Robert Kuttner engages in that most dangerous of all ideological games in American politics - "What would Lincoln have done?" - as a means of baiting George W. Bush. Here, in the Boston Globe.
It is not that there are not potentially lessons to be drawn from Lincoln and the Civil War for George W. Bush and the war on terror and Iraq and all the rest. Kuttner wants to argue that Bush lives in a bubble and that Lincoln did not. He wants to argue that Bush simply goes his own way while Lincoln waited and pushed indirectly, patiently for the moment when he could press for partial and then full emancipation. Etc., etc.
(Let us leave aside Kuttner's questionable historical readings. I do not think, for example, that the weight of serious contemporary scholarship would accept that Lincoln was waiting for the moment in public opinion when he could press for partial and then full emancipation, at least not in the way in which Kuttner means it for purposes of chastising Bush. Emancipation was forced as a public policy upon the president, irrespective of his personal views. Charitably, Kuttner is out of his intellectual depth. It has been a while since I have read Kuttner closely, and the decline from his best early days of The American Prospect is notable, for which I am sorry. My own views on Lincoln and, especially, the Second Inaugural, are found in this Times Literary Supplement essay, here.)
One might read the history of Lincoln and the Civil War quite differently than Kuttner does. Kuttner and his antiwar confreres, for example, might seem like shining examples of Copperhead Democrats, eager for peace no matter what, having concluded that Lincoln was a simpleton whose only character trait was a stubborness and resistance to reason that had already cost the lives of hundreds of thousands in a lost war. As for democracy in the Middle East, Kuttner et al. might be thought to resemble those in Lincoln's day who thought that blacks were simply incapable of participating in self-government. As for religion, Kuttner et al. might be thought to resemble most closely the anti-war Democratic newspapers of the day - along with many of the sophisticated newspapers of Europe - who were appalled by the religiousity of the Second Inaugural Address and accused its author of offering "puritanical" theology in place of public policy, and who believed that Lincoln was invoking the mantle of the Almighty in order to shield his own policies from criticism - Lincoln was guilty, in their eyes, of being at once a believer and a hypocrite, which is not that different, so far as I can tell, from how Kuttner sees Bush. As for the belief that Lincoln acquainted himself with a wide range of opinion through his wide reading, whereas Bush lives apart from newspapers and criticism - well, ironically, both elite Radical New England opinion and elite New York Democratic anti-war opinion believed that the ill-educated Lincoln lived in a world shaped by Western frontier prejudices and that he was simply outside the mainstream of what American and European elites "knew" to be the real world, not so different from what Kuttner et al. in the "reality-based community" like to think of themselves and President Bush.
Etc., etc. One can spin these parallels on and on.
Both those interpretations, however - Kuttner's sneering, condescending little Bush-the-moron Christmas missive and my abbreviated alternative above - are quite wrong. It is a mistake to look to the Redeemer President for vindication or repudication of particular policies in the present day, however tempting that exercise is for pundits. Fools rush in, etc. The reason is not that Lincoln and the Civil War are outside of history and outside of our ability to learn from them for the present. The difficulty is that we have placed Lincoln, through his martydom, outside of history, in the ordinary, day to day sense, and above all, in the partisan sense. It was precisely the consequence of what Stanton said, in announcing Lincoln's death, "Now he belongs to the ages."
Because Lincoln belongs to the ages - because we have accepted that he belongs to the ages - he is, and in the hands of intellects wiser than Kuttner's, above the fray. You invoke him in support of your petty quarrels and interpretations and minor vendettas at the risk of weakening your own position or, worse, weakening Lincoln's. And this is what Kuttner has done. Lincoln cannot, should not, be invoked ever in a partisan way in the moral discourse of the United States, because the whole point is that he belongs to all of us. And in an explicitly religious, redemptive way. That is to say, of course any American and American leader should consider carefully and meditatively and historically what he or she thinks Lincoln would have done, how close to the example of Lincoln he or she hews. It is, in this intensely partisan age, a necessary meditation but necessarily and best a private one. And it is never, in the moral discourse of this country, fit grist for the partisan mill. Lincoln is never an opportunity for saying, as Kuttner does in an ugly little parody of the Second Inaugural, that "our nation, in a new birth of freedom, will survive even George W. Bush."
Shame on Robert Kuttner for cheapening our collective heritage.
(Update, Monday, December 26, 2005. My goodness, the power of an Instalaunch! Thanks, Instapundit, and also RCP. I should also add that Kuttner's mistakes notwithstanding, the book he invokes, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is superb and well worth reading. I have also just finished William C. Harris, Lincoln's Last Months, which came out from Harvard UP in 2004. It is particularly good on the reception of the Second Inaugural Address, reaction to it from newspapers in the US and abroad - curiously, it is somewhat better on that topic than the two books I reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement on the Second Inaugural, linked above in the post. I should add that part of my own interest has been in the course of several years of academic research for a short, academic press book working titled War and War's Ethics in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. I do not pretend to be a Lincoln scholar and certainly not a historian - I have read widely and deeply, over many years, in the secondary scholarly literature, which is appropriate for my research on the ethics of warfare - a non-historical, philosophical discussion that compares certain themes in the Second Inaugural with ideas found in two non-American sources, Albert Camus' The Rebel and Rene Char's Leaves of Hypnos. Somewhere back at the beginning of this blog I discuss each of them. It's not a very accessible discussion, but I hope will shed some light on the ethics of warfare generally.)
(Update, Monday, December 26, 2005. Other reactions to Kuttner, here, at Discriminations. And here. And Powerline, here. Done With Mirrors, here. And the Mahablog is not so impressed with this post, and the commentators on it even less so, here. Thanks to Hugh Hewitt for taking time to read the original Times Literary Supplement essay, noted at his blog, here.)
(BTW. My view is not that Lincoln is beyond history in the sense that he cannot be seen with all his limitations and faults, within the context of his time and even within ours, although there is a limit on how much mileage you can get out of criticizing someone who lived 150 years ago for not having today's political views on today's political issues. It's not the canonization of a Lincoln outside his own history. I have learned a lot, for example, from Michael Lind's revisionist Lincoln book, What Lincoln Believed, both about Lincoln's debt to Henry Clay and, in consequence, the limits of Lincoln's views on race. It is, rather, that people like Kuttner, who who invoke Lincoln do so not in order to invoke the Lincoln of history, but rather to invoke the sacred mantle of Lincoln as cover for partisan purposes, to make it impossible to criticize their views by invoking Lincoln. That's what Kuttner did in his essay. That's what it means to say that Lincoln is above the fray - it is not that he is beyond criticism within the historical record. It is that Lincoln cannot be invoked for purely partisan ends without betraying what he means within the moral history of the Republic. Kuttner can't really understand that, because it's impossible, seemingly, for him to comprehend that the moral history of this society is more than ... his story. )