Abraham Lincoln is a mythic figure in American history. Every schoolchild encounters tales of “Honest Abe” studying by candlelight, working to keep the country united, and abolishing slavery – only to die by an assassin’s bullet.
And on this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born. So today seems an appropriate time to reflect on the meaning of what Lincoln represents to those who inherited his legacy.
Like our new president, Donald Trump, George W. Bush was no wordsmith. But he did understand the importance of Lincoln’s life.
In fact, over the course of his presidency, Bush read 14 Lincoln biographies. And in an interview with Walt Harrington, Bush invoked our 16th president time and again to explain many of his policy decisions. He even credited Lincoln with inspiring the core message of his Second Inaugural, which he paraphrased thus:
“We’ll resist tyranny at all times, all places, basically. Well, to me, you could say that was inspired by Lincoln. … Based upon the principle that deep in everybody’s soul is the desire to be free.”
But seen through the lens of Bush’s neoconservative politics, this idealization of freedom led him to launch a disastrous preemptive war in the Middle East.
President Obama, looking at the same life, drew a different set of lessons. Obama consciously channeled Lincoln to develop his governing style and select his cabinet. Shortly after Obama won the 2008 presidential race, the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker compared him with his bearded counterpart:
“As the United States splintered toward civil war, the 16th president assembled the most unusual administration in history, bringing together his disgruntled opponents and displaying what [historian Doris Kearnes] Goodwin calls a profound self-awareness and political genius.
“…And now, Obama is contemplating Lincoln’s particular model of presidential leadership as he moves toward assembling his own team of advisers and Cabinet officials.”
Obama appointed then-Senator Hillary Clinton – his opponent during a close primary contest – to Secretary of State and he offered three Republicans Cabinet positions. No president had ever offered so many Cabinet positions to members of an opposition party.
Obama channeled Lincoln in more symbolic ways, too. He announced his candidacy in 2007 in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Like Lincoln, Obama represented Illinois in Congress. And during his first inauguration, Obama used the same bible that Lincoln did when he was first inaugurated in 1861.
When Donald Trump was sworn in as president last month, he used the Lincoln bible, too – though his claim to Lincoln’s legacy is far more tenuous than Obama’s or even Bush’s. While Lincoln fought to unite a divided country, Trump’s racist rhetoric and sexist slander only served to further divide an already fractured body politic.
When Bob Woodward asked Trump last year why he thought Lincoln succeeded, Trump offered this vague, rambling answer:
“Well, I think Lincoln succeeded for numerous reasons. He was a man who was of great intelligence, which most presidents would be. But he was a man of great intelligence, but he was also a man that did something that was a very vital thing to do at that time. Ten years before or 20 years before, what he was doing would never have even been thought possible. So he did something that was a very important thing to do, and especially at that time.”
His reply is troubling for many reasons, the most obvious of which is that it sounds like an answer from a seventh-grader who didn’t study for his history test.
Trump, one assumes, reveres Lincoln (though upon reflection, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suppose that he only used the Lincoln bible to get a one-up on Obama). But even if he respects Lincoln, he clearly cannot explain why.
As the Obama and Bush administrations demonstrate, Lincoln’s legacy can be interpreted in various ways. But Trump, it seems, has no interpretation at all.
There is no better yardstick for measuring how far American politics has declined than contrasting “Honest Abe” with Donald Trump. In Trump’s telling, Lincoln’s life and legacy are diminished, becoming just another bullshit answer in a long list of bullshit answers he uses to disregard facts and conceal his shallow intellect.
Featured image via YouTube video.