Sunday, November 22, 2009

Yes, Obama Admires Lincoln, But . . .

Barack Obama has made no secret of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, invoking the great man's name and accomplishments in many a speech. Yet it is somewhat of a surprise that the Republican conservative punditocracy is using some less lofty accomplishments of the patron saint of their party to tar a president whom they believe can do not good.

Case at point is Lee Segal's 's attempted evisceration of Obama at The Daily Beast for the president's "dangerous obsession" with Lincoln's allegedly darker side as commander in chief during a war that killed 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians.

An excerpt:

"Obama has not made up his mind on what to do in Afghanistan, so the way he talks about war and about death in war is significant. Lately, it's almost panic-inducing. After last Tuesday, it seems that Obama's well-known worship of Abraham Lincoln is starting to tip over into a fantasy of actually being Abraham Lincoln.

"At Fort Hood, not only did Obama explicitly mention Lincoln, but he repeated a line from the Gettysburg Address almost verbatim -- 'We are a nation that is dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal' -- and borrowed cadences and language from that legendary brief speech. Echoing Lincoln's 'testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,' Obama referred to a 'nation' that 'endures' three times. He also repeated the Gettysburg Address's themes of sacrifice and necessary suffering.

"Why should the president drawing on a great American figure like Abraham Lincoln be a cause for concern? It should worry us because you can admire Lincoln's achievement in freeing the slaves and keeping the Union together, but also be horrified by his bloodlust in doing so, and his sense of himself as a biblical hero. You don't have to be a despicable Lincoln-hater to not want to associate yourself with the smarmy and sanctimonious Lincoln-idolators. Any contemporary president who consciously models himself on Lincoln is quite possibly going to lead us all into hell."

Now Segal is a pretty decent writer, or perhaps I should say a pretty clever writer, but even at first glance his conflation of Lincoln and the Civil War and Obama and the war in Afghanistan in a speech widely regarded as Obama's best (even by a fair number of conservative pundits) because it was so appropriate to the moment collapses under the weight of absurdity.

In fact, Segal doesn't even get a toe hold, while his characterization of Lincoln's wartime leadership is serially inaccurate.

The war was never just about freeing the slaves. It first and foremost was about keeping the Union together and it wasn't until nearly two years after Fort Sumter that Lincoln reluctantly if inevitably came to the conclusion that slavery should be abolished. Abolished not as a way to leverage an end the war, but because it was the right thing to do.

Segal is correct that Lincoln demanded that his generals be ruthless just as he could be ruthless with them, hence his famous injunction to General Ulysses S. Grant in the late summer of 1864 to "hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible."

Still it is difficult -- no, make that impossible -- to see how being any less ruthless than Roosevelt and Churchill were in their own ways would have ended the Civil War after four years let alone World War II after six. While the demand for unconditional surrender delayed the conclusion of the Civil War and the War in the Pacific, that demand was nothing less than mandatory considering the enormous toll of these conflicts and in the latter case the barbarity of the Japanese to soldiers and civilians alike.

Segal supposes based on mere speechifying that Obama is similarly ruthless, although nothing in his scant nine-month record as commander in chief suggests that is the case.

While his record is skimpy it also is promising, and perhaps nowhere more so than his unwillingness to buy into the kind of strategic fallacies to which his predecessor succumbed in Iraq as he sorts out whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, Segal is convinced that Obama already has decided to send no additional troops whatsoever:

"Obama's nocturnal visit to Dover to pay his respects to fallen American soldiers, his solicitousness at Fort Hood, his visit to Arlington National Cemetery make for a replenishing contrast to his predecessor's puerile callousness toward the American military's heartwringing sacrifices. Such dramatic acts are very moving. At the same time, they could also be shrewdly staged sops to the generals before Obama disappoints them by announcing that he will send no more troops to Afghanistan."

Yes he could, but while Obama's record is mixed in several respects, solicitude is not one of them.

It is tempting to characterize Segal's twin attacks on arguably the greatest of American presidents and one who aspires to be great as mean spirited, but in the end they're just plain dumb.


Serious Implications said...

Kiko's House knows a lot more about Lincoln than I do, but it's probably fair to say that the Emancipation Proclamation was at least partly in response to pressure from the Radical Republicans, who threatened to split the Republican Party and run John C. Freemont for President in 1864.

Shaun Mullen said...


You are correct and political calculations like this one were unquestionably part of the reason that Lincoln pushed the Proclamation when he did. As it was, many historians believe that Fremont would not have been a viable candidate, let alone denied Lincoln a second term.