Enough Lincoln Already!
John McCain’s closest advisor Mark Salter wants Obama to achieve greatness, but thinks the new president has enough burdens without being compared to our greatest.
I wish President Obama well. I sincerely do. I hope the Iraq war concludes in success on his watch. I hope he turns around the war in Afghanistan. I hope the United States is spared another terrorist attack, and Osama bin Laden is finally brought to justice one way or another. As the father of two daughters, whose education is among my chief concerns and whose meager college fund has seen better days, I hope his policies succeed in hastening our economy’s recovery. I hope he leads us to greater energy security; reforms our entitlement programs; and encourages public education that rewards innovation and merit. I wish him every success in “changing the tone” in Washington. It will take a stouthearted and wise President to make respectable progress with a few of the challenges confronting him, and should he do so, his will have been a successful presidency. Should he accomplish more than that, historians would likely accord him the distinction “great.”
They both hailed from Illinois. They are both tall and slender. I cannot think of any other obvious similarities.
But can we please dispense with any more presumptuous comparisons of the new president to our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. It is offensive to the memory of a man without whom there might not be a United States of America or, at least, not one with as many constituent parts as the one President Obama now leads. The nation does not stand on the brink of civil war, and the gifted young man just sworn into office does not, by the most fevered stretch of the imagination, confront challenges as grave and numerous as those Abraham Lincoln faced 148 years ago. Nor has he, for all his gifts, which are many and admirable, yet proven himself a worthy successor to the nation’s savior much less his reincarnation.
To his credit, his very fine inaugural address drew inspiration from the struggles and achievements of our storied past and, more importantly, urged us, the fortunate heirs of a richly accomplished history, to exert ourselves to prove worthy of it. But he graciously did not draw overt comparisons between himself and Lincoln or between the problems of our times and the existential threat facing the nation in 1861. I take that as evidence of his wisdom and ability to maintain some humility in the face of public and pundit adoration that might make a king blush.
It is quite a good thing for the president to be conscious of the example of Abraham Lincoln; to seek inspiration from it; and even to hope to emulate it to some lesser degree. It augurs well for his presidency. I don’t fault the President for favoring symbols that call to mind his most distinguished predecessor. I will commend him if he actually does employ a governing style consciously similar to Mr. Lincoln’s. I admired the way he conducted his transition. And I am immensely grateful for his graciousness to his defeated opponent. But, at the risk of appearing churlish, I do object to historians and pundits who seem so eager to invent historical parallels between these times and Lincoln’s or between this President and our sixteenth. They both hailed from Illinois. They are both tall and slender. I cannot think of any other obvious similarities.
President Obama made important history by successfully campaigning for the Presidency, and it is a credit to him and to our country. I might have preferred that such history would have been made before or after this particular election, but I respect and thank him for the accomplishment. As John McCain said, I wouldn’t be an American worthy of the name if I felt otherwise. But whether the Obama presidency, and not just his election, earns an exalted place in history obviously remains to be seen.
The first president from Illinois fought, suffered, and died so that this nation “would have a new birth of freedom.” He endured the greatest trials of any president in our history: military disasters in a war that cost the lives of hundred of thousands; the contempt of many, the violent hate of many others; political defeats; public derision and the scorn of political elites.His wife caused public scandals and suffered from mental illness. He buried a beloved child while in office. And yet with resolve and wisdom that have few equals in all of human history, he persevered through endless setbacks and sorrow to preserve the Union and the promise of the Declaration of Independence, our “inestimable jewel.” He saved the United States of America, and he gave his life to do it.
Fortunate nations are blessed with a leader like Abraham Lincoln once in their history. We tempt Providence by rejoicing in acquiring the services of another before there is any evidence God has been that generous to us.
Please, let’s wish the new President well and proclaim our hope he will serve the nation with great distinction. But let’s stop with the frivolous Lincoln comparisons. President Obama has enough on his plate without imagining he faces problems akin to a constitutional crisis and civil war and that he must summon the courage and genius to save us from extinction. Had he been defeated in this election or were his presidency to prove an abysmal failure, which I doubt very much it will, the United States would survive. That is not something that could have been asserted with any confidence in 1865.
Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Senator McCain and senior advisor to the McCain for President campaign.