Monday, December 21, 2009

Lincoln, McMahon, Simmons

The race goes on. Linda McMahon and Rob Simmons, both Republicans running against Sen. Chris Dodd, have gotten into a tiff over Abe Lincoln. McMahon had mentioned to a paper that Lincoln, he of the Gettysburg address, had been known for his wrestling prowess. For this she was pounced upon by the Simmons campaign:

"When President Lincoln grappled on the prairie he wasn't on steroids and drugs, he wasn't scripting Playboy models to strip their clothes off in the ring in front of children and he wasn't instructing fellow wrestlers to use razor blades to cut their heads open to draw blood. Linda McMahon and the WWE's brand of wrestling does all these things and we're quite sure Honest Abe would not approve.”
Linda McMahon was right about Abe Lincoln: He was famous in New Salem, a frontier village on the Sangamon River, for wrestling long before “The Little Giant,” Stephen Douglas, felt his grapple. And Rob Simmons is also right: There was no Playboy Magazine in Lincoln’s day. There were playboys aplenty. Over in Europe, Lord Byron, a playboy considerably more enticing than Hugh Heffner, was steaming the ladies up. There were no steroids in Lincoln’s day, no wrestling ring strippers, no … whatever.

All this claptrap belongs to the modern era.

There were in Lincoln’s day newspapers fiercely committed to either the Democratic or Republican parties. There were two fierce wedge issues: preservation of the union and slavery. There was much catcalling and dirty tricks. When someone in an audience cried out that Lincoln was “two faced” -- possibly a Democratic plant -- Lincoln replied from the stump, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?” There was a great deal of showmanship and braggadocio in Lincoln’s time, which is why the crowds turned out in massive numbers to hear Douglas say of Lincoln, who had been carried off the stage by his admirers after a particularly colorful speech, that Lincoln had to be borne off from a recent debate because the “Little Giant” had shattered him and he was beaten all over and tuckered out.

There were no fact checkers in Lincoln’s day. That office was performed by the partisan press. On this point, historians have discovered that the truest accounts of Lincoln’s speeches during the Lincoln-Douglas debates are to be found in the opposition press. Why? Because Lincoln’s press touched up his speeches, so a to make them prettier and more palatable to their readers, much in the way present day congresspersons revise their remarks on the floor of congress before they are printed in the public record. Douglas’ press did the same for him.

In Lincoln’s day, the media was highly partisan and relished personal attacks. Political contributions were laundered through the party system. Engorged partisan bloggers were not permitted to set up campaign money laundering operations for their favored candidate. But then, in Lincoln’s day, there were no bloggers and, as Simmons points out, no strip tease artist in the wrestling ring either; so perhaps both observations are a little unfair, not that there’s anything wrong with that in a political campaign.

The thing that leaps out at readers of the Lincoln-Douglas debates – sadly missing in our own politics – is the honest, sometimes brutally honest, confrontation on issues of importance. The debates were candidate directed; no press monitors here shoving half a dozen questions at multiple debaters they are expected to answer in sound bites that will fit on bumper stickers or tee shirts.

Neither Lincoln nor Douglas danced around the question of union or slavery, though Lincoln had carved out for himself a position on slavery that antagonized both committed abolitionists and slave owners in the South: He was willing to allow slavery in states where it existed while preventing its introduction in the Territories where it did not exist. All the same, Lincoln’s line in the sand was lucid and well defended. On the question of unity and separation, he gave no quarter.

Towards the end of the war, Lincoln emancipated the slaves, arguing that he was authorized to so through the powers the constitution conferred on him as commander-in-chief of the armed forces at war. Lincoln used the same powers to suppress draft riots in New York and suspend habeas corpus while the war was yet being fought. He shut down Northern newspapers that opposed the war effort and had congressmen who too volubly opposed his war policy arrested. Very likely it was the mounting death toll – 7,058 soldiers on both sides died in the battle of Gettysburg alone – that persuaded Lincoln to adopt measures strict constitutionalists would shrink from. So much blood poured out, so much pain and sorrow, called out to him imperiously for an unambiguous victory.

One thing is certain: There is no Lincoln in any of the congressional races this year, and no Lincoln in the White House either.

Perhaps the best we can do is to think deeply about Lincoln before appropriating him to service on the side of the angels.

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