Secretary of State, many were convinced that Seward was the real power behind Lincoln’s Administration. Lincoln was the untutored Western puppet tethered to Seward’s strings. This miscalculation is presently mirrored in the assertion that Bush is a figurehead behind the real powers, Vice-President Dick Cheney or alternatively political adviser Karl Rove.

Both Lincoln and Bush suffered under ineffective or self-aggrandizing subordinates. Lincoln could never persuade General George McClellan to wage an aggressive campaign on Confederate Armies, while the general spent his time complaining and blamed others for failures. McClellan is reminiscent of terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, who through two administrations managed not to deal effectively with the Al Qaeda threat, yet always managed to paint himself as the put upon hero.

While Seward was a rival that became a friend and confidant to Lincoln, another rival Salmon Chase effectively managed the Treasury in the Cabinet, but would not relinquish his presidential ambitions. He constantly worked behind the scenes to undermine Lincoln, confident that the Republican Party would turn to him in 1864. Lincoln tolerated this while he needed Chase at Treasury. When Chase submitted his resignation in a fit of pique over a Treasury appointment, Lincoln quickly accepted the resignation and replaced Chase with a more congenial person. This is reminiscent of Collin Powell’s experience. Though Powell was not seeking the presidency, he and professionals in the State Department were quietly undermining presidential policies through leaks to the press. At the end of the first term, when Powell submitted his resignation, Bush quickly accepted. He replaced Powell with the supportive Condoleeza Rice. Powell did not even last to the second inauguration.

Godwin’s Team of Rivals reminds us of many important lessons we can learn from Lincoln and how truly singular Lincoln was. As usual, the Left ignores the most important lessons and reveals an animosity to Bush not unlike that endured by Lincoln.

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