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Lincoln, Obama, and Bush

In a time of war, eloquence matters, but so does prudence.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2008 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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Long before the recent election, Barack Obama often liked to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln. An adoring press followed suit. Googling "Obama and Lincoln," results in over 14 million hits. Now many are of these are redundant and many have nothing to do with either Obama or Lincoln. But it is obvious that the idea of Obama as the reincarnation of Lincoln resonates with a great many folks, especially in the mainstream media. Consider just this small sample: Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, "Obama's Lincoln," Newsweek, November 24, 2008, posted online November 15; The Associated Press, "Parallels between Obama, Lincoln," November 10, 2008; Carolyn Kellogg, "Obama is Inspired by Lincoln's Writings," Los Angeles Times Online, November 07, 2008; Howard Fineman, "Obama and the Echoes of Lincoln," Newsweek, October 6, 2008. The alleged Lincoln-Obama link has become so pervasive that even those of a liberal bent are beginning to protest.

The superficiality of much of the comparison is evident in the Newsweek piece by Thomas and Wolffe:

It is the season to compare Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches, or at least drafts the really important ones--by hand, on yellow legal paper--such as his remarkably honest speech on race during the Reverend Wright imbroglio last spring.

But there is also a lot in the media that reflects a dreadful ignorance about Lincoln's enterprise. Consider this passage from Thomas and Wolffe.

More than familiar with Lincoln's rhetoric, [Obama's speech writer] decided to pass on the most overquoted passage of all, invoking "the better angels of our nature," and to quote the words that came before: "We are not enemies, but friends Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

To a public thoroughly sick of partisan bickering, these words rang with hope as Obama spoke them on election night before a vast crowd in Chicago's Grant Park. If there was any one message that defined the Obama campaign from the beginning, it was his promise to rise above the petty politics of division and unite the country.

Of course, Lincoln did not "unite the country." Indeed, he was concerned that the country would unite over the issue of the moral rightness of slavery.

As Lincoln famously said on June 16, 1858 before the Illinois Republican Convention in Springfield:

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Thus far from uniting the country, Lincoln made a divided country choose sides, one of which he believed to be right and one of which he believed was wrong.

As the examples above illustrate, most of the reason the press portrays Obama as "Lincolnian" has to do with the former's rhetoric. These days, there is a tendency to dismiss rhetoric as somehow unimportant. But Aristotle wrote a treatise on rhetoric that all could read with profit. Rhetoric is particularly important in a republic because of the need for our governors to persuade the public. Lincoln's rhetoric was important in drawing a line concerning the rightness or wrongness of slavery and in stressing the importance of preventing the extension of the institution into the Federal territories. It was also important during the war in linking the sacrifices of the soldiers to the survival of republican government.

But his actions were important as well. Without the steps he took to win the war, Lincoln's rhetoric would have been hollow. And when it comes to actions, the true parallel between Lincoln and a contemporary is between the sixteenth president and George Bush. It was Bush, after all, who arguably had to confront a crisis most like the one that Lincoln faced from 1861 to 1865: a rebellion "too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings."

Among the problems that Bush and Lincoln both faced included the decision to go to war in the face of substantial domestic opposition, achieving a balance between "vigilance and responsibility" when it came to security and civil liberties, dealing with domestic opposition to the war that often crossed the line from dissent to obstruction, and the relationship between policy and military action and its corollary, civil-military relations.

Consider just two of the issues above: domestic opposition to the war and the issue of balancing civil liberties and security. During the Civil War, the so-called Peace Democrats or "Copperheads" actively interfered with recruiting and encouraged desertion. Indeed, they generated so much opposition to conscription that the Army was forced to divert resources from the battlefield to the hotbeds of Copperhead activity in order to maintain order. Many Copperheads actively supported the Confederate cause, materially as well as rhetorically.

As president, Bush confronted Democratic opponents of the Iraq war who echoed the rhetoric of the Copperheads. The latter described Lincoln as a bloodthirsty tyrant, trampling the rights of Southerners and Northerners alike. Today's Copperheads described Bush as the world's worst terrorist, comparable to Hitler. But the actions of the Copperheads of today went far beyond unpleasant words. Antiwar Democrats' expressions about "supporting the troops" rang hollow in light of Democratic efforts to hamstring the ability of the United States to achieve its objectives in Iraq until the success of the surge took the issue off the table.

The parallels between Lincoln and Bush regarding civil liberties during a period of emergency are even more striking. In June of 1863, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Erasmus Corning, who had sent him the resolutions of the Albany Democratic convention censuring the Lincoln administration for what it called unconstitutional acts, such as military arrests of civilians in the North. This letter remains the best articulation of the problems that a democratic republic faces when confronted by a crisis that threatens the very existence of that republic.

The essence of Lincoln's argument was that certain actions that are unconstitutional in the absence of rebellion or invasion become constitutional when those conditions exists--in other words, "that the Constitution is not in its application in all respects the same in cases of rebellion or invasion involving the public safety, as it is in times of profound peace and public security."

In December of 2005, President Bush issued his equivalent of the Corning letter. In his weekly address to the nation, the president, speaking live from the Roosevelt Room, addressed the failure of the Senate to renew the Patriot Act, which passed that body 98-1 in the wake of 9/11, and forcefully defended his actions in authorizing the National Security Agency "consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution, to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations."

He pointed out that the Justice Department and NSA's top legal officials had reviewed the activities permitted under this authorization and that the executive branch had briefed congressional leaders of both parties more than a dozen times on this authorization and the activities conducted under it.

"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists," the president said. "It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties. And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States."

Critics of Bush fail to make an important distinction that Lincoln illuminated in the Corning letter:

I can no more be persuaded that the Government can constitutionally take no strong measures in time of rebellion, because it can be shown that the same could not lawfully be taken can be persuaded that a particular drug is not good medicine for a sick man, because it can be shown not to be good for a well one. Nor am I able to appreciate the danger apprehended by the meeting [of the New York Democrats] that the American people will, by means of military arrest during the Rebellion, lose the right of Public Discussion, the Liberty of Speech and the Press, the Law of Evidence, Trial by Jury, and Habeas Corpus, throughout the indefinite peaceful future, which I trust lies before them, any more than I am able to believe that a man could contract so strong an appetite for emetics during temporary illness as to persist in feeding upon them during the remainder of his healthful life.

Bush, like Lincoln, understood that the means to preserve the end of republican government are dictated by prudence, which according to Aristotle is, the virtue most characteristic of the statesman. Prudence is concerned with deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means). In political affairs, prudence requires the statesman to be able to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the means that are best given existing circumstances. For Bush, as well as for Lincoln, preserving republican liberty requires the executive to choose the means necessary and proper under the circumstances.

George Bush is not the master of rhetoric that Barack Obama is. But the current president has been "Lincolnian" in responding to the threats the country has faced since 9/11. Obama's real test will come when he is actually the president. Then he will be required to translate his soaring rhetoric into actions that advance the interests of the country. As I have observed elsewhere, it is always easier to be president when you're not.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis and a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. His study of Lincoln's wartime presidency will be published early next year by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia.