Before the results of the November 6, 2012, general election were known, I wrote this note to you in the spirit of neutrality, as a political observer of the whole scene upon our field of competition. Even though I hold strong views as to the political philosophy that holds the greatest potential to move our country forward, I stand here in as much objectivity as I can muster in order to observe what ordering principles the contest can promise Americans—and others overseas—in the near future. One caution, however; the operant word here is the verb “can.” Thus, the direction I examine below is open, available to our president, all other elected officials and their advisors, but it must be chosen; any wisdom in it must be seen first, then acted upon, and therein lies the risk, the hazard. Will they or will they not see and do?
Like many of you, I have observed the erosion—degradation, really–in the state of politics in our country. More has been written on the reasons for the decay in our respect for elected officials than can be summarized here. Moreover, such noting of reasons is most often descriptive, seldom prescriptive. My prescriptive remedy to the manifest infirmities of politics today is simple and direct.
Regardless of party affiliations, we need to find and elect men and women with the manifest traits of Abraham Lincoln. And lots of men and women like him because the hour is late! What better tutorial for any calling but most certainly for the political class than to study, recognize, and emulate that which made Lincoln the political genius he was. More important, all candidates must understand how Lincoln’s political acumen was the result of the authenticity out of which the man conducted all aspects of his life, and second, how his political life as well as his private affairs were directed by his sound moral compass.
As you may be aware, Steven Spielberg is about to release yet another movie on the life of Abraham Lincoln. As the American Civil War is the seminal defining event in our nation’s history, it almost appears that Abraham Lincoln was providentially placed to lead the nation through that horrific struggle.
Considering the trials our sixteenth president faced leading up to and throughout the Civil War, I am convinced that Lincoln stands as both the central figure of American history and its greatest leader. To learn the attributes iconic leaders possess, you need only read a good Lincoln biography. More than a thousand have been written, but my personal favorites are Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald (Simon & Schuster 1996), and Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster 2006).
Make no mistake, Lincoln was intuitively gifted in the way of politics. Born to it, he understood that being a great leader and an effective politician are not mutually exclusive traits, activities, and goals. They are one. But it isn’t Lincoln’s political acumen that politicians now lack. It is a deep understanding that the traits Lincoln employed in his political life were simply replications, or other expressions, of the characteristics he brought to his personal life. For instance, our sixteenth president became known to Union soldiers as “Father Abraham.” Think about it: could there be more discerning judges of character than soldiers facing death?
They did not dub Abe their titular Father because his person was lodged in the crystalline realm of their consciousness like God himself, but because he physically came to be with soldiers on the battlefield and with wounded and dying men in the hospitals. President Lincoln came to share the most powerful gift one person can bestow on another, authentic empathy for his plight.To simply be there with another in his time of lonely suffering. What separates Lincoln’s character and actions from those of other men and women granted the power to shape their nations’ destinies, yet who failed to varying degrees, is that Lincoln was a genuinely earnest human being. He offered up to every soul he encountered exactly who he was.
Lincoln understood that to convince people to accept your position, you must engage them on an emotional level. Lincoln realized that you can press a persuasive position based on facts alone and that folks will understand it and even agree with your message. But he also keenly appreciated that unless you engage people emotionally, they will not be moved to action with or for you.
Lincoln showed the right degree of caution in reaching decisions but a firm resolve in following through on reaching the goal. Thus, we want today, as both candidates and public servants, people who are decisive–who will make decisions. In movies we see them portrayed as the typical executive, quick and decisive. But first, prior to the decision, we want someone who reflects to the proper degree and extent upon those important decisions, someone who gives each decision the sense of gravitas it deserves, not as a “show” but as an integral, unassuming part of his or her nature.
Also, he was by nature deferential and self-deprecating but left no doubt that he was in charge. In the 1850s Abe Lincoln was the most recognized and respected attorney in the state of Illinois, yet he didn’t try to hide or repress his fallibilities; he had an unflinching sense of justice; and he sought to form close friendships with opponents. Why and how did all these good traits come together to work so well for him and for us? Because he did not take differences personally.
This is a far cry from what we see in politics today. In my book Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press 2008; 2nd edition 2011) I call the current fractious mindset “gratuitous incivility.” Today, rather than debating substantive issues on their merits past, present, and future, we make every issue personal. As a result, we have mudslinging, name-calling, and once we’re good and worked up, we come to genuinely dislike one another! Relational bridges are burned, and then simple faith in one another is breached.
The terrain of Lincoln’s mind was surely a complex and deeply contoured landscape. Lincoln could appreciate and “read” the nature of conflict in ways few of us can comprehend or accept. Doris Kearns Goodwin writes that when the war had reached one of its most desperate junctures, Lincoln wrote, “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” I can recall reading the diary entry of a Nazi officer during WWII. The gist of his comment was that he was perplexed that the tide of war had turned against the Germans. I am confused, he said; he was certain God was on the Axis side! In contrast, Lincoln’s rationality pierced the fog of self-interest and inbred biases, for he recognized that no party to any dispute could be assured of being right in all matters, especially as concerns his own side’s alignment with the will of God!
“Lincoln’s abhorrence of hurting . . . was born of more than simple compassion. He possessed extraordinary empathy–the gift or curse of putting himself in the place of another,” writes Goodwin. It is from those traits that Lincoln gives each of us one of the greatest lessons ever on the need for forgiveness–even how and why one forgives his harshest adversary.
President Lincoln’s second inaugural address is a mere six paragraphs long. Yet it is considered to be one of the most powerful pieces of political prose ever conceived. Consider this: when he gave his address on March 4, 1865, on the steps of the Capitol, the carnage wreaked by the war was already unimaginable. The loss of life to both sides totaled nearly 750,000 lives.
Proportioned to our current population, that would equate to 7.5 million lives. As a frame of reference, 300,000 American soldiers were killed during WWII. Yet on March 4, 1865, the war raged on. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was five weeks off, and the president would die three days after that. As the war was coming to an end, Lincoln was under tremendous and vitriolic pressure to punish the South for its transgressions.
Yet he advised the nation from the podium that cold March day, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; …let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.” With these simple, direct words, and focusing on practicalities, too, Lincoln offered forgiveness well before the conflict was at an end—many would yet lose their lives in battle and in sickness.
Thus, with a wisdom that transcends the ages, our embattled President understood that only in a spirit of and by the complementary action of forgiveness could the nation truly bind its wounds.
The differences that in 2012 separate the 300,000,000 who populate this, the greatest nation ever established, are real and important. But how do they compare to the vast, incarnadine letting of blood that consumed Lincoln’s America? If only the political class just elected can and will reflect on that frame of reference as we enter the next four years of self-government, while emulating his authenticity and moral courage to act rightly, we will be led full well. Though The Civil War, 1861-1865, carried a level of discord that transcends what we see today, Abraham Lincoln found a way forward—and by following purposefully in his footsteps, so can we.