The Presidential Knife Fight Hypothetical

It’s the end of 2017, folks.  Time to stop worrying about the minor stuff, and to start thinking about big-picture issues — like whether Donald Trump or, say, Chester A. Arthur is more likely to prevail in a knife-fight to the death among American Presidents.

james_buchananBelieve it or not, people have given serious thought to this concept — so serious that they’ve even figured out what kind of motorized wheelcraft FDR would use in such a fight, and what kind of knives the Presidents would employ.  This is important stuff, far beyond the Hall of Presidents at Disney World and much more important than developing phony resolutions that you’ll forget within moments after the new year arrives.  Which Presidents are likely to survive until the bitter, bloody end — and, equally important, which Presidents are likely to be the first to give up the ghost?

The prevailing view seems to be that Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt are likely to be the last Presidents standing.  Jackson, because he was a bloodthirsty killer, Lincoln, because his height, rail-splitting strength, wrestling skills, and saintly notoriety make him somebody who would survive the initial killing frenzy, and Roosevelt, because his Bull Moose fitness and hunting prowess would give him a leg up over perceived presidential wimps like, say, Woodrow Wilson.  I’m not sure that the analysis gives sufficient credit to the more recent Presidents — like Harry Truman, who would be happy to stay in the kitchen heat, slashing away at his predecessors, or President Obama, who probably would enter the fray wearing a bicycle helmet and would use his basketball moves to avoid that fatal thrust.

chester_arthurThat’s all well and good, but to me the more crucial question is which President would be the first to meet his maker.  I’d bet on James Buchanan, pictured above with his really horrible case of bed head.  Seriously, who cut this guy’s hair.  Putting aside the fact that he was a horrible President, who did nothing to prevent the Civil War — just look at the guy’s face.! Who wouldn’t want to stab this loser and probably punch him square in the mug, besides?  Add in the fact that he was the only bachelor President, who couldn’t even deal with having a spouse, and you can’t help but see Buchanan cowering in a corner once the bloodsport begins, ready to be stabbed repeatedly by other Chief Executives.  I’m convinced Buchanan would the first to go, before even out of shape guys like Tubby Taft or wheelchair-bound Presidents like Roosevelt.

As for Trump?  I think he’d cut a deal with somebody like Matthew Van Buren and make it past the first wave, then get cut down mid-tweet.  I’m convinced Trump would outlive the sideburned Chester A. Arthur, somehow.

Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

Minding Abe’s Sign

I stopped at the Lincoln Memorial,  my favorite national monument, on my visit to the National Mall early this morning.  It never fails to inspire me, and I stop there whenever I can for a few minutes of silent, awed contemplation of our greatest President.

This morning I was struck by the message on the sign placed near the Lincoln statue.  It’s probably unnecessary — I’ve never heard anything but hushed whispers in my prior visits — but I appreciated it nevertheless. 

Don’t you wish people took heed of the sign as they talked about, say, the 2016 presidential campaign?

The Way Of The Whigs

In the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs were one of the two major parties in American politics.  Founded in 1834 as a group that opposed Democrat Andrew Jackson, they won two presidential elections and counted as their members some of the most prominent American politicians of the day.

2zrpdutAbraham Lincoln started his political career as a Whig.  So did William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State.  Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, two of the most prominent members of the United States Congress during that era, were Whigs.  The slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” helped to carry Whig candidate William Henry Harrison to the presidency in the election of 1840.  Another Whig, Zachary Taylor, was elected President in 1848.

But by 1856 — only two presidential elections later — the Whig Party was gone, unable to field a candidate for national office.  It broke apart on the shoals of the slavery issue, irreparably splintered by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with southern Whigs supporting the South’s detestable “peculiar institution” and northern “conscience Whigs,” like Lincoln, recognizing that slavery had to be ended or the country would tear itself apart.  As the old Whig Party fell apart, a new party, the Republicans, arose.  Led by Lincoln and Seward, the Republicans opposed slavery, fought the Civil War, and then became the second party in America’s two-party system.  Since 1860, those two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans.

Could what happened to the Whig Party happen to one of the two major parties of the modern day?  Probably not.  The modern political parties are much more well-funded and entrenched, with permanent national staffs and constant fund-raising and electoral laws that make it difficult to get third-party candidates onto the ballot.

screen-shot-2015-07-30-at-11-40-42-amAnd yet . . . I think about the Whigs when I consider the choice presented this year by the two major parties.  According to the polls, the vast majority of Americans are extremely unhappy with the candidates who apparently will carry the banners of their respective parties come November.  I’ve written before about the flaws of the candidates, but what about the flaws of the parties, and the process they created?

The two parties took opposite approaches to the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a huge field of 18 current and former Governors, Senators, and business leaders, had free-for-all debates, and ended up with Donald Trump.  The Democrats treated Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee, seemingly discouraged other prominent national Democrats from running, and now see an increasingly unpopular Clinton locked in an improbable, lingering fight with a 70-plus Socialist and facing increasing scrutiny about her personal ethics and credibility.  In short, the parties took opposite approaches to selection of their candidates, but each produced candidates who seem to be deeply, deeply flawed.

Many people out here in the Midwest speak of the choice the parties have given them with a bitterness that goes beyond the normal dismissive comments about politicians.  There is a strong sense that the political parties have utterly failed; many believe that the process is corrupt, and that we should blow it all up and start over.  In short, the views of the electorate probably are a lot like the views of Americans in the 1850s, when the Whigs turned out to be an empty shell with no substance that collapsed and vanished forever.

Could the Democrats or Republicans go the way of the Whigs?  I wonder.

America Then, America Now

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Yesterday morning in Washington, D.C., I walked past Ford’s Theater.  A small, quaint red brick building among the modern concrete structures of downtown Washington, the theater looks as it did 150 years ago, on that terrible night when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

It’sdownload wonderful that Ford’s Theate still exists; so much of American history has been erased in our never-ending quest for bigger and better that it’s gratifying to see a place that played such an important part in our history has been preserved.  So, too, has the house across the street where our greatest President died, and Edwin Stanton aptly said “Now he belongs to the ages.”

America being what it is, however, you won’t be surprised to learn that, among these sober living memorials to a dark chapter is a cheesy souvenir shop called Honest Abe Souvenir, which was having it’s grand opening as we walked by.  Because, after witnessing the place where American history took a grim turn and a great man breathed his last, who wouldn’t want to buy an Honest Abe mug or T-shirt?

Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

Better Late Than Never

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his address at the commemoration of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a decisive battle of the American Civil War had been fought months earlier.

On November 24, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union published a editorial that dismissed the President’s remarks as “silly.”  The editorial stated:  “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

150 years later, the newspaper — which is still around, now operating under the name Patriot-News — has retracted that scathing judgment about the Gettysburg Address.  Speculating that the writer of the earlier editorial may have been under the influence of partisanship or strong drink, the Patriot-News editorial board writes that its prior judgment was “so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”  The newspaper’s correction states:  “In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

The Patriot & Union was not alone in questioning the value of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the days after it was spoken to the world.  Its extreme brevity in a day when important speeches often were hours long, and its conceptual approach, which linked the Civil War to the Declaration of Independence, looked forward rather than backward at the great battle, and declined to directly criticize the Confederacy by name, made it stand out as radically different.  Lincoln himself is said to have remarked, after the speech was over, that his remarks “won’t scour.”

Lincoln was wrong, of course, and so was the Harrisburg Patriot & Union in dismissing his profound remarks as “silly.”  To its credit, the newspaper has finally, a century and a half later, corrected its error.  Sometimes it just takes time to recognize what has truly happened and to appreciate its significance.  The heated passions and glib remarks of the day often seem silly when viewed with the cool judgment of history.

Don’t Mess With The Lincoln Memorial

In a world of senseless violence, ethnic wars, random kidnappings, and suicide bombings, why get angry about some green paint splashed on a statue — particularly when the paint can be cleaned and the statue returned to its former glory?

But the vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial does make me angry.  I hope they catch the twisted person who did this, and I hope they make him pay.

The Lincoln Memorial, like the rest of the National Mall, says a lot about America.  Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents, and one of our greatest Americans, period.  His story tells a lot about this country, and his perseverance through the awful bloodshed of the Civil War does, too.  Most Americans have seen the Lincoln Memorial, on fifth grade trips to the Nation’s Capital or on family visits there, and it is an awesome temple to the American Idea — noble and grand, humbling and moving, with Lincoln’s careful words carved on the walls and his craggy, wise head looking down upon us.  We leave the Lincoln Memorial, and we feel good.

So why in the world would some idiot splash paint on Lincoln’s statue?

And while we are figuring out the answer to that question, let’s also answer this question:  how could the vandal do this and get away?  I hate to suggest even more surveillance cameras in this country, but the Lincoln Memorial needs to be protected.  Now that this pointless act has occurred, we don’t want to give terrorists any ideas.

Gettysburg, July 1, 1863

One hundred and fifty years ago, in a small town in southern Pennsylvania, two armies began the battle that became a defining moment of the Civil War.

The Confederate forces were led by General Robert E. Lee.  Flush with a crushing victory at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to lead his Army of Northern Virginia in an invasion of the North.  Lee knew that the situation in the Confederacy was growing increasingly desperate.  Hundreds of miles to the west, General Ulysses Grant and his Army of the Tennessee were continuing a methodical siege of Vicksburg, hoping to win the surrender of the starving Confederate Army encamped there — and, with its surrender, achieve control of the mighty Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.  Union blockades of Confederate ports were choking off trade and supplies.  Politically, the Confederacy was splintering.  Lee concluded that an invasion of the North, if successful, might bring the Union to the negotiating table and save the Confederacy from the inexorable forces that were strangling it.

The Army of the Potomac was led by a new commander — the goggle-eyed, waspish George Meade.  President Lincoln picked Meade to be the latest in a long line of Union Army generals to lead the North’s principal army.  All of Meade’s predecessors had had been outfought, outmaneuvered, whipped and humiliated by Lee and his supremely confident army.  Only a few days before the battle of Gettysburg began, Meade replaced General Joseph Hooker, who had lost the battle of Chancellorsville.  As Lee marched north, Meade pursued him, always striving to keep his army between Lee’s forces and Washington, D.C.  Meade feared that, if Lee somehow took the Nation’s Capital, a Union tired of years of bloody war might decide to sue for peace.

On June 30, as the two enormous armies moved through the quiet Pennsylvania countryside, ill-clad Confederate troops heard that shoes might be found in Gettysburg.  Rebels skirmishers visited the town, found some Union troops there, and told their commanders — who decided to press the issue.  On July 1, lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia moved into Gettysburg. clashing with Union cavalry.  The Confederates drove the Union Army through town, leaving the Army of the Potomac clinging desperately to two hills south of town — Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.  In the meantime, the main armies were wheeling slowly into position, and Meade decided that Gettysburg might be the ideal place for a pitched battle.

Most of the soldiers in the two armies were farm boys who hailed from towns much like Gettysburg, which at that time was home to about two thousand people.  They had seen their fellow soldiers killed by the score in battles that were appallingly bloody by modern standards, with brave men ordered into ill-fated charges in which they would be torn to shreds by minie balls and cannon shot — but they were determined to do their duty, no matter what the cost.

As night fell, the Union forces dug in, hoping to hold the high ground, and the Confederate generals planned their attack.  As the armies gathered around their crackling campfires, both sides suspected, correctly, that the big battle lay ahead.

I’m Not Going To Vote For “Fighters” Anymore

I’ve got friends who occupy just about every niche along the political spectrum.  For once, almost everyone seems to be united in one thought:  we all agree that the recent “fiscal cliff” scenario, and the hash house legislation that “resolved” it, are an infuriating embarrassment for our country.  Everyone seems to recognize that the hastily brokered bill, with its special deals for well-heeled special interests, just illustrates how bad things have gotten in Washington, D.C.

Why has this happened?  There are a lot of reasons, of course, but I think one significant cause is that we’ve changed how we think about our political leaders and what they should be doing.  What attributes are featured in political ads these days?  Democrat or Republican, the candidate is always portrayed as a “fighter” who will “fight” for his constituents in opposing unnamed forces of evil.  Important qualities like thoughtfulness, cool deliberation, and attention to detail are ignored.  When was the last time you saw a candidate in a political ad sitting and reading something?  Instead, they’re always out, talking, talking, talking to groups, and vigorously gesturing as they are doing so.

We need legislators who understand the true importance of their role and who have pride in their legislative bodies and in their offices.  We need people who recognize that laws that will govern the affairs of more than 300 million Americans have to be carefully considered and can’t be cobbled together in a back room huddle of Joe Biden and a few congressional leaders.

In reality, too, most of the “fighters” who currently hold office really are sheep.  They listen to how their party leadership tells them to vote, and then they do it, even if it means they don’t even read whatever last-minute, lobbied-up deal they are voting on.  Can you imagine the Lincolns and Clays and Websters of the past — or any legislator with an ounce of self-respect, for that matter — accepting these legislative practices, which have now become so routine?  A real fighter for our system would refuse to participate in such shenanigans.

I’m not going to vote for phony “fighters” any more.  In fact, I’ll make this pledge:  candidates whose commercials extoll their qualities as “fighters” will be automatically disqualified from further consideration.  Our country badly needs reasoned solutions, not more pointless name-calling and legislative brawls undertaken in the name of “fighting” for constituents.  We need readers and thinkers, not “fighters.”  “Fighters” look for fights; readers and thinkers look for solutions — and solutions is what we really need.

Lincoln, Revisited

Kish and I saw Lincoln yesterday.  It’s a wonderful movie, and I would highly recommend it to everyone.

https://i0.wp.com/i.i.com.com/cnwk.1d/i/tim/2012/10/20/CCSpielbergLincoln1280x960_460x329.jpgI don’t have much to add to Richard’s excellent, thoughtful review of the film.  Daniel Day-Lewis was terrific as Lincoln.  For an actor, what role could be more difficult than bringing real life touches to an iconic figure most Americans now see less as a human being, and more as a colossal marble statue?  Under the masterful direction of Steven Spielberg, and with the able assistance of some fine actors and great sets and scenery, the film creates a realistic, tobacco-spitting, bewhiskered and ball gown-wearing, deeply racist, embarrassingly eloquent, and entirely believable depiction of America during the Civil War.  Sure, Sally Field was too old to play Mary Todd Lincoln, but that casting clinker can’t take away from an otherwise exceptionally well done movie.

My only complaint is not about the acting or the production value, but about the script.  The story told by the film was not the story of Lincoln’s life, but rather the story of Lincoln’s resolve to secure passage of the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery before the Civil War ended — and his deft politicking to achieve that goal.  So why, then, couldn’t the movie end with Lincoln enjoying that success?  Why must every Lincoln movie proceed to the heartbreak of his assassination and the solemn pronouncement that “now he belongs to the ages”?

I recognize that Lincoln’s martrydom is an essential part of the Lincoln saga, but that doesn’t mean we have to be hit over the head with that fact whenever Lincoln is mentioned.  How refreshing it would have been to see the movie end with Lincoln enjoying his triumph!  We would still know that death awaited him, of course — every American knows that to their core — but seeing him relishing a satisfying and historic victory would have exposed a different facet of the man.

Review: Lincoln

Lincoln and his cabinet.

Lincoln and his cabinet.

In a scene in the middle of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican congressman, chides Abraham Lincoln for waiting so long to make an attempt to end slavery.

Lincoln responds that if he had tried to end slavery after the war began in 1861, the border states would have joined the Confederacy, leading to the Union’s defeat and making the chances of emancipation even more remote. Stevens sits there with a defensive expression on his face, unable to offer a rebuttal.

Abraham Lincoln’s character – his blend of compassion and pragmatism – is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as its title makes clear. Most Civil War epics focus on the great battles between the Union and Confederate armies, but Lincoln concentrates on the role the 16th president played in the great legislative battle over the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery.

Those who pay $9 to see artillery fire and bayonet charges will be disappointed by the film. The few battle scenes are short and brutal, serving only to remind viewers of one of the many pressures weighing on Lincoln’s mind as he decided the best way to end the war.

The ongoing carnage has led the Democrats and the conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives to oppose passage of the 13th amendment out of the fear it will ruin peace negotiations. They pester Lincoln for even bringing up emancipation, while the Radical Republicans pester him for not pressing emancipation hard enough.

In his portrayal of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a man aware that his role in history is to herd his hard-headed colleagues toward emancipation and peace. He does this mostly through slippery legislative techniques we would associate more with LBJ: patronage, cajoling, and even a little bit of dishonesty. Moralizing is used only as a last resort.

Two of Lincoln’s great speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, make it into the film, but they seem only rhetorical flourishes for Lincoln’s legislative masterwork. Unseemly political tactics are an essential part of Republican government, in any year; during the Civil War our country was lucky to have a brilliant president who used them to achieve great things.

I could think of no historical character more deserving of a portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, with his well-known thoroughness, than the complicated, monumental Lincoln. Ironically, the British actor brings America’s most revered historical figure to life. Instead of the booming voice most Lincoln impersonators use, he employs a more realistic reedy twang. He demonstrates Lincoln’s penchant for funny anecdotes well enough to get my theater laughing a couple times. With saggy eyelids, a slight hunch and a sad smile, he communicates the weariness and the spiritual burdens Lincoln acquired after four years of a wartime presidency.

He also gives him flaws. In scenes of discord with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and his son, Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he shows Lincoln as a man prone to indecision and anger, like the rest of us. Underneath it all, though, is the wisdom and strength of character that made Lincoln such an icon.

A great cast joins Day-Lewis in creating real people out of the historical figures known only through stodgy old photographs and dry academic writing. Sally Field plays Mary Lincoln as a woman so anxious, in large part due to the death of her son Tad shortly before the beginning of the film, that I both felt sorry for her and wanted to avoid her. Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln is a frustrated young man imprisoned at Harvard by his mother’s worries while he would rather be proving himself on the battlefield.

Thanks to the full-fledged performances and the attention to detail in the sets, costumes, accents and 19th-century lingo, the movie creates such a convincing image of 1865 that it felt like a precious window into the past. The United States of 1865 is a character itself, tired of war and uncomfortable with the great changes it is undergoing. The new capitol building is so blindingly white that it seems both inspiring and awkward amongst the dingy buildings and muddy streets of Washington, D.C. The telegraphs that bring news of the results of battles and their casualties seem to strike the characters as exciting and frightening, and the same could be said of the freed blacks who have just begun serving in the army.

At the end of the movie, when I stepped out of the theater into the parking lot, I felt like I had returned from a trip to the past. I was conscious of the fact that I and my surroundings were products of the historical currents portrayed in the movie. Some characters in the movie, including Lincoln, ask what America should be like after the war ends, how it can heal the scars of slavery. Stepping back into modern-day America, I had an opportunity to examine the way the United States chose to proceed from their eyes.

In Favor Of “Flip-Floppers”

Today President Obama announced that he has changed his mind about gay marriage and now favors it.  Opponents of the move called him a “flip-flopper.”  Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has modified his position on certain issues over the years.  He’s been criticized as a “flip-flopper,” too.

I don’t get the “flip-flopper” criticism.  I think it’s common for people to reassess their views about issues.  I certainly don’t adhere to every belief I held when I was 20, or 30.  Life experiences have shaped my views, and circumstances have, too.  I don’t want a President who is so rigid in his thinking that he is unwilling to reexamine his position, even when events strongly suggest that his position is wrong or ill-advised.  Why wouldn’t we want a President who is flexible and open-minded enough to react to new information or new developments?

It’s worth remembering that perhaps the greatest “flip-flop” in American political history involved Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, but also was opposed to the notion that the government could, or should, simply order that slaves be freed.  He favored voluntary emancipation by slaveowners, who would be compensated as a result.  Military and civil conditions during the Civil War, however, caused Lincoln to revisit his position, and the Emancipation Proclamation was the result.  Although some people opposed the Proclamation, I don’t remember that people reacted by shrieking that Lincoln was a “flip-flopper” or an unprincipled hack.  Now, does anyone care that Lincoln’s views on the issue changed over time?  The important point was that Lincoln’s ultimate position clearly was the right position.

The lesson of Lincoln, I think, is that we should focus on whether we agree with the politicians’ stated positions, without worrying overmuch about how they finally got to those positions.  In the case of same-sex marriage, I agree with the President.  If a gay couple wants to make the commitment of marriage, and to assume the rights and legal obligations that accompany that status, I think they should be permitted to do so.  Why should a gay couple be treated any differently from another couple simply because of their sexual orientation?

I recognize that other people will disagree with this position because of their religious or cultural beliefs.  Such disagreements are the stuff of which political campaigns are made.  The important point, for purposes of this posting, is that the issue of same-sex marriage be considered and debated on its merits.  Whether a politician’s position on the issue has changed doesn’t advance the debate, and indeed just distracts from it.

History Around Every Corner

One of the great things about New York City is that you can find interesting bits of history just about anywhere and everywhere.  Today we were walking to the Tenement Museum when we passed the historic Cooper Union building.

Anyone who enjoys American history — and particularly anyone who finds Abraham Lincoln fascinating, as I do — recognizes the Cooper Union as the site of a crucial turning point in Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency.  It was at the Cooper Union, on a snowy night on February 27, 1860, that Lincoln gave a speech about slavery that helped to catapult him to the Republican nomination.  Through his famous speech, Lincoln demonstrated that he was no awkward backwoodsman, but rather a national leader who could speak seriously, thoughtfully, and forcefully about the paramount issue of the day.  The Cooper Union speech helped to establish Lincoln as a bona fide candidate, and not some mere regional favorite son.

The Cooper Union building stands still, with its old-fashioned lettering and clock, and looks much the same as it did on that night nearly 152 years ago, when the strapping frontier lawyer came to Gotham and thrilled his sophisticated audience with his logic and the power of his arguments.

The Lasting Lure Of Lincoln

Over the weekend I started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  I know it has been out for years, but I’ve been saving it on my nightstand to read at the right time.  That time is now.

Team of Rivals is Goodwin’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the men who were competitors for the Republican nomination for President in 1860 and then became members of Lincoln’s cabinet.  I’ve been looking forward to it because I love reading about Lincoln and revisiting, again, the distant world of our 16th President, with its scourge of slavery and awesome challenge of secession, with huge armies marching across the land and the blood of brothers spilled, with telegraphs and smoking locomotives and political figures on horseback.

I’ve written before about Lincoln and his unshakable grip on the American imagination.  Part of that fascination stems from Lincoln’s compelling life story and part stems from his genius at expressing the deep themes of America with a few well-chosen words.  But part of the continuing interest in Lincoln is that his story is aspirational.  No matter how bad things may seem right now — or at any time since Lincoln’s assassination — we know that the challenges and political divisions we face pale in comparison to those that Lincoln and his administration overcame.

Lincoln was a deft politician, but his success in steering the country through the dark days of the Civil War was mostly due to his willingness to take on the hard questions and make the tough, but necessary, decisions.  Those same leadership qualities are what are sorely needed today.