Let’s face it on this Lincoln’s Birthday: Abraham Lincoln was not an impressive figure, not atfirst, or at least not in the way we usually use the word impressive. He certainly didn’t impress the style-setters of his time, any more than he would have impressed the spin doctors of our own. A modern political consultant would have taken one look, heard that tenor voice and rube accent with its distinct traces of the old Kentucky frontier, and advised him to find some other line of work. Because he would never make it in politics.
Lincoln’s was not an era that appreciated plainness, any more than this one does. The more resplendent the politician, the bigger following he attracted. Appearance counted for a great deal, just as it does now, and could be just as deceiving. And no one would ever have described Abe Lincoln as dashing. Awkward, ungainly, even grotesque, yes. Like a vision out of El Greco. So strangely assembled there was a kind of grandeur about him. He wouldn’t have been described as assured or smooth or any other adjective you might find in a job description for U.S. senator or TV anchorman.
It was Abe Lincoln’s rival, the Little Giant from Illinois, the smooth, self-assured Stephen A. Douglas who was the resplendent figure in the Lincoln-Douglas debates that would go down in history. But it would be the plain country lawyer from downstate who would save the Union.
Because some truths, Lincoln knew, cannot be disguised. They may be put off for a time, but not forever. For example, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Which is not a welcome message to bring as the house caves in on its occupants, who to the last want to believe that this, too, will blow over, and all will be as it was before, and another shoddy compromise with a moral evil will hold it all together.
Lincoln would lose the election in which he dared repeat that ter-rible prophecy about what awaits a house divided. But no number of votes can repeal the truth; it will out. And strike like a terrible swift word.
Our current president, contrary to the unflattering caricatures his critics paint of him, is said to be quite a reader. (Lincoln, too, was the object of quite a few caricatures.) Some night, when the lights are burning late in the White House, and the commander in chief is waiting for the next communique from the front, he might do worse than go back and read some of his predecessor’s words. For once again the republic, no longer young, faces choices that cannot be put off for much longer.
The idea would be foreign to Sen. Douglas short, smooth, rotund and experienced in the ways of the world. After all, he was the political fixer, an habitue of the best salons and innermost corridors of power, the people’s choice. There was no issue he couldn’t get around, no public he couldn’t twist.
Only later would Douglas realize he couldn’t equivocate forever that the Union would be saved or it wouldn’t be. Only then, when it was too late to avoid the Conflagration, would he see that there was no middle ground after all between freedom and slavery, union and disunion, continuity and separation, and that the unavoidable choice was between one nation or two.
Today’s equivocators and temporizers seek an illusory middle ground, too, and may even claim they’ve found it. Or soon will if only the rest of us would give them a little more time, a little more wiggle room, a little more ambiguity about this new threat that can surely be ignored a little longer till it explodes.
It occurs that Stephen A. Douglas would have fit right in at the United Nations if only he had spoken French. He, too, could be quite superior, knowing, dismissive of mere facts. He, too, could shrug off the mounting evidence, and explain away the unexplainable. All he would require was one more movable deadline, one more resolution without resolve, one more decision not to decide … and the crisis would be over. If not for long.
In his time, Lincoln knew better: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” And the world.
“Fellow citizens,” Lincoln reminded us, “we cannot escape history.”
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.