What Bush could learn from Lincoln

By Robert Kuttner | December 24, 2005 | The Boston Globe

MY CHRISTMAS present to George W. Bush is a copy of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s splendid study of Lincoln and his Cabinet, ”Team of Rivals.” President Bush believes in redemption, and so do I. Here are just a few things Bush might profitably learn from our first Republican president.

Lincoln assumed the presidency at a time when the nation was horribly divided, not into culturally warring ”blue” states and ”red” ones, but into a real civil war between blues and grays — the states that stayed in the Union and those that seceded. Even among the unionists, Lincoln’s own Republican Party and Cabinet were bitterly rent between those who wanted to accelerate emancipation and punish the South and those who gave top priority to keeping the Republic whole.

Lincoln’s priority, always, was to preserve the Union and to reduce the sectional and ideological bitterness. As Goodwin brilliantly shows, he did so by the force of his personality and the generosity of his spirit. Lincoln had an unerring sense of when public opinion was ready for partial, then full abolition of slavery, and he would not move until he felt he had the people behind him. He governed by listening and persuading.

By contrast, Bush’s entire presidency is about eking out narrow victories, not about building national consensus. Even when he prevails, Bush wins by manipulation and stealth. His legacy is deepened division and bitterness.

Bush is said to live in a bubble. His tiny inner circle protects him from realities that might upset him or challenge his dimly informed certitudes. Lincoln, by contrast, had the confidence to reach out to critics and seek out widely divergent viewpoints.

Goodwin’s unusual title, ”Team of Rivals,” refers to the fact that Lincoln deliberately included in his Cabinet the prominent leaders of different factions of his party who had opposed him for the 1860 nomination. Some, like his treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, a fierce abolitionist, wanted Lincoln to proceed much more aggressively. Others feared that Lincoln was moving too fast and alienating border states like Maryland and Kentucky that permitted slavery but had voted not to leave the Union.

Goodwin, improbably finding something wholly new to illuminate this most heavily researched of historic figures, relies partly on the diaries of his contemporaries to reveal Lincoln’s sheer genius at winning the trust and affection of rivals.

Can you imagine Bush including in his inner Cabinet such Republicans as John McCain, who opposes Bush on torture of prisoners, or Chuck Hagel, who challenges the Iraq war, or Lincoln Chafee, who resists stacking the courts with ultra-right-wingers? Not to mention Democrats, a group Lincoln also included among his top appointees.

Bush, despite today’s ubiquity of media, doesn’t read newspapers, much less the Internet, and he settles for carefully filtered briefings. Lincoln was a voracious reader; he haunted the War Department’s telegraph office to get firsthand reports from the battlefield.

Lincoln gained incomparably in wisdom over four years. Does anyone think George W. Bush is wiser now than in 2001?

Despite civil insurrection, Lincoln resisted broad intrusions on democratic rights. Bush runs roughshod over liberties.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: