[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond jobs and careers in “Sabbath.”]
The Man Inside the Hero
I just finished rereading David Herbert Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. I read the book some years ago and found it even more impressive on a second reading. Donald states early in the book that his goal was to follow Lincoln’s voice and words, which he does to a great degree. Every historian has to select examples and design a narrative. Donald’s Lincoln is a struggling human, not a superman. He wrestles with political as well as moral questions. Most importantly, for most of his presidency, his peers see him as indecisive and a failure.
Many of Lincoln’s critics did not understand how his mind worked. They were serious people who thought they had all the answers. Lincoln was humble and often tortured by self-doubt. At the same time, he was a leader who knew when to make a decision and take responsibility for his action. Donald depicts Lincoln as often being too involved in decisions related to military strategy. Frustrated by his generals’ lack of success or aggressiveness, Lincoln would devise his own battle plans. That all changed when he named U.S. Grant to lead the Union Army. Lincoln put his faith in Grant, and, despite early setbacks in 1864, his final choice of generals proved to be wise.
As a politician, Lincoln had to balance a Republican Party that was divided on the question of Emancipation. Many in the party agreed with Northern Democrats who want peace with the South even if it meant leaving slavery in place. Lincoln himself wavered on this question. He sought various compromises that included compensating former slave holders and colonizing the former slaves. In the end, influenced by anti-slavery advocates like Frederick Douglass and inspired by the sacrifice of African American soldiers, Lincoln became a strident champion to end slavery. Again, he adapted with the conditions of his time.
Lincoln’s genius was not so much his intellect or even his words as it was his lack of ego. Where other leaders could only see one path, Lincoln kept an open mind and accepted the fact that he could be wrong. When reporters pressed him to explain his policy, he answered, “My policy is to have no policy.” Throughout the war, Lincoln changed his mind and tried different approaches. Some, such as suspension of habeas corpus and shutting down opposition newspapers, were condemned as dictatorial. However, as Donald outlines in his biography, Lincoln faced such opposition that he had to bend the law to save the Union. Long before William James or John Dewey, Lincoln was a pragmatist who judged actions on results rather than ideals.
History never repeats itself. It is useless to speculate about how Lincoln would address contemporary issues, such as health care, civil liberties, or political division. The one lesson I think we can take from his life and political career is the need to balance principled belief with an openness to change. Maintaining the Union was Lincoln's primary mission as President. That never changed. How he achieved that end in the face of so many challenges was the magic.
[On Sundays, this blog looks beyond the job world in “Sabbath.”]
Problems That Defy Solutions
Over the last week, we’ve seen terrible images from Egypt. Hundreds have been killed in ongoing protests. Meanwhile another civil war continues in Syria. The death toll in that country is in the thousands. The media often covers these stories as if they were covering a sporting event that had a limited scope and a clear victor. The reality is far more complicated. The problem for our political leaders and the media is that most Americans don’t want to hear about complexity. We want problems that are simple and easy to solve.
What should the president do in such cases? Clearly some action must be taken, but, as we’ve seen from past interventions, today’s solution can turn into tomorrow’s problem. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan. Later, some of those people became vicious warlords who ruled by terror. Others became the Taliban who were even more extreme in their behavior, especially in the way they limited the lives of women. Another U.S. ally in Afghanistan was Osama Bin Laden. His actions changed America and the world. What seemed like a happy ending in Afghanistan – the expulsion of the U.S.S.R. – turned into 9/11 and an American war in Afghanistan that has lasted for more than 10 years.
It’s terrible to hear about massacres and repressive behaviors of governments that we support. However, as we’ve seen in Egypt, voters will select rulers and turn on them in less than a year. First, enemies of the elected government took to the streets and the government was deposed by the army. Now supporters of the deposed government have taken to the streets, and they have engaged in deadly confrontations with the police and military. How can such a situation be solved simply? While it will send a statement for the U.S. to cancel military exercises or cut off aid, how will those actions affect a conflict in which all parties are fueled by hatred and fear?
History plays out over months, years, and decades. It’s not a TV program that where problems are resolved in 30 minutes or an hour. Civil Wars, as America experienced, do not end quickly or peacefully. While the U.S. Civil War lasted from 1861-1865, its aftermath has been ongoing and often subtle. We still debate issues of racial equality and states rights. During the last presidential election, some commentators and politicians in Texas claimed the state had a right to secede.
150 years after the bloody battle of Gettysburg some Americans still consider secession to be the best way to solve our differences. In that light, it’s difficult to be critical of people in Egypt and Syria – or President Obama. Civil wars are horrible and complicated problems. They cannot be solved with simple words or actions. The people of Egypt and Syria will write their own history, hopefully with as little foreign interference as possible. However these stories end, they will not be kind or clean or simple.