Commentary Magazine


Topic: Abraham Lincoln

Call Us Blessed

This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

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This year marked the 150th anniversary of what David Von Drehle calls the most perilous year in our country’s history. As 1862 dawned, Von Drehle writes in his marvelous book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, America was at death’s door. The federal government appeared overwhelmed. The Treasury Department was broke. The War Department was a corrupt shambles. The Union’s top general, George McClellan, was gravely ill. And Lincoln was viewed as weak and overmatched by events. “It is in the highest Degree likely that the North will not be able to subdue the South,” the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, counseled his Foreign Office.

By the end of the year, the tide had turned. The South had been dealt major battlefield losses. The Union had developed a military strategy that would eventually prevail. “The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history,” according to Von Drehle, “the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation.” And it was the year in which Lincoln rose to greatness. 

Rise to Greatness takes us through 1862 month by month. It’s a marvelous and gripping story, compellingly and beautifully written. And this is how the book concludes:

The first day of 1863 did not mark the end of the war, or even the beginning of the end. That would come later in the year, when Grant drove the Rebels out of Vicksburg and Chattanooga on his way to replacing Halleck as general in chief. But the close of 1862 — to borrow from Winston Churchill — brought the nation to the end of the beginning. And like the Shakespearean dramas that spoke so powerfully to the genius of Abraham Lincoln, the events of the final scenes were fated by the decisions, actions, omissions, flukes, failures, and successes of the early drama. When that fateful year began, a shattered land looked backward at a dream that seemed forever lost. When a new year arrived, the way forward was perceptible, an upward climb into a challenging but brilliant future.

As another new year arrives–a century and a half after the end of the beginning of the Civil War–it is a good time to reflect on the extraordinary journey America has traveled, the terrible “original sin” of slavery the United States had to overcome, and how close things came to unraveling. It’s also a good time to recall just how fortunate we were that, at the most arduous moment in our history, America produced its greatest president, an individual whose intellectual, political, and rhetorical gifts converged in a way unmatched in all our history.

Even with all the political nonsense we see unfolding before our eyes today, call us blessed.

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Labor Unions, Violence, and America’s Political Religion

When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

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When he was only 28 years old, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

The speech included Lincoln’s plea to avoid what he called the “mobocratic spirit.” He warned about an “ill-omen amongst us”–which he identified as, among other things, the “growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passion, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” 

In fact, the Young Men’s Lyceum speech deals in large part with the issue of passion vs. reason. Lincoln, like the Founders, had a deep insight into human nature, acknowledging that “jealousy, envy, and avarice” are “incident to our nature.” The basest principles of our nature, he said, “were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of cause — that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty” (meaning they were directed exclusively against the British nation). But at the end of his speech, Lincoln issues this warning:

Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws. This must become America’s “political religion.”

Which brings us to Michigan, where Governor Rick Snyder signed a law declaring that workers will no longer be required to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

National Review offers a summary of the reaction to the new Michigan law: “Democratic legislator Douglas Geiss declared on the floor of the state house: ‘There will be blood. There will be repercussions.’ And indeed there were: Knife-wielding partisans brought down a tent on representatives from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity — women and children among them — and roughed up bystanders. Fox News contributor Steven Crowder was beaten by the same mob, punched repeatedly in the face.” In addition, Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa declared there would be a “civil war” in Michigan. (A video of some of this can be seen here, courtesy of HotAir.com. And on the left, it’s being said that “getting hit in the face is a hazard of inserting yourself in the middle of an argument between billionaire-funded know-nothing ideologues and people whose livelihoods and stability are being threatened by the insatiable greed of the super-rich and the blind extremism of their wooden-headed political allies.”) 

Conservative commentators have pointed out that Michigan is merely the most recent link in a chain of events, from the response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s decision to end collective bargaining rights for public sector unions (where Walker was often compared to Hitler, Mubarak, and Mussolini) to the Occupy Wall Street protests (which were characterized by sexual assault, arson, and vandalism, among other things).

My point isn’t that what’s happening today is anything like the scale of what Lincoln was referring to (which included murders committed by pro-slavery mobs). But the confrontations and rage, the acts of intimidation and violence we’ve seen in places from Lansing to Zuccotti Park and several other cities are troubling enough.

We all know passions can be inflamed in political disputes. What’s crucial is to respect the rights of others even when we disagree with them. Those who don’t–those who substitute wild and furious passion for cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason–are engaged in something destructive.

We are nowhere close to a pre-civil war situation. We’re even a long distance removed from the violent protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But our divisions are deep enough. And when differences in policies lead to screaming matches, shoving matches, provocations and fist fights, it’s not a sign of civic health. (Liberals might be somewhat more attuned to this point if the actions we’re seeing at union rallies had happened at Tea Party gatherings.)

A “mobocratic spirit” is at odds with America’s political religion. And it would be nice, and perhaps even helpful, if the president reminded his supporters and allies of that from time to time.

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Spielberg’s Lincoln

I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

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I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

At its best, historical fiction can be a wonderful window into the past. If you would like to be vastly entertained while getting a real sense of what mid-18th century England was like, you can’t beat the movie of Tom Jones. The Hornblower novels of C. S. Forrester are, likewise, an accurate as well as page-turning introduction to the realities of the Nelsonian Royal Navy. (But stay far, far away from the recent television dramatization of the Hornblower saga. It was appallingly, insulting-to-the-intelligence ahistorical, like a symphony played with half the instruments out of tune.)

All this is in introduction to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opened last month to great reviews. It is historical fiction, to be sure, but like the best historical fiction it is a window into a lost world of the past, in this case the final months of the Civil War.

There are occasions when the movie parts company with historical reality for its own, legitimate purposes, as the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer pointed out in the Daily Beast. Mary Todd Lincoln would never have listened to debates in the House of Representatives in 1865, still less accompanied by her black servant. Thanks to gas light, the interiors would have been much better lit than they appear in the movie. The Gettysburg Address had not yet become iconic. Lincoln did not appear on the 50-cent piece. (Indeed only allegorical figures appeared on American coinage until 1909, when Lincoln was put on the penny to celebrate his hundredth birthday.)

But none of that matters. Daniel Day-Lewis’s amazing portrayal of Lincoln brings the 16th president to life as, say, Daniel Chester French’s magnificent statue in the Lincoln Memorial could never do. French’s statue is the Lincoln of legend, the quite literally larger-than-life figure who saved the Union. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is the story-telling, disheveled, deceptively shrewd prairie lawyer with the emotionally unstable wife. He is the Lincoln who fought his personal demons every day, kept his fractious, ambitious cabinet under firm but subtle control, and practiced down-and-dirty politics with genius to achieve his goals.

The other characters are also extremely well portrayed (especially Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, and Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones). The settings and scenes, especially the killing field around Petersburg and the petitioner-clogged halls of the White House, could hardly be better.

If you would like to know the historical Lincoln, there are a thousand biographies. Perhaps the best recent one is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. But if you would like to get a glance of the real Lincoln, the human Lincoln, you must see the movie. It is a masterpiece.

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In Defense of the Poverty Narrative

By the end of the first night of the Democratic National Convention, many journalists and others watching these festivities and last week’s Republican jamboree had had enough. From both left and right there came a bipartisan consensus of kibitzers crying out for a halt to the endless stream of narratives about impoverished or difficult upbringings overcome by hard work and all the other all-American virtues that lead to success. Many a commentator noted that if they had to listen to one more sob story about growing up poor they would scream. Others facetiously promised that after the binge of Horatio Alger tales that they had been subjected to, they would support any candidate, whether liberal or conservative, who would avow they were born to privilege and had squandered a fortune due to laziness and indifference.

These understandable sentiments are the inevitable product of the repetitious nature of the speeches being aired at both conventions. Though Republicans and Democrats disagree on a great deal they all seem desperate to convince us they were born in the moral equivalent of a log cabin and that their emergence from their humble beginnings entitles them to our admiration as well as our votes. But as tiresome as this rhetorical feedback loop may be, we ought not to complain too much about it. The reason why politicians feel the need to say these things and why, despite our grousing about it, so many of us long to hear it, is rooted in our national identity. Social mobility is not, despite the efforts of some on the left to disparage the notion, a myth. It is at the core of what means to be American and though we may laugh about it, it is vital that we continue to celebrate it.

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By the end of the first night of the Democratic National Convention, many journalists and others watching these festivities and last week’s Republican jamboree had had enough. From both left and right there came a bipartisan consensus of kibitzers crying out for a halt to the endless stream of narratives about impoverished or difficult upbringings overcome by hard work and all the other all-American virtues that lead to success. Many a commentator noted that if they had to listen to one more sob story about growing up poor they would scream. Others facetiously promised that after the binge of Horatio Alger tales that they had been subjected to, they would support any candidate, whether liberal or conservative, who would avow they were born to privilege and had squandered a fortune due to laziness and indifference.

These understandable sentiments are the inevitable product of the repetitious nature of the speeches being aired at both conventions. Though Republicans and Democrats disagree on a great deal they all seem desperate to convince us they were born in the moral equivalent of a log cabin and that their emergence from their humble beginnings entitles them to our admiration as well as our votes. But as tiresome as this rhetorical feedback loop may be, we ought not to complain too much about it. The reason why politicians feel the need to say these things and why, despite our grousing about it, so many of us long to hear it, is rooted in our national identity. Social mobility is not, despite the efforts of some on the left to disparage the notion, a myth. It is at the core of what means to be American and though we may laugh about it, it is vital that we continue to celebrate it.

American exceptionalism is not just a foreign policy concept but also a fundamental principle of our domestic politics. The notion that any American, no matter what their parents did or where they came from, can reasonably aspire to wealth as well as to political prominence is what has also made the United States unique. Even as Europe and parts of the rest of the globe transitioned to democracy, the notion of caste remains strong elsewhere.

It is true that Americans are not immune to the siren song of inherited privilege. We love foreign royals and treat certain American families as if their last name was Windsor instead of Kennedy or Bush. We also know only that no one is guaranteed a shot at fame, fortune or power and that far too many fall short of their aspirations and remain mired in poverty.

Yet the reason why both Republicans and Democrats like to talk about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps is because it is not only possible to do so in America but that those who achieve such a success are not considered outliers, as they would be elsewhere. That’s why immigrants continue to flock to our shores. They want a piece of that American dream that earlier immigrants seized for their posterity. To the extent that we undermine the chances of the poor to do so by liberal social welfare policies that trap them in poverty and dependence and undermine their incentive to succeed, we not only betray them but our national ethos.

It should be noted that the most famous person to rise from a log cabin to the White House was actually disgusted by the way his supporters spoke incessantly about his origins. His most astute modern biographers note that Abraham Lincoln may have been elected as Honest Abe the rail-splitter but he spent his adult life trying to flee the abject poverty into which he was born. Members of social and political elites did look down their nose at him but he prided himself on his self-taught erudition as well as having become one of the better-paid members of the Illinois bar by the time he was elected president. Lincoln had to listen as his supporters carried on about the flimsy shelter where his mother brought him into the hardscrabble world of what was then called the American west, but such talk made him cringe.

We have come to primarily associate Lincoln with his inspired leadership and rhetoric during the Civil War and in particular with his role in ending the nightmare of American slavery. Yet it is a mistake to ignore the importance of his origins in the building of the Lincoln mystique. Lincoln truly had come from the lowest strata of American society at a time when the overwhelming majority of those in politics were to the manor born. His rise embodied the possibilities of the republic he led and while some still call it a myth, we know better.

Some of the men we’ve elected to the presidency in the last century were born to privilege and wealth. The Bushes, John Kennedy and the Roosevelts certainly qualify in that category and Mitt Romney would join their ranks. But more have not. Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama all started out in life a lot closer to the bottom than the top rung. Some, like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, belong somewhere in the middle.

Initial poverty is not a qualification for the presidency or any office and Americans have usually been smart enough to know that it is better to have a capable swell in the Oval Office than a fool or scoundrel born in a log cabin. But we ought never to stop celebrating upward mobility and the value of the individual effort that makes it possible. To do so would mean we were truly on our way to a social democratic model that valued ideas about equality but not the American dream. And if that means having to listen to tedious poverty narratives at our political conventions, so be it.

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Likely Voters Are Awful at Ranking Presidents

At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson compiled two lists ranking the 10 best presidents and 10 worst presidents, based on the net opinions of likely voters in the latest Newsweek/Daily Beast poll. Both are worth reading. President Obama comes in second on the “worst president” list, right after George W. Bush. Richard Nixon is rated the third worst and Jimmy Carter is fourth.

But any conservatives tempted to gloat about Obama’s low score might want to reconsider. The real story here is that likely voters are appallingly bad at ranking presidents, and, in a just world, would be discouraged from getting anywhere near a voting booth. Brace yourself before reading their list of the 10 best presidents:

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At the Weekly Standard, Jeffrey Anderson compiled two lists ranking the 10 best presidents and 10 worst presidents, based on the net opinions of likely voters in the latest Newsweek/Daily Beast poll. Both are worth reading. President Obama comes in second on the “worst president” list, right after George W. Bush. Richard Nixon is rated the third worst and Jimmy Carter is fourth.

But any conservatives tempted to gloat about Obama’s low score might want to reconsider. The real story here is that likely voters are appallingly bad at ranking presidents, and, in a just world, would be discouraged from getting anywhere near a voting booth. Brace yourself before reading their list of the 10 best presidents:

1. Abraham Lincoln, +27 points (28 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

2. Ronald Reagan, +25 points (31 percent place in top-2, 6 percent place in bottom-2)

3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, +22 points (23 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

4. John F. Kennedy, +19 points (19 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

5. (tie) George Washington, +15 points (16 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

5. (tie) Bill Clinton, +15 points (28 percent place in top-2, 13 percent place in bottom-2)

7. Thomas Jefferson, +6 points (6 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

8. (tie) Teddy Roosevelt, +5 points (5 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

8. (tie) Harry S Truman, +5 points (5 percent place in top-2, 0 percent place in bottom-2)

10. Dwight D. Eisenhower, +4 points (5 percent place in top-2, 1 percent place in bottom-2)

Lincoln — great; Reagan — good; FDR — definitely not my choice, but okay, let liberals have their guy in the top three. But hold on here, JFK beats out George Washington? Bill Clinton outranks Jefferson, TR, Truman and Eisenhower? What is Bill Clinton even doing on this list, and how is it that he’s tied with the Father of Our Country in fifth place?

Should we care that likely voters think Obama’s terrible, if they’re also this deluded about his predecessors?

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Compromise v. Prudence

In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – in the context of the civil rights struggle – writes this:

Johnson refused to compromise. In public, in answer to a press conference question about the possibility of one, he said, “I am in favor of passing it [the bill] in the Senate exactly in its present form.” In private, talking to legislative leaders, he had a more pungent phrase. “There will be no wheels and no deals.” There was, as always, a political calculation behind his stance. “I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me…. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful…. But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”

The issue of compromise is an important one in politics, and there is much to be said on its behalf. “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in Miracle at Philadelphia. “As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

Some conservatives seem instinctively hostile to comprise in principle, as if it is inherently a sign of weakness, of lack of commitment and resolve, and that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. As a “constitutional conservative,” I dissent from this attitude.

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In his book The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Robert Caro – in the context of the civil rights struggle – writes this:

Johnson refused to compromise. In public, in answer to a press conference question about the possibility of one, he said, “I am in favor of passing it [the bill] in the Senate exactly in its present form.” In private, talking to legislative leaders, he had a more pungent phrase. “There will be no wheels and no deals.” There was, as always, a political calculation behind his stance. “I knew,” he was to tell Doris Goodwin, “that if I didn’t get out in front on this issue, [the liberals] would get me…. I had to produce a civil rights bill that was even stronger than the one they’d have gotten if Kennedy had lived.” And there was, as always, something more than calculation. Assuring Richard Goodwin there would be “no compromises on civil rights; I’m not going to bend an inch,” he added, “In the Senate [as Leader] I did the best I could. But I had to be careful…. But I always vowed that if I ever had the power I’d make sure every Negro had the same chance as every white man. Now I have it. And I’m going to use it.”

The issue of compromise is an important one in politics, and there is much to be said on its behalf. “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory,” Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in Miracle at Philadelphia. “As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

Some conservatives seem instinctively hostile to comprise in principle, as if it is inherently a sign of weakness, of lack of commitment and resolve, and that it inevitably leads to bad outcomes. As a “constitutional conservative,” I dissent from this attitude.

It’s worth noting that two of the most impressive figures in American history, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln, showed the ability to compromise at key moments. It was Lincoln, as a young man, who said, “The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it has more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.” The Lincoln biographer William Lee Miller, building on this point, added, “[M]any reflective moralists, and most serious politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, perceive … that good and evil come mixed and that the moral life most of the time (not quite all of the time) consists of making discriminate judgments, judgments at the margins, discernments of less and more…”

At the same time, there are those who speak as if compromise is itself, in principle, a moral good. But that approach is also flawed and potentially dangerous. Compromise for its own sake can set back the cause of justice. In the wrong hands, in weak hands, it can produce pernicious results. The point is that compromise can’t be judged in the abstract; it can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).

Which brings me back to LBJ. Most modern-day liberals who excoriated conservatives for being “rigid” and opposing “compromise” on matters having to do with the budget and raising the debt ceiling – the pseudo-sophisticated putdown is that they are nihilists – would (rightly) celebrate President Johnson’s refusal to compromise on civil rights. Which may get us somewhat closer to the heart of the matter.

The word compromise is something of a Rorschach test. Those who hold a liberal worldview often consider conservatives who fight hard for their cause to be inflexible and unreasonable, just as those who hold a conservative worldview often consider liberals who fight hard for their cause to be inflexible and unreasonable. What determines whether we judge a politician to be a profile in courage or a profile in intransigence almost always depends on whether we’re sympathetic to the cause they are championing.

As a general matter, then, compromise is neither a moral good nor a moral evil; it’s contextual. And it’s why prudence, not compromise, is rightly considered to be among the highest of all the political virtues.

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Lincoln in Fiction

Our greatest president has eluded our greatest — and almost all of our better-than-average — novelists. On this list of Lincoln in American fiction drawn up for the Illinois Humanities Council, only Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (1951), in which Lincoln is a legendary presence rather than an active character, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), about a young couple who shared the President’s box at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, stand out.

The difficulty with representing Lincoln in fiction is pretty much the same as the difficulty facing the young novelist who wrote a pretty silly novel about Henry David Thoreau a couple of years ago. “Even if his voice were not so distinctive,” as I put it then, “the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of [him] playing in the ear.” No one could hope to duplicate Lincoln’s unmistakable prose style, and would sound foolish if he tried.

Rereading him this morning, I was struck by something I had never known before. In April 1864, Lincoln believed it “exceedingly probable” that he would be defeated for reelection. In such an event, he wrote in a memorandum to himself, “it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” In public, he assured his fellow citizens that, despite rumblings to the contrary, the November election would not be cancelled or postponed. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said in October. “I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” And if beaten in November, he would surrender the office of the presidency:

This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.

When, despite his fears, he was reelected over George B. McClellan with 55 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln reflected that the “strife of the election” had been good for the nation:

It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party [to the war], he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.

Forget American fiction! It is difficult to imagine a “living, brave, patriotic man” — a public man — who could get away with such talk in the 21st century. We no longer expect much from our public men except self-interest in the pursuit of power. When we hear what is “due to the people,” we hear little more than a voluble justification for self-interest. That a man would really believe, as Lincoln confided to a correspondent, that “in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union” — that he really would be willing to sacrifice almost anything, as Lincoln phrased it repeatedly throughout 1864, to make sure that the same liberties he enjoyed were preserved for his children and his children’s children to enjoy — is inconceivable to us. Lincoln is not only missing from our fiction. He is missing from our moral imagination.

Our greatest president has eluded our greatest — and almost all of our better-than-average — novelists. On this list of Lincoln in American fiction drawn up for the Illinois Humanities Council, only Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet (1951), in which Lincoln is a legendary presence rather than an active character, and Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara (1994), about a young couple who shared the President’s box at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot, stand out.

The difficulty with representing Lincoln in fiction is pretty much the same as the difficulty facing the young novelist who wrote a pretty silly novel about Henry David Thoreau a couple of years ago. “Even if his voice were not so distinctive,” as I put it then, “the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of [him] playing in the ear.” No one could hope to duplicate Lincoln’s unmistakable prose style, and would sound foolish if he tried.

Rereading him this morning, I was struck by something I had never known before. In April 1864, Lincoln believed it “exceedingly probable” that he would be defeated for reelection. In such an event, he wrote in a memorandum to himself, “it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.” In public, he assured his fellow citizens that, despite rumblings to the contrary, the November election would not be cancelled or postponed. “I am struggling to maintain government, not to overthrow it,” he said in October. “I am struggling especially to prevent others from overthrowing it.” And if beaten in November, he would surrender the office of the presidency:

This is due to the people both on principle, and under the constitution. Their will, constitutionally expressed, is the ultimate law for all. If they should deliberately resolve to have immediate peace even at the loss of their country, and their liberty, I know not the power or the right to resist them. It is their own business, and they must do as they please with their own.

When, despite his fears, he was reelected over George B. McClellan with 55 percent of the popular vote, Lincoln reflected that the “strife of the election” had been good for the nation:

It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound, and how strong we still are. It shows that, even among candidates of the same party [to the war], he who is most devoted to the Union, and most opposed to treason, can receive most of the people’s votes. It shows also, to the extent yet known, that we have more men now, than we had when the war began. Gold is good in its place; but living, brave, patriotic men, are better than gold.

Forget American fiction! It is difficult to imagine a “living, brave, patriotic man” — a public man — who could get away with such talk in the 21st century. We no longer expect much from our public men except self-interest in the pursuit of power. When we hear what is “due to the people,” we hear little more than a voluble justification for self-interest. That a man would really believe, as Lincoln confided to a correspondent, that “in no other way could I serve myself so well, as by truly serving the Union” — that he really would be willing to sacrifice almost anything, as Lincoln phrased it repeatedly throughout 1864, to make sure that the same liberties he enjoyed were preserved for his children and his children’s children to enjoy — is inconceivable to us. Lincoln is not only missing from our fiction. He is missing from our moral imagination.

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Obama and His “Lofty Speeches”

It’s stiff competition, but arguably Barack Obama’s chief courtier in the press is Jonathan Alter. Consider this analysis from a recent op-ed he wrote on five myths about Obama:

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter–a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

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It’s stiff competition, but arguably Barack Obama’s chief courtier in the press is Jonathan Alter. Consider this analysis from a recent op-ed he wrote on five myths about Obama:

3. Obama is an effective public speaker.

Obama’s lofty speeches during the 2008 campaign led even his detractors to admit that he is a gifted orator. Some critics try to minimize his skill by saying he relies on a teleprompter–a ridiculous charge considering that he often writes big chunks of his speeches and often speaks off-the-cuff.

That said, there are few examples of Obama’s speeches actually moving popular opinion. That’s because he speaks in impressive paragraphs, not memorable sentences. He is allergic to sound bites, and that keeps him from effectively framing his goals and achievements.

The roots of this allergy may lie in his famous Philadelphia speech on race in 2008, which followed the revelations of incendiary comments by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The speech lacked memorable lines, but it was a big hit. I believe it convinced Obama that the public could absorb complex ideas without bumper sticker lines. He was wrong.

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, whose daily take on events is very nearly indispensable, summarizes Alter’s argument this way: “So it turns out Obama is an ineffective public speaker because the public lacks the intellectual acumen to appreciate the brilliance of Obama’s speeches.”

All of this got me thinking about some other bumper-sticker lines in American history we could have done without. For example:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
  • “With malice toward none, with charity for all.”
  • “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
  • “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “I have a dream.”
  • “Mr. Gorbachev tear down this wall.”

The mistake Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy, King, and Reagan made is in failing to understand that the public could absorb complex ideas without these bumper-sticker lines. (These sound bite artists unfortunately succumbed to the temptation to use memorable sentences to mask their shallow arguments and unimpressive paragraphs.) Obama, on the other hand, employed sophisticated and complicated phrases to articulate his public philosophy – phrases like “yes we can” and “hope and change.” Against such eloquence, Abraham Lincoln never stood a chance.

 

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Lebanon: An Inflection Point for the Status Quo

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle. Read More

The stakes are as high as they could possibly be in Lebanon: Hezbollah, the terrorist group backed by Iran, has obtained coalition approval to nominate its own candidate for prime minister as a replacement for Saad Hariri. (Hezbollah’s first choice, Omar Karami, declined to accept the nomination, so the group has moved on to another “consensus” candidate, Najib Mikati.) If this nomination goes forward and the installation of a new government can be enforced, the Hezbollah-led coalition will rule Lebanon.

Hezbollah is overlaying the process — in effect, an unfolding coup — with a veneer of parliamentary order. This isn’t fooling the Lebanese, who were out in force Monday protesting the move. But has it muted the Obama administration? We may well wonder. On Thursday, the brief comment on Lebanon by State Department spokesman Philip Crowley featured this disingenuous assessment: “There’s a constitutional process underway.” On Monday, the U.S. issued a narrow ––and pointless — warning about American support being “difficult” to continue if Hezbollah assumes a dominant role in the government.

The crucial element in Lebanon’s current crisis will be what the U.S. and the West do about Hezbollah’s power move. This hinge point is crucial not merely because it affects the future of Lebanon and the stability of the Levant, but because its outcome, one way or another, will be a signal to everyone around the globe who has plans to challenge the status quo. Analogies between the Cold War and today’s confrontation with organized Islamism are notoriously inexact, but Hezbollah’s move this month has many features in common with the political subversion campaigns that were the hallmark of Soviet-backed Marxist factions from the 1940s to the 1970s.

In this context, there is a poignant rumor being reported in Arab press that highlights one particular aspect of the West’s current posture. According to this blogger’s quote of a Kuwaiti daily, two “Western” aircraft carriers have been urgently dispatched from the Persian Gulf to the waters off Lebanon. Citing an EU official, the referenced news report offers completely unrealistic numbers (including “210 fighter jets”) for the force supposedly converging on the Eastern Mediterranean. The only realistic aspect of the report is that there have been, in fact, two Western carriers in the Gulf region: USS Abraham Lincoln and the French carrier Charles de Gaulle.

But the days when the Western navies had plenty of carriers to move around from crisis to crisis are behind us. Two carriers may be in the Mediterranean shortly, but not because they were urgently dispatched. Abraham Lincoln is tethered to our requirements in Southwest Asia; USS Enterprise, on the way to relieve Lincoln on-station, is transiting through the Mediterranean. Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier, has been scheduled since her deployment in October to return home in February.

NATO’s non-U.S. carrier force is razor thin. Charles de Gaulle’s departure from France last fall was marred by a breakdown that delayed this very rare deployment by several weeks. Britain, once a reliable dispatcher of aircraft carriers, is in worse shape: just this weekend, the Royal Navy sent its last fighter-jet carrier, HMS Ark Royal, to be decommissioned. Britain won’t have a carrier that can deploy fighter jets again until 2020. In this capability, Italy now outstrips Britain: the Italians have two carriers that can each transport eight Harrier jump-jets. Spain has one.

For the U.S., as for France, putting a carrier off Lebanon entails rigorously prioritizing crises: either leaving some unattended or accepting schedule gaps down the road. With enough effort, the U.S. and France could still seek to affect the outcome in Lebanon with an offshore show of force. But the regional expectation implied by the Arab press rumor — the sense that Western navies can easily bring overwhelming force to a crisis — is outdated today.

Margin and latitude in our force options are casualties of the extended post–Cold War drawdown. At a juncture evocative of previous dilemmas for U.S. presidents, Obama would do better to take his cue from Harry Truman in the late 1940s than from Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. One way or another, this crisis in Lebanon will have a disproportionate impact on the future.

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Eisenhower, Washington, Lincoln, and Prudence

As commentators are beginning to note, Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and the following Thursday marks the same anniversary for Kennedy’s inaugural, two classics of American rhetoric that could hardly be further apart and still remain in the same genre. It is a long way from Ike’s measured and noble praise of balance to Kennedy’s inspiring but unrestrained call to “pay any price.” It’s usual to say that the 1960s didn’t really began until Kennedy was assassinated, if not later, but the transition from Eisenhower’s restraint to Kennedy’s rhetorical lack of it may mark the transition more effectively than the murder in Dallas.

So far, my favorite pieces on the Eisenhower anniversary are by my friend and former colleague Will Inboden at Shadow Government and by my current colleague Jim Carafano in the Washington Examiner. I’ve got a piece myself coming out at Heritage’s Foundry on the actual anniversary that explores the rhetorical and substantial similarities between Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and its famous predecessor by George Washington. In writing that piece, I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I’m not persuaded by Peter Feaver’s argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different. Read More

As commentators are beginning to note, Monday marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address, and the following Thursday marks the same anniversary for Kennedy’s inaugural, two classics of American rhetoric that could hardly be further apart and still remain in the same genre. It is a long way from Ike’s measured and noble praise of balance to Kennedy’s inspiring but unrestrained call to “pay any price.” It’s usual to say that the 1960s didn’t really began until Kennedy was assassinated, if not later, but the transition from Eisenhower’s restraint to Kennedy’s rhetorical lack of it may mark the transition more effectively than the murder in Dallas.

So far, my favorite pieces on the Eisenhower anniversary are by my friend and former colleague Will Inboden at Shadow Government and by my current colleague Jim Carafano in the Washington Examiner. I’ve got a piece myself coming out at Heritage’s Foundry on the actual anniversary that explores the rhetorical and substantial similarities between Eisenhower’s Farewell Address and its famous predecessor by George Washington. In writing that piece, I was struck by just how rarely it is that the U.S. elects a president who finds inspiration in prudence. Like Will, I’m not persuaded by Peter Feaver’s argument that Obama is meaningfully similar to Eisenhower: the attitudes of the two presidents toward federal spending, to take just one obvious and vitally important example, could hardly be more different.

Of course, a president doesn’t have to be prudential to be great. Still, the overlap between greatness (or near-greatness, in Eisenhower’s case) and prudentialism is striking. The only other president who has, to my knowledge, been described at length as philosophically prudential is Lincoln, by William Lee Miller in his Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography. Miller’s style takes being casual to a new and to me slightly irritating level, but it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. As Miller puts it: “The mature Abraham Lincoln would exhibit … a combination of the moral clarity and elevation of … the prophet, with the ‘prudence’ and ‘responsibility’ of a worthy politician. … Prudence as a virtue [does not] exclude, as pragmatism tends to do, general moral ideals and larger moral patterns beyond the immediate situation. … Prudence as a moral virtue made a bridge to intellectual virtue.”

But as Eisenhower might have noted, and as Miller does note, the entire tradition of prudence has been devalued, in favor of the more desiccated concept of pragmatism. As a more recent president put it, the question is simple: “What works?” And Eisenhower’s address helps explain why. As he noted, the threat to American liberties was posed not so much by big government as such but by top-down direction of all kinds. Much of this originated in the federal government, but not all of it: there was also a risk of becoming “the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Such an elite, with its progressive pretensions to expertise and fixing things, is inherently hostile to concepts of prudence and balance, which imply that many problems can at best be managed, not solved.

Perhaps that is why Eisenhower’s Address is now, with the exception of the oft-misunderstood passage about the dangers of the military-industrial complex, much more cited than read: it is based on a philosophy that Eisenhower — like Washington — believed provided the safest foundation for American liberties but that is so profoundly out of tune with the age on which the U.S. embarked after he left office that we can no longer understand what he was saying. If that is so, I view our national need to recover that philosophy as a problem of the first magnitude.

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Getting a Grip on Obama’s Real Place in History

During the 2008 campaign, the historian Garry Wills compared Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race with Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address. Now he’s back at it, though he’s raising the bar a bit higher.

As both Alana and Rick have pointed out, according to Wills, President Obama’s Tucson speech “bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Copper Union address” — Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.

Actually, it doesn’t.

I thought the president’s speech was a very good one. But the gushing Professor Wills really does need to get a grip on himself.

We also learn in his blog that (surprise) the New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign (wisely) discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln. “Well,” Wills informs us, in the aftermath of the Tucson speech, “I am willing to risk such opposition now.”

It should be clear by now, even to Obama’s most passionate supporters, that he’s no Lincoln (he’s closer to being another Carter). Any effort to pretend that Obama belongs anywhere in same conversation with Lincoln is really quite silly. But such is the state of mind of the New York Review of Books and its writers these days. It’s not enough to be admiring of Obama; they have to be worshipful.

Like besotted adolescents, the left is rekindling its love affair with Barack Obama after only a single speech. Be warned: queasiness to follow.

During the 2008 campaign, the historian Garry Wills compared Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race with Abraham Lincoln’s Cooper Union address. Now he’s back at it, though he’s raising the bar a bit higher.

As both Alana and Rick have pointed out, according to Wills, President Obama’s Tucson speech “bears comparison with two Lincoln speeches even greater than the Copper Union address” — Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address.

Actually, it doesn’t.

I thought the president’s speech was a very good one. But the gushing Professor Wills really does need to get a grip on himself.

We also learn in his blog that (surprise) the New York Review wanted to publish a booklet printing the Lincoln and Obama speeches together, but the Obama campaign (wisely) discouraged that idea, perhaps to avoid any suspicion that they were calling Obama a second Lincoln. “Well,” Wills informs us, in the aftermath of the Tucson speech, “I am willing to risk such opposition now.”

It should be clear by now, even to Obama’s most passionate supporters, that he’s no Lincoln (he’s closer to being another Carter). Any effort to pretend that Obama belongs anywhere in same conversation with Lincoln is really quite silly. But such is the state of mind of the New York Review of Books and its writers these days. It’s not enough to be admiring of Obama; they have to be worshipful.

Like besotted adolescents, the left is rekindling its love affair with Barack Obama after only a single speech. Be warned: queasiness to follow.

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Saving Private Pelosi: Nancy’s Spielberg Makeovers

The Washington Post reported today that film director Steven Spielberg may soon be serving as a consultant to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she attempts to “rebrand” House Democrats after a historic defeat in which they lost 61 seats to the Republicans. Though Spielberg’s spokesperson attempted to throw cold water on this item, as the Post noted, it was a “classic non-denial denial.”

Spielberg is well known to be a loyal Democrat who has in the past helped raise money and promote the candidacies of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But the idea that the famed moviemaker can pull something out of his hat — other, that is, than some more Hollywood cash — to change America’s mind about one of the least-liked political figures of the day may be asking a bit too much. Though Spielberg is not unfamiliar with epic disasters, such as his famous flop 1941, attempting to “rebrand” a shrill, unlikeable ideologue like Pelosi is a daunting task.

What advice could Spielberg offer to Pelosi? Changing the public’s mind about a woman whose unpopularity was a greater factor in this year’s GOP victory than the virtues of her opponents will require Spielberg to tap deep into his archive of film hits. In the hope of providing some insight into the machinations of this liberal brain trust, here are some possible previews of Spielberg-inspired TV commercials and short films that will air in the future in battleground states:

Saving Private Blue Dog: A picked squad of Democratic House members led by Pelosi venture deep into a Red State in order to extricate a beleaguered member from a GOP-dominated district, climaxing with the wounded Speaker urging the lost Democrat to “earn this” as she expires.

E.T.: The Sequel: The famous cuddly alien is about to be waterboarded by Republicans but is rescued by Pelosi, who makes off with him on her bicycle as the two discuss immigration reform.

Close Encounters with Democrats: A random group of Americans find themselves inexplicably drawn to gather at the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to attend an indoctrination session with Pelosi about supporting ObamaCare.

Raiders of the Lost Democrat: Pelosi leads a multi-continental search for the lost copy of the Bill of Rights. After being captured by Dick Cheney and his band of evil Republicans, Pelosi witnesses the opening of the ark, which contains what is believed to be the artifact. Cheney and the GOPniks melt, but when Pelosi reads the artifact, it turns out to be merely a memo from Rahm Emanuel about earmarks.

Jaws V: The Democrats’ Revenge: Pelosi attempts to save the population of a beach community endangered by a ruthlessly pro-business Republican town council in cahoots with a shark believed to be responsible for an oil spill. Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Richard Dreyfuss (as himself) take to the sea to catch the shark. Pelosi and Dreyfuss swim to shore after the battle, determined to make peace in the Middle East.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World of Politicians: An attempt to clone famous Democrats of the past at a theme park goes tragically wrong as the reincarnated Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson attempt to reimpose Jim Crow on an unwilling America. Pelosi is forced to join forces with Republicans as they bring back Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to counter the Dem icons. The conclusion is a sermon on bipartisanship.

Happy holidays to readers of all persuasions and parties!

The Washington Post reported today that film director Steven Spielberg may soon be serving as a consultant to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she attempts to “rebrand” House Democrats after a historic defeat in which they lost 61 seats to the Republicans. Though Spielberg’s spokesperson attempted to throw cold water on this item, as the Post noted, it was a “classic non-denial denial.”

Spielberg is well known to be a loyal Democrat who has in the past helped raise money and promote the candidacies of Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But the idea that the famed moviemaker can pull something out of his hat — other, that is, than some more Hollywood cash — to change America’s mind about one of the least-liked political figures of the day may be asking a bit too much. Though Spielberg is not unfamiliar with epic disasters, such as his famous flop 1941, attempting to “rebrand” a shrill, unlikeable ideologue like Pelosi is a daunting task.

What advice could Spielberg offer to Pelosi? Changing the public’s mind about a woman whose unpopularity was a greater factor in this year’s GOP victory than the virtues of her opponents will require Spielberg to tap deep into his archive of film hits. In the hope of providing some insight into the machinations of this liberal brain trust, here are some possible previews of Spielberg-inspired TV commercials and short films that will air in the future in battleground states:

Saving Private Blue Dog: A picked squad of Democratic House members led by Pelosi venture deep into a Red State in order to extricate a beleaguered member from a GOP-dominated district, climaxing with the wounded Speaker urging the lost Democrat to “earn this” as she expires.

E.T.: The Sequel: The famous cuddly alien is about to be waterboarded by Republicans but is rescued by Pelosi, who makes off with him on her bicycle as the two discuss immigration reform.

Close Encounters with Democrats: A random group of Americans find themselves inexplicably drawn to gather at the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming to attend an indoctrination session with Pelosi about supporting ObamaCare.

Raiders of the Lost Democrat: Pelosi leads a multi-continental search for the lost copy of the Bill of Rights. After being captured by Dick Cheney and his band of evil Republicans, Pelosi witnesses the opening of the ark, which contains what is believed to be the artifact. Cheney and the GOPniks melt, but when Pelosi reads the artifact, it turns out to be merely a memo from Rahm Emanuel about earmarks.

Jaws V: The Democrats’ Revenge: Pelosi attempts to save the population of a beach community endangered by a ruthlessly pro-business Republican town council in cahoots with a shark believed to be responsible for an oil spill. Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Richard Dreyfuss (as himself) take to the sea to catch the shark. Pelosi and Dreyfuss swim to shore after the battle, determined to make peace in the Middle East.

Jurassic Park: The Lost World of Politicians: An attempt to clone famous Democrats of the past at a theme park goes tragically wrong as the reincarnated Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson attempt to reimpose Jim Crow on an unwilling America. Pelosi is forced to join forces with Republicans as they bring back Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to counter the Dem icons. The conclusion is a sermon on bipartisanship.

Happy holidays to readers of all persuasions and parties!

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The Moral Case for Conservative Economics

I wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard that attempts to explain what’s wrong with the liberal affinity for class warfare. In response to it, one of the really bright political minds I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president.

Whether or not that’s accurate — and I happen to believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it — it does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate. That case can be made easily enough; the question is who will step forward to make it.

There is, I think, a useful analogy that can be made to welfare reform. The conservative case was far more powerful and effective when welfare reform was framed in explicitly moral terms — when those on the right argued why (a) welfare policies (in the form of AFDC) were inflicting terrible damage on those they were intended to assist, and (b) reforms to the system would lead to greater self-reliance and human flourishing.

Something similar needs to be done on economics. (Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and I try to do it in this monograph, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.) Conservatives need to expand on their reliance on economic facts and figures and explain why economic growth is the best antidote to widespread poverty and misery; why Leviathan is a threat to liberty and human character; and why capitalism is a civilizing agent and national wealth a moral good. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for a movement that counts Adam Smith (a profound moral philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (a profound moral thinker) in its pantheon.

I wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard that attempts to explain what’s wrong with the liberal affinity for class warfare. In response to it, one of the really bright political minds I know wrote me and said that the person who “captures the moral critique (in addition to the intellectual one) of Obamanomics” will be the Republican Party’s nominee and the next president.

Whether or not that’s accurate — and I happen to believe there’s a lot of wisdom in it — it does strike me that a compelling moral argument on behalf of conservative economics specifically, and capitalism more broadly, has been sorely missing from the public debate. That case can be made easily enough; the question is who will step forward to make it.

There is, I think, a useful analogy that can be made to welfare reform. The conservative case was far more powerful and effective when welfare reform was framed in explicitly moral terms — when those on the right argued why (a) welfare policies (in the form of AFDC) were inflicting terrible damage on those they were intended to assist, and (b) reforms to the system would lead to greater self-reliance and human flourishing.

Something similar needs to be done on economics. (Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, and I try to do it in this monograph, Wealth and Justice: The Morality of Democratic Capitalism.) Conservatives need to expand on their reliance on economic facts and figures and explain why economic growth is the best antidote to widespread poverty and misery; why Leviathan is a threat to liberty and human character; and why capitalism is a civilizing agent and national wealth a moral good. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for a movement that counts Adam Smith (a profound moral philosopher) and Abraham Lincoln (a profound moral thinker) in its pantheon.

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A Response to John Derbyshire

In his post responding to George W. Bush’s op-ed on combating AIDS in Africa, John Derbyshire writes this:

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

Perhaps the future of sub-Saharan Africa would be brighter if the people of that place changed some of their customs; but now, thanks to us, they don’t have to.

Here are a few facts that undermine Derbyshire’s case: (a) Africans have fewer sex partners on average over a lifetime than do Americans; (b) 22 countries in Africa have had a greater than 25 percent decline in infections in the past 10 years (for South African and Namibian youth, the figure is 50 percent in five years); and (c) America’s efforts are helping to create a remarkable shifts in how, in Africa, boys view girls — reflected in a decline of more than 50 percent in sexual partners among boys.

So Derbyshire’s argument that our AIDS efforts are “more likely to be negative than positive” because they will continue to subsidize and encourage “unhealthy, disease-spreading habits” is not only wrong but the opposite of reality.

There is more. Derbyshire’s view might best be expressed as “the Africans had an AIDS death sentence coming to them.” But in Africa, gender violence and abuse is involved in the first sexual encounter up to 85 percent of time. And where President Bush’s PEPFAR initiative has been particularly effective is in slowing the transmission of the disease from mothers to children. Perhaps Derbyshire can explain to us how exactly infants are complicit in their AIDS affliction. Or maybe he doesn’t much care if they are. Read More

In his post responding to George W. Bush’s op-ed on combating AIDS in Africa, John Derbyshire writes this:

The subsidizing of expensive medications (the biggest part of our AIDS-relief effort, though not all of it) in fact has long-term consequences more likely to be negative than positive. The high incidence of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is caused by customary practices there. What is needed is for people to change those customary practices. Instead, at a cost of billions to the U.S. taxpayer, we have made it possible for Africans to continue in their unhealthy, disease-spreading habits.

Perhaps the future of sub-Saharan Africa would be brighter if the people of that place changed some of their customs; but now, thanks to us, they don’t have to.

Here are a few facts that undermine Derbyshire’s case: (a) Africans have fewer sex partners on average over a lifetime than do Americans; (b) 22 countries in Africa have had a greater than 25 percent decline in infections in the past 10 years (for South African and Namibian youth, the figure is 50 percent in five years); and (c) America’s efforts are helping to create a remarkable shifts in how, in Africa, boys view girls — reflected in a decline of more than 50 percent in sexual partners among boys.

So Derbyshire’s argument that our AIDS efforts are “more likely to be negative than positive” because they will continue to subsidize and encourage “unhealthy, disease-spreading habits” is not only wrong but the opposite of reality.

There is more. Derbyshire’s view might best be expressed as “the Africans had an AIDS death sentence coming to them.” But in Africa, gender violence and abuse is involved in the first sexual encounter up to 85 percent of time. And where President Bush’s PEPFAR initiative has been particularly effective is in slowing the transmission of the disease from mothers to children. Perhaps Derbyshire can explain to us how exactly infants are complicit in their AIDS affliction. Or maybe he doesn’t much care if they are.

Let’s now turn to Derbyshire’s characterization that America is becoming the “welfare provider of last resort to all the world’s several billion people”: he is more than a decade behind in his understanding of overseas-development policy.

President Bush’s policies were animated by the belief that the way to save lives was to rely on the principle of accountability. That is what was transformational about Bush’s development effort. He rejected handing out money with no strings attached in favor of tying expenditures to reform and results. And it has had huge radiating effects. When PEPFAR was started, America was criticized by others for setting goals. Now the mantra around the world is “results-based development.” Yet Derbyshire seems to know nothing about any of this. That isn’t necessarily a problem — unless, of course, he decides to write on the topic.

Beyond that, though, the notion that AIDS relief in Africa is AFDC on a global scale is silly. We are not talking about providing food stamps to able-bodied adults or subsidizing illegitimacy; we’re talking about saving the lives of millions of innocent people and taking steps to keep human societies from collapsing. Private charity clearly wasn’t enough.

On the matter of Derbyshire’s claim that AIDS relief in Africa is unconnected to our national interest: al-Qaeda is actively trying to establish a greater presence in nations like Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria, which have become major ideological battlegrounds. And mass disease and death, poverty and hopelessness, make the rise of radicalism more, not less, likely. (Because of AIDS, in some countries nearly a half-century of public-health gains have been wiped away.)

Many things allow militant Islam to take root and grow; eliminating AIDS would certainly not eliminate jihadism. Still, a pandemic, in addition to being a human tragedy, makes governments unstable and regions ungovernable. And as one report put it, “Unstable and ungoverned regions of the world … pose dangers for neighbors and can become the setting for broader problems of terrorism … The impoverished regions of the world can be unstable, volatile, and dangerous and can represent great threats to America, Europe, and the world. We must work with the people of these regions to promote sustainable economic growth, better health, good governance and greater human security. …”

One might think that this observation very nearly qualifies as banal — but for Derbyshire, it qualifies as a revelation.

For the sake of the argument, though, let’s assume that the American government acts not out of a narrow interpretation of the national interest but instead out of benevolence — like, say, America’s response to the 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia and other nations in the Indian Ocean. Why is that something we should oppose, or find alarming, or deem un-conservative? The impulse to act is, in fact, not only deeply humane but also deeply American.

In a speech in Lewiston, Illinois, in 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in quoting from the Declaration (“all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable right”), said:

This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.

This belief about inherent human dignity does not mean that America can solve every problem in the world or that we shouldn’t focus most of our energy and treasure on America itself. But if the United States is able, at a reasonable cost ($25 billion over five years), to help prevent widespread death, that is something we should be proud of it. (A recent Stanford study found that PEPFAR was responsible for saving the lives of more than a million Africans in just its first three years.)

Derbyshire seems to take an almost childish delight in advertising his indifference to the suffering of others, at least when the others live on a different continent and come from a different culture. Back in February 2006, when more than 1,000 people were believed to have died when an Egyptian ferry sank in the Red Sea, Derbyshire wrote:

In between our last two posts I went to Drudge to see what was happening in the world. The lead story was about a ship disaster in the Red Sea. From the headline picture, it looked like a cruise ship. I therefore assumed that some people very much like the Americans I went cruising with last year were the victims. I went to the news story. A couple of sentences in, I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.

Cultivating what Adam Smith (in The Theory of Moral Sentiments) called “sympathy” and “fellow feeling” is a complicated matter. Suffice it to say that very few of us care about the suffering and fate of others as much as we should. Yet most of us aren’t proud of this fact; we are, rather, slightly embarrassed by it. Not John Derbyshire. He seems eager to celebrate his callousness, as if it were a sign of manliness and tough-mindedness. I haven’t a clue whether this is a pose, done for shock value or some such thing, or real. All we can do is judge Derbyshire by his public words. And they are not only unpersuasive; they are at times downright ugly.

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Civility as a Political Virtue

The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)

The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.

But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.

Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.

We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments. In fact civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”

Here a few caveats are in order. Civility does not preclude spirited debate or confrontation. Clashing arguments are often clarifying arguments. Civility does not mean we do not call things by their rightful name. Evil is sometimes evil; and wicked men are sometimes wicked men. Nor does civility mean splitting the difference on every issue under the sun. (Who was right — eight clergymen in Alabama who said civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely” or the young minister sitting in a Birmingham city jail who told these “white moderates” that they preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace with is the presence of justice”?) I would add that the most important debates and many of the most important figures in American history were polarizing. They stirred deep passions in people, which is precisely when civility and even a measure of grace are most needed, to keep democratic discourse from jumping the rails.

In all this, Abraham Lincoln is, as he almost always is, a model. Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”

In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

None of us possesses Lincoln’s virtues. But all of us should aspire to cultivate them.

The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)

The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.

But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.

Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.

We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments. In fact civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”

Here a few caveats are in order. Civility does not preclude spirited debate or confrontation. Clashing arguments are often clarifying arguments. Civility does not mean we do not call things by their rightful name. Evil is sometimes evil; and wicked men are sometimes wicked men. Nor does civility mean splitting the difference on every issue under the sun. (Who was right — eight clergymen in Alabama who said civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely” or the young minister sitting in a Birmingham city jail who told these “white moderates” that they preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace with is the presence of justice”?) I would add that the most important debates and many of the most important figures in American history were polarizing. They stirred deep passions in people, which is precisely when civility and even a measure of grace are most needed, to keep democratic discourse from jumping the rails.

In all this, Abraham Lincoln is, as he almost always is, a model. Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”

In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

None of us possesses Lincoln’s virtues. But all of us should aspire to cultivate them.

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Some Historical Perspective on Negative Campaigning

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

Every election, it seems, political commentators and reporters suggest that the most recent election we’re in is “the nastiest, most negative election season of all time.” You have to be largely clueless about American history to argue such things — as this short video by Reason.tv highlights. The truth is that angry, fractious elections and political bickering have characterized American politics since the country’s founding.

Consider, for example, the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. According to Professor Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers, “it reached a level of personal animosity that almost tore apart the young republic, and has rarely been equaled in two hundred years of presidential politics.” One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

The 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was a race the New York Sun said deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” One pamphlet circulated by Greeley’s supporters called the Grant Administration the “crowning point of governmental wickedness” and accused Grant of bringing forth a “burning lava of seething corruption, a foul despotism….”

Or consider the 1884 race between Grover Cleveland and James Blaine. Cleveland was accused of fathering a child out of wedlock, which led Blaine supporters to chant what became a national slogan: “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” (After Cleveland won the election, his supporters answered: “Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!”). The Reverend Samuel Burchard, a Presbyterian minister, spoke at a gathering of pro-Blaine clergy in New York City just days before the election: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellions.” Accusations of Blaine’s corruption, as well as charges of his own sexual scandals, also dominated the debate. At campaign rallies, Democrats chanted, “Blaine! Blaine! James G. Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!”

And despite the deep differences that exist between political figures today, we do not settle our differences the way Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did, by duels at 10 paces with flintlock pistols. Heated exchanges are endemic to politics and what we are seeing today, while often not edifying, is not outside the norm of American history.

Like most people, I wish our debates were less trivial, more spirited, and more serious and contained fewer ad hominem attacks. We should have a clash of views about substantively important matters, such as what the proper role and purpose of the state should be in our lives. “Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords,” is how Theodore Roosevelt put it. We should therefore hope for serious, honest, reasoned arguments.

Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, and there is a danger in measuring the quality of our arguments by the quality of his. But there is a lot to be said for holding him up as the ideal. And if you read the words of Lincoln, you will find him constantly making his case in a compelling and philosophically serious way. That is what is most notable about his debates with Stephen Douglas. The burden was on Lincoln to show why Douglas’s advocacy for “popular sovereignty” was incompatible with self-government and the moral meaning of the Declaration of Independence — which is precisely what Lincoln did. If you read the transcripts of the debates, there was plenty of “negative” campaigning going on. But it is long forgotten, because the quality of the debate was so good and the stakes so high. The lesson for us is to aim high, not low, when it comes to the caliber of arguments we make to the public.

Politics is about important matters, and we should bring to it seriousness of purpose. But we should also bring to it a sense of history.

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Obama Out of Steam

No one can hold a candle to Obama when it comes to whining and self-pity. He’s been misunderstood, he says. His opponents are so, well, oppositional. The media is insistent on getting answers and bothering him all the time. The public is not thinking straight. And so it goes.

Mickey Kaus considers Obama’s outbursts against the electorate to be “a form of political malpractice—making yourself look good to supporters, and to history, and to yourself, at the expense of the fellow Dems who are on the ballot.” But this is vintage Obama. It is always about him and his inability to reconcile his own self-image with the results he has achieved and the reaction he engenders. As Kaus observes:

We thought he was a great salesman. He turned out to be a lousy salesman. We thought he was a great politician. Instead he makes elementary mistakes and doesn’t learn from them. He didn’t know “shovel-ready” from a hole in the ground, and then somehow thinks admitting this ignorance without apology will add to his appeal.

As hard as it is for his supporters to accept this, it is even harder for Obama to recognize his own shortcomings. Instead, he tried hollering at the Republicans. Then he hollered at his supporters. And now he’s just moping:

Mindful that some of his early supporters are feeling deflated, President Obama offered a frank admission Sunday that the sour economy has made it tough for Democrats to retain the buoyant sense of optimism touched off by his election victory nearly two years ago. … “I know there are times when probably it’s hard to recapture that sense of possibility,” Obama said, recalling the night of his election victory. “It’s hard sometimes to say, ‘Yes we can.’ You sit thinking, ‘You know, maybe. I don’t know.’ It’s not as inspiring a slogan.”

But then he reverts to partisan sniping, at times sounding rather loopy:

He swiped repeatedly at Republicans, invoking Abraham Lincoln at one point and positing that the 16th president would have trouble winning the Republican nomination if he were a candidate today.

Because the modern GOP is in favor of slavery? Because, well … oh forget it. Even his insults are incoherent these days.

Obama has proved to be weak in a crisis, as Juan Williams candidly observed in June. He’s wasn’t up to the BP oil spill or terrorist attacks. And he’s not very good at managing his own political crisis. I suppose teaching law school, perpetually running for higher office, and writing semi-fictional books about himself weren’t the best preparation for the presidency.

No one can hold a candle to Obama when it comes to whining and self-pity. He’s been misunderstood, he says. His opponents are so, well, oppositional. The media is insistent on getting answers and bothering him all the time. The public is not thinking straight. And so it goes.

Mickey Kaus considers Obama’s outbursts against the electorate to be “a form of political malpractice—making yourself look good to supporters, and to history, and to yourself, at the expense of the fellow Dems who are on the ballot.” But this is vintage Obama. It is always about him and his inability to reconcile his own self-image with the results he has achieved and the reaction he engenders. As Kaus observes:

We thought he was a great salesman. He turned out to be a lousy salesman. We thought he was a great politician. Instead he makes elementary mistakes and doesn’t learn from them. He didn’t know “shovel-ready” from a hole in the ground, and then somehow thinks admitting this ignorance without apology will add to his appeal.

As hard as it is for his supporters to accept this, it is even harder for Obama to recognize his own shortcomings. Instead, he tried hollering at the Republicans. Then he hollered at his supporters. And now he’s just moping:

Mindful that some of his early supporters are feeling deflated, President Obama offered a frank admission Sunday that the sour economy has made it tough for Democrats to retain the buoyant sense of optimism touched off by his election victory nearly two years ago. … “I know there are times when probably it’s hard to recapture that sense of possibility,” Obama said, recalling the night of his election victory. “It’s hard sometimes to say, ‘Yes we can.’ You sit thinking, ‘You know, maybe. I don’t know.’ It’s not as inspiring a slogan.”

But then he reverts to partisan sniping, at times sounding rather loopy:

He swiped repeatedly at Republicans, invoking Abraham Lincoln at one point and positing that the 16th president would have trouble winning the Republican nomination if he were a candidate today.

Because the modern GOP is in favor of slavery? Because, well … oh forget it. Even his insults are incoherent these days.

Obama has proved to be weak in a crisis, as Juan Williams candidly observed in June. He’s wasn’t up to the BP oil spill or terrorist attacks. And he’s not very good at managing his own political crisis. I suppose teaching law school, perpetually running for higher office, and writing semi-fictional books about himself weren’t the best preparation for the presidency.

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The Irresponsible Commander in Chief

The Washington Post is teasing the release of Bob Woodward’s newest book, Obama’s Wars, which focuses on the war in Afghanistan. Usually in Woodward’s offerings, those who cooperate with the author come off the best, and those who don’t — well, don’t. But in this case, Obama did agree to be interviewed, and it is therefore surprising, at least from the Post‘s telling, how poorly Obama comes across. And frankly, those who are forever  searching for some sign of maturity in the commander in chief and pronouncing that he really “gets it” look rather silly themselves.

First off, Obama was obsessed with an Afghanistan exit strategy, determined to get out no matter what the advice of his military advisers:

According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.” … Obama rejected the military’s request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. “I’m not doing 10 years,” he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

The disregard for his responsibilities — the equivalent of putting his fingers in his ears and humming — is stunning. It also stands in sharp contrast with his predecessor, who insisted on a review of flawed policy and ultimately the implementation of a winning one:

The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: “In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, ‘We’re doing fine, Mr. President, but we’d be better if we just do more.’ We’re not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] … unless we’re talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.”

Imagine FDR telling General Eisenhower, “I don’t want to hear things aren’t going well in Italy.” It’s inconceivable that Obama’s supposed role model, Abraham Lincoln, would have said, “No more news about McClellan’s shortcomings.” But then Obama’s not much for “victory”:

Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the “classic” terms of the United States winning or losing. “I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?” he said.

After Obama, it is his political advisers who come off worst:

National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama’s political aides as “the water bugs,” the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” or the “campaign set.” Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president’s senior adviser David Axelrod to be “a complete spin doctor.”

But then it is the president who put political hacks in the thick of war-planning.

Obama’s peevishness and determination to avoid facts that conflict with his ideological disposition are chilling. His apparent disinclination to pursue victory should frighten both allies and foes. Has he matured since the events detailed in the book? We have no evidence of that. I think it’s time to stop pretending that Obama is “growing” in the job and that he understands the responsibilities of a wartime president.

The Washington Post is teasing the release of Bob Woodward’s newest book, Obama’s Wars, which focuses on the war in Afghanistan. Usually in Woodward’s offerings, those who cooperate with the author come off the best, and those who don’t — well, don’t. But in this case, Obama did agree to be interviewed, and it is therefore surprising, at least from the Post‘s telling, how poorly Obama comes across. And frankly, those who are forever  searching for some sign of maturity in the commander in chief and pronouncing that he really “gets it” look rather silly themselves.

First off, Obama was obsessed with an Afghanistan exit strategy, determined to get out no matter what the advice of his military advisers:

According to Woodward’s meeting-by-meeting, memo-by-memo account of the 2009 Afghan strategy review, the president avoided talk of victory as he described his objectives.

“This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan,” Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. “Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room.” … Obama rejected the military’s request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. “I’m not doing 10 years,” he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”

The disregard for his responsibilities — the equivalent of putting his fingers in his ears and humming — is stunning. It also stands in sharp contrast with his predecessor, who insisted on a review of flawed policy and ultimately the implementation of a winning one:

The president is quoted as telling Mullen, Petraeus and Gates: “In 2010, we will not be having a conversation about how to do more. I will not want to hear, ‘We’re doing fine, Mr. President, but we’d be better if we just do more.’ We’re not going to be having a conversation about how to change [the mission] … unless we’re talking about how to draw down faster than anticipated in 2011.”

Imagine FDR telling General Eisenhower, “I don’t want to hear things aren’t going well in Italy.” It’s inconceivable that Obama’s supposed role model, Abraham Lincoln, would have said, “No more news about McClellan’s shortcomings.” But then Obama’s not much for “victory”:

Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the “classic” terms of the United States winning or losing. “I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?” he said.

After Obama, it is his political advisers who come off worst:

National security adviser James L. Jones privately referred to Obama’s political aides as “the water bugs,” the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” or the “campaign set.” Petraeus, who felt shut out by the new administration, told an aide that he considered the president’s senior adviser David Axelrod to be “a complete spin doctor.”

But then it is the president who put political hacks in the thick of war-planning.

Obama’s peevishness and determination to avoid facts that conflict with his ideological disposition are chilling. His apparent disinclination to pursue victory should frighten both allies and foes. Has he matured since the events detailed in the book? We have no evidence of that. I think it’s time to stop pretending that Obama is “growing” in the job and that he understands the responsibilities of a wartime president.

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A Rauchian Take

I don’t always agree with Jonathan Rauch, but I always respect the quality and rigor of his arguments. His op-ed in the New York Daily News, on the topic of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution, is no exception.

I find Rauch to be the most formidable and persuasive voice for same-sex marriage. But he makes a persuasive Madisonian and Burkean case against the decision. In Jon’s word:

Now, I agree with Walker that gay marriage is unlikely to cause any significant social harm and will do much good. But the judge insists that the testimony of a handful of expert witnesses in his courtroom rules out the possibility of harm so definitively as to make any attempt at caution or gradualism irrational. The evidence, he holds, is “beyond debate.” In an unpredictable world, that kind of sweeping certainty would leave any Burkean gulping.

So I think the decision is a radical one, but not, ironically, as it pertains to homosexuality or to marriage. No, Walker’s radicalism lies elsewhere: In his use of the Constitution to batter the principles of its two greatest exponents – Madison and Abraham Lincoln, a Burkean who was steadfast in his belief that ideals must be leavened with pragmatism.

History will, I believe, vindicate Walker’s view of marriage. Whether it will see him as having done gay rights a favor is less clear. For all its morally admirable qualities, his decision sets the cause of marriage equality crosswise with moderation, gradualism and popular sovereignty. Which, in America, is a dangerous place to be.

These are impressive arguments by an impressive, intellectually honest mind. It’s safe to say as well that our political discourse would be much better if it were more Rauchian.

I don’t always agree with Jonathan Rauch, but I always respect the quality and rigor of his arguments. His op-ed in the New York Daily News, on the topic of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution, is no exception.

I find Rauch to be the most formidable and persuasive voice for same-sex marriage. But he makes a persuasive Madisonian and Burkean case against the decision. In Jon’s word:

Now, I agree with Walker that gay marriage is unlikely to cause any significant social harm and will do much good. But the judge insists that the testimony of a handful of expert witnesses in his courtroom rules out the possibility of harm so definitively as to make any attempt at caution or gradualism irrational. The evidence, he holds, is “beyond debate.” In an unpredictable world, that kind of sweeping certainty would leave any Burkean gulping.

So I think the decision is a radical one, but not, ironically, as it pertains to homosexuality or to marriage. No, Walker’s radicalism lies elsewhere: In his use of the Constitution to batter the principles of its two greatest exponents – Madison and Abraham Lincoln, a Burkean who was steadfast in his belief that ideals must be leavened with pragmatism.

History will, I believe, vindicate Walker’s view of marriage. Whether it will see him as having done gay rights a favor is less clear. For all its morally admirable qualities, his decision sets the cause of marriage equality crosswise with moderation, gradualism and popular sovereignty. Which, in America, is a dangerous place to be.

These are impressive arguments by an impressive, intellectually honest mind. It’s safe to say as well that our political discourse would be much better if it were more Rauchian.

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President Obama, You’re No Abraham Lincoln

According to a new Rasumussen Reports survey, more likely voters now believe Barack Obama’s policies are to blame for the continuing bad economy than blame President Bush (48 vs. 47 percent). That gap will, I think, widen in the months ahead. In addition, the effort by Obama to blame his predecessor for everything from traffic congestion to nasal congestion is backfiring on Obama. The president’s incessant whining makes him look small-minded and petty, and also weak and overmatched by events.

The feeling one gets in watching Obama is not that he is engaged or energized or feels joy in his job; it is that he thinks things are just so darn hard and that the hand he’s been dealt is so darn unfair. He is therefore always in search of scapegoats. Given his habitual complaining, Obama might consider looking for guidance from Lincoln, who faced problems that make what Obama faces look like a stroll in the park. “He did not deal in blame,” William Lee Miller writes of Lincoln in President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. Lincoln didn’t pin blame on James Buchanan even though, unlike Obama (whose actions as senator, when he joined in the effort to stop the reform of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, contributed to the financial crisis in 2008), Lincoln had plenty of grounds for doing so. America’s 16th president instead “grappled with what to do … in the terms that the issue[s] came to him.”

Now no one, aside from the New Yorker and a few other liberal magazines and commentators, ever mistook Obama as the second coming of Lincoln. But the degree to which Obama embodies the opposite qualities of Lincoln is fairly striking. Lincoln was a man of unusual grace, large spirited, without self-pity, a man who did not demean or demonize others. Obama is the antithesis of all that. The public sees it, and they aren’t terribly impressed by it.

According to a new Rasumussen Reports survey, more likely voters now believe Barack Obama’s policies are to blame for the continuing bad economy than blame President Bush (48 vs. 47 percent). That gap will, I think, widen in the months ahead. In addition, the effort by Obama to blame his predecessor for everything from traffic congestion to nasal congestion is backfiring on Obama. The president’s incessant whining makes him look small-minded and petty, and also weak and overmatched by events.

The feeling one gets in watching Obama is not that he is engaged or energized or feels joy in his job; it is that he thinks things are just so darn hard and that the hand he’s been dealt is so darn unfair. He is therefore always in search of scapegoats. Given his habitual complaining, Obama might consider looking for guidance from Lincoln, who faced problems that make what Obama faces look like a stroll in the park. “He did not deal in blame,” William Lee Miller writes of Lincoln in President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman. Lincoln didn’t pin blame on James Buchanan even though, unlike Obama (whose actions as senator, when he joined in the effort to stop the reform of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, contributed to the financial crisis in 2008), Lincoln had plenty of grounds for doing so. America’s 16th president instead “grappled with what to do … in the terms that the issue[s] came to him.”

Now no one, aside from the New Yorker and a few other liberal magazines and commentators, ever mistook Obama as the second coming of Lincoln. But the degree to which Obama embodies the opposite qualities of Lincoln is fairly striking. Lincoln was a man of unusual grace, large spirited, without self-pity, a man who did not demean or demonize others. Obama is the antithesis of all that. The public sees it, and they aren’t terribly impressed by it.

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