Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2005 / 2 Adar I 5765
The essential Lincoln: Reflections on a great President's birthday
It was enough to restore your faith in the Ivy League. There in The New Republic was one of those book reviews in which the reviewer outshines the book. The reviewer was identified as Christine Stansell, a history professor at Princeton. And the book's thesis was typical of the state of intellectual discourse in 21st century America:
Lincoln was a homosexual. Why, sure. Soon we'll discover that George Washington was a transvestite vegetarian or whatever the next sexual/intellectual/political fashion calls for.
Professor Stansell began her review with just the right mix of historical perspective and good humor:
"Just about everyone has claimed Lincoln at one time or another Republicans, Democrats, Christians, freethinkers, integrationists, segregationists . . . . But gay? Abraham Lincoln? How would you ever know? And why would you ever care? Surely there is no president whose sexuality we less want to think about. Reverence for the man is so deep that at times it borders on beatification. Somehow, you would be more willing to think about William McKinley's intimate life, or even Calvin Coolidge's."
The professor's both-feet-on-the-ground, so-what? attitude impresses in an age when every stray ideology, however exotic or esoteric, is supposed to be taken oh-so-seriously.
On this occasion, she was obliged to write a long review of a book that wasn't worth reviewing. It would have been be a daunting (and boring) task for most of us, but she was up to it. Note this aside in which she both punctures the Lincoln myth and asserts that the real Lincoln towers above it:
"The man was magnificent, a genius, but he was of his time: a leader who concentrated within himself every available social and cultural resource to face a cataclysm and envision something beyond it."
The only time Ms. Stansell comes close to losing patience with this book/screed, and grows a little short with its ideologically driven author (the late C.A. Tripp, a clinical psychologist) is when he wanders away from his interest in Lincoln's sex life whatever it was, and who cares? and strides off into waters much too deep for him. As when he speculates about the contrast between young Lincoln's fashionably vague idea of the divine and the Calvinist cadences of the older Lincoln's magnificent Second Inaugural: The almighty has His own purposes . . . . the judgments of the L-rd are true and righteous altogether.
"What in the world," the author wonders, "could have made such a change in Lincoln's mind and outlook . . . ?"
Professor Stansell provides the obvious answer in a few well-chosen words: "Could it have been the deaths of more than six hundred thousand Americans, along with that of his favorite child?"
The War was the rock from which this nation was hewn, and Mr. Lincoln bore the chiseled marks on his own features. Lincoln's greatness lay in his ability to rise above the din of politics and war, and emerge from that most terrible of times with malice toward none, charity for all.
The craftiest of politicians, Abe Lincoln was willing to compromise on less-than-vital issues, but he would not give an inch on the essential ones. Many a politician would do the same in the abstract. What set Abraham Lincoln apart was that he knew the difference between the essential and the not so.
Through long years as a country lawyer and oft-beaten but never defeated politician, Abe Lincoln had learned what may be the most important distinction a leader can make the one between policies and values.
Mr. Lincoln could change policies, tactics, even strategies the way he did generals regularly. The small but unchanging corps of Lincoln critics who spend their nights going through the small print of the Emancipation Proclamation like to point out his inconsistencies as though they had uncovered some basic flaw in the Great Emancipator's values, when all they have proved is his statesmanship.
Mr. Lincoln would not be distracted by what he called pernicious abstractions, and what today we would call ideological obsessions. He might have been describing more than one crisis in this nation's history when he told Congress: "As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew." His counsel is not irrelevant now.
To study Lincoln, as Professor Stansell makes clear, is to realize that he was a man, not a myth. That realization should give Americans of this age, so different and so similar, hope. If one tumultuous era can bring forth such a leader, why not another? Keep the faith.
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