The Magazine

Lincoln Incarnate

If our 16th president were alive today, chances are he wouldn't be Barack Obama.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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A. Lincoln

A Biography

by Ronald C. White

Random House, 816 pp., $35

Mario Cuomo has written one book (Why Lincoln Matters) and edited another (Lincoln on Democracy) dedicated to the proposition that Abraham Lincoln is a lot like Mario Cuomo. But he recently revised his view. Lincoln is actually a lot like Barack Obama. Cuomo listed the similarities in an op-ed that appeared in Newsday on Inauguration Day.

"Obama, like Lincoln, rejects rigid ideology in policymaking," Cuomo wrote. Both presidents declared their preference for "common sense" and "pragmatism," in stark contrast to those presidents who have declared their opposition to common sense and pragmatism. Accordingly, Cuomo went on, "Obama .  .  . like Lincoln, will not hesitate to call for substantial governmental assistance in the effort to right the Ship of State."

"Obama, like Lincoln, has superb personal gifts." These include a keen mind, poise under pressure, a prose style that sings, and a gift for delivering tub-thumpers. Both Obama and Lincoln lacked significant executive experience, Cuomo pointed out; both were political underdogs; and both were raised in "modest circumstances"--Lincoln on subsistence farms that were largely unchanged since the Iron Age, and Obama at a prep school in Honolulu, followed by Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

And then there's the shared mistrust of military force. "Lincoln knew, as Obama surely does, that we cannot end terror here [or] in the Middle East .  .  . just by having the world's most powerful weapons and the best fighting force." To sum up, Cuomo said, "Obama .  .  . shares Lincoln's extraordinary vision."

And yet, Cuomo added, and yet: There's a difference between these two pacific, statist, pragmatic presidents--these underdogs under the skin. Obama, taking office, has a tougher job than Lincoln ever did. Obama faces environmental disaster, genocide, worldwide hunger, and a "serious recession." Lincoln, Cuomo wrote, had only "one issue" to resolve. That would be the Civil War.

The declared similarities among Lincoln, Cuomo, and Obama will strike some of us as implausible. But Cuomo's view of Lincoln is already popular and gaining ground, here at the bicentennial of his birth. George McGovern, to cite another antique Democrat, wrote on Lincoln's birthday that Lincoln was a forerunner of Obama-like "change" and the perfect antidote to neo-
conservatism. Opinion-slingers from Election Day onward made the same point--including the president himself, who after his election evoked Lincoln so often that he began to seem like a boy bouncing on tiptoe, shoulders thrown back, measuring his height against Dad's.

And so what? Americans are always trying to remake their greatest president in their own image. From the bottomless hamper of historical evidence we pick the scraps that can be stitched together to make the Lincoln of our dreams. Christians find Lincoln the prayerful mystic, military men see Lincoln the brilliant strategist of war, politicians buck themselves up with Lincoln the wily and beneficent leader, and even gay activists see, if not Lincoln the gay activist, then at least a Lincoln who was actively gay. So why not a Lincoln dolled up as a liberal Democrat circa 2009?

As if on cue, Ronald C. White appears with his new biography. A former professor at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, he has made an 800-page attempt to do what Cuomo did in an 800-word op-ed. It arrives amid an unstoppable and apparently endless torrent of Lincoln books roaring out of the warehouses, so blinding it becomes hard to tell them apart: "Which would be best for Father's Day--November 1862: Lincoln's Month of Change or July 1863: Lincoln and the Month that Changed America or maybe The First Half of the Second Week of May 1864: The Bloody Four or Five Days that Changed Lincoln?"

A. Lincoln: A Biography stands apart from all these, however. It has the potential to fix the Cuomoized Lincoln in the popular imagination for a long time to come.