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Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2000 /12 Adar I, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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In praise of the Lincolnesque: We shall have need of it -- HAS THERE EVER BEEN a commentator on the American scene at once so harsh on others and so disdainful of his own political judgment as Henry Adams? How very much an Adams he was.

For a contemporary portrait of Abraham Lincoln when he was still a new president rather than martyr and myth, turn to that classic autobiography, "The Education of Henry Adams.'' Its author had just arrived in Washington as private secretary to his father when he spotted the president across a room:

"Had young Adams been told that his life was to hang on the correctness of his estimate of the new President, he would have lost. He saw Mr. Lincoln but once; at the melancholy function called an Inaugural Ball. Of course he looked anxiously for a sign of character. He saw a long, awkward figure; a plain, ploughed face; a mind, absent in part, and in part evidently worried by kid gloves; features that expressed neither self-satisfaction nor any other familiar Americanism, but rather the same painful sense of becoming educated and of needing education that tormented a private secretary, above all a lack of apparent force.''

A lack of apparent force. In Abraham Lincoln. Others would be fooled that way, too, misled by his evident humanity and humor, his rustic jokes and shrewd deals. They failed to peer behind the facade -- into the bottomless depth of the man's will. They couldn't foresee the limitless extent of his perseverance. They did not know the sweep of either his cunning or his simplicity, both of which were boundless. They saw only a country lawyer fiddling with his gloves, a lined face that only a caricaturist could love.

Like his appearance, Mr. Lincoln's character was an unlikely and ungainly assemblage, yet it held together like a rock. Later generations would come to use one word for all that: Lincolnesque.

He didn't look like a commander-in-chief, but he acted like one. He would run through one general after another in his search for one who would fight. Twice he tried George S. McClellan with all that general's napoleonic affectations before giving up on him. He might change commanders, tactics, policies, but never his objective: to preserve the Union undiminished. Not by a single state, not by a single acre.

Mr. Lincoln might change his course, but never his destination. He would entertain any compromise except that of his principles. He would refuse even to talk about the ill-fated Crittenden Compromise when he detected in it a challenge to his bedrock beliefs: No extension of slavery, no geographical division of the American Union. That was all he asked. Given those two conditions, he remained sublimely confident that time and public sentiment would do the rest, and assure both liberty and union. For he proposed to shape public sentiment.

Others did not share his confidence. His old law partner from Illinois, Billy Herndon, wondered if his friend really thought he could crush "this huge rebellion.'' The assemblage of shaky rivals and keen competitors Mr. Lincoln chose for his Cabinet wasted a good deal of time ruminating on what a better job they could have done in his place. The president did not seem to care what they thought -- unless you consider faint amusement caring -- so long as they did their own jobs well.

Some of Mr. Lincoln's unsuccessful generals made the mistake of patronizing him. They soon found themselves sacked -- not because they were critical of their commander-in-chief, but because they were unsuccessful. Mr. Lincoln tolerated criticism easily enough; it was failure he would not abide. He had a country to save.

No one would ever have described Abe Lincoln as dashing. He was awkward and painfully plain. He was not assured or glib or ever fully at ease. He would never be described by the adjectives that might be used today to write a job description for U.S. senator or television anchorman. There was always something of the country about him, something of his Kentucky origins and Illinois strivings, of the Rail Splitter and storyteller.

In an age that did not appreciate plainness or fear hubris -- does that sound familiar? -- Abe Lincoln seemed the unlikeliest of instruments to save the Union. Something of an embarrassment to his cause, really.

This awkward president struck well-born observers like Henry Adams as unfinished, unrefined, incomplete, unsophisticated. What a sad figure he would have cut next to a Jefferson Davis, who was so suffused with worldliness and pride, mannerisms and surenesses, that even then he should have radiated defeat.

Mr. Lincoln, in contrast, did not pretend to know much, but what he knew, he stuck to. As in Stephen Vincent Benet's grand poem, he was like that old hunting dog -- "he ain't much on looks -- or much on speed/ A young dog can outrun him every time,/ Outlook him and outeat him and outleap him,/ But, Mister, that dog's hell on a cold scent.''

Not for the first time, the sophisticates would get it wrong. "The few people who thought they knew something,'' to quote Henry Adams, "were more in error than those who knew nothing.''

How did a tall, gaunt, homely-beyond reason country lawyer manage to save the Union? What made him confident that freedom would not only survive, but prevail? Because he had thought this thing through. For years. For decades. Not just since his inauguration. Not just during his presidential campaign. Not just two years before, when he had burst on the national scene as the obscure opponent of a Great Man in an off-year election in Illinois. But long, long years before, when he was an old Whig out of office, watching his party disappear and pondering why.

Mr. Lincoln had studied it out. He had thought on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. He saw that Mr. Jefferson had written not just a polemic, but a promise. Where others saw history, he saw the future. He had grasped the underlying issue of his time, and understood that it involved a basic moral issue that could not be sidestepped.

And so this rustic was able to see -- and explain -- some things that more polished men like Stephen A. Douglas believed could be evaded indefinitely. Like the moral force of freedom and the American destiny, which are much the same.

And the day would come -- June 16, 1858 -- when he would step forward and give voice to certain self-evident truths that all somehow knew could no longer be evaded:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.''

Mr. Lincoln would lose the election in which he pronounced that awful truth and choice. But the ostensible victor, Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant and great temporizer, would never again be able to convince his two masters -- those who held with slavery and those who held against it -- that he was serving both.

It began to dawn on even those who didn't much care about slavery or freedom, and just wished the whole issue would go away, that it wouldn't. Moral issues are like that.

The country would proceed to make fateful and terrible choices, but after Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence in 1858, it could no longer do so blindly, vaguely, blithely. All was becoming clear -- torturously hard to bear, but undeniably clear. The War, that rock from which we are hewn, would come. And with it would come a new birth of freedom, and another America in the succession of Americas.

Mr. Lincoln did not claim to foresee it all, only that a great decision and its consequences could no longer be avoided. The well-tutored Henry Adamses of the age had no idea, any more than we can now see the shadows in the glitter and glibness of today's artificial constructs and political "science.''

For the moment, it is Stephen A. Douglas' time, a time for temporizing about moral issues whether at home or abroad. A supreme optimism reigns, and first principles are set aside -- not rejected so much as evaded.

Our policy wonks made statesmen superfluous some time ago. As policies take the place of ideas, and techniques supplant the old virtues of civic life, polls and focus groups are consulted, not consciences. Back when Abraham Lincoln said that public sentiment was all, he proposing to shape it, lead it, mold it -- not just reflect it.

Once again it is assumed that hard choices can be made easy, and all difficulties finessed if just the right verbal formulas can be worked out. Things Will Work Out, our modern Stephen A. Douglases assure. There is no need to actually confront certain awkward ideas. Honor, sacrifice, truth, duty ... such ideas are reserved for ceremonial occasions. For they can prove troublesome when applied to the real world.

Power is now in the hands of the pros, and all is supposed to be right in the world. At so assuring a time, why pause to dwell on a rough-hewn figure who was something of an awkward embarrassment even in his own time? Better to leave the polished myth unprobed, the implacable truths he dealt with unapplied in these easier times. Why go into all that?

Perhaps because, as inescapably as danger recurs and history continues, Americans may have need of certain qualities that, for want of any better word, might be called: Lincolnesque.

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