Friday, July 10, 2009

# Posted 7:12 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ABE LINCOLN WAS NO ABE LINCOLN (BUT BARACK OBAMA MIGHT BE): If you thought five books was a lot to review, try seven. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz takes on that challenge in a cover story for The New Republic.

Wilentz begins by recounting a crude remark about "mulatters" (i.e. mulattos) that Lincoln made while stumping for Gen. Winfield Scott, his party's presidential candidate in 1952. Wilentz explains,

My point in re-telling this story is not to try, yet again, to debunk Lincoln's reputation for probity and sagacity, and for perfect enlightenment on racial issues... My point is simpler and larger. It is that Abraham Lincoln was, first and foremost, a politician.
It is a point that applies equally well to other hero-politicians such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and (in some quarters) Barack Obama. Wilentz continues:

In 1854, when Lincoln began shifting his loyalties to the anti-slavery Republican Party, the tone as well as the substance of his speeches became grander, and the casual racism receded...But it is important to understand that those later pronouncements of Lincoln's were no less political that his earlier ones...He was a shrewd and calculating creature of politics; and he achieved historical greatness in his later years because of, and not despite, his political skills. It was the only way that anyone could have completed the momentous tasks that history, as well as his personal ambition, had handed to him...

Yet many of Lincoln's latter-day admirers, the most effusive as well as the begrudging, prefer a fantasy Lincoln who experienced some sort of individual awakening or mystical conversion, who somehow transcended politics for a realm more pure.
Perhaps you can see where this is going. Regardless, you'll have to skip ahead almost 20,000 words to arrive at Wilentz's comments about Obama.
Our president is hardly the innocent that he tries to appear to be, but it is precisely his intensely political character, the political cunning that lies behind all his "transcendence" of politics, that makes him Lincolnian; and it comes as a great relief from the un-Lincolnian sanctimony that surrounds his image.
You can see why Wilentz was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton in the primaries. She clearly has the cunning of a Lincoln, whereas Obama's cunning was so great that even Wilentz apparently mistook him for the high-minded idealist he said he was. The article continues,
The Obama campaign, with its talk of repudiating politics as usual and creating a new post-partisan era in Washington, and with its liturgical incantations of "change" and "hope," aroused liberal anti-politics to a fever pitch. The above-politics talk also appears to have played a major role in winning Obama favor with the political press and the intellectuals, as well as with many more Americans (including not a few libertarian Republicans) for whom "politics" means "dirty politics."...

Although Obama's supporters at times likened him to the two Kennedys, and at times to FDR, the comparisons always came back to Lincoln--with the tall, skinny, well-spoken Great Emancipator from Illinois serving as the spiritual forebear of the tall, skinny, well-spoken great liberal hope from Illinois.

The danger with the comparison does not have too much to do with the real Barack Obama, whose reputation will stand or fall on whether he succeeds or fails in the White House. The danger is with how we understand our politics, and our political history, and Abraham Lincoln...In misunderstanding Abraham Lincoln, these writers misunderstand American democratic politics, in Lincoln's day as well as in our own.
If it is any comfort to Prof. Wilentz, I can assure him that many Republicans appreciate just how much of a politican President Obama truly is. We're just not so confident that he will deploy his political talents to the same noble ends as Abraham Lincoln.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly
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