[How Abe got even]
People talk as if the president of the United States were omnipotent,
his every wish were law. We discuss what each candidate is apt to do
if elected. This careless habit leads us to utter a lot of nonsense,
as if politics were just a matter of wishful thinking.
You would think that Abe Lincoln had ended slavery with a mere stroke
of the pen, and that any other American president might have done so
earlier, if only the whim had seized him.
Now I have little use for Barack Obama, the most leftist president
this country has had for quite a spell. But at least he has enough
sense to realize, as his inaugural address and other early speeches
have shown, that he faces many serious obstacles to getting his way.
His chief fear seems to be that he will be a scapegoat when he fails
to perform the economic miracles and marvels the rabble are clamoring
for. To his credit, he doesn’t advertise himself as The Decider.
Most of his important decisions have already been made for him.
Long before we knew who would win the crown in 2008, it was obvious
to me that our next emperor would have his work cut out for him: cleaning
up the Augean horror of the last few years. And this was before the
dimensions of that mess were as clear as they are now.
So Obama is now doing the opposite of what most politicians do. He
is cautioning us against expecting too much of his administration.
You can’t unscramble eggs or unshuffle a deck of cards. What
George W. Bush and his allies have done, Obama and his can’t
Political power in this country is not monolithic. Far from it. It
is divided up with an intricate complexity that is supposed to protect
us — and in fact often does — from the tyranny that arises from confiding
too much power into too few hands.
The most powerful and ruthless despots also have great difficulty
imposing their wills. Stalin and Mao must have found mass murder a
frustrating and often cumbersome business.
It has lately become the fashion to express surprise that Obama is
a mere mortal, after all the preposterous hype about his miraculous
election. Why? What preternatural powers had he shown? Have I missed
something? Sure, he spoke in complete sentences, but he was hardly
the first American statesman to perform this feat. The underrated Millard
Fillmore routinely achieved it. Even the first President Bush was known
to do it at times.
Obama is the beneficiary of the drastically lowered expectations,
both moral and intellectual, of the last two decades — as any normal
human being in his place might be. How very little we ask of our rulers
in the way of wisdom and honor, when even such a warmonger as Lincoln
is regarded as a paragon of both virtues! The American demigod! No
Roman emperor was ever so deified as this country has divinized “honest
Abe.” The man himself, so modest and unassuming, would be utterly
dumbfounded to find what we have made of him, idolatrously putting
his image on every penny we coin and building an enormous temple to
him in our capital city. Astounding!
Let me qualify that. The mad Roman emperor Caligula had his horse
made a consul. This act had a distant echo in Lincoln’s fateful
decision of 1861: Confederate troops at Fort Sumter fired on Union
forces, killing a single horse, and Lincoln took the occasion to launch
a war that killed over 600,000 young men. I think we may consider Lincoln’s
horse amply avenged.
Not even Lincoln’s most apprehensive Southern enemies, expecting
war, had foreseen this scale of retaliation. It went well beyond the
Mosaic principle of an eye for an eye.
Yet Lincoln’s reputation remains that of a gentle, magnanimous
ruler who resorted to violence only with the greatest reluctance —
a decision for which the “rebels” are of course blamed,
despite all evidence. He rejected any compromise, even when nearly
everyone else wanted to avoid war somehow. To put it in a very few
words, Lincoln was a quiet and very determined fanatic — surely, with
Lenin and very few others in all recorded history, one of the most
successful who ever lived. Obama will have to go some to match him.
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