Thursday, February 12, 2009

Obama on Lincoln

President Obama today, remembering Abraham Lincoln on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

I particularly like the anecdote at the end about how Lincoln, near the end of the Civil War, did not allow any Confederate soldiers to be punished. He wanted them to go home, and become citizens again. Which, in retrospect, was probably as important to saving the nation as actually winning the war.

One of my favorite Lincoln anecdotes is along the same lines. After the war, some Southerners came to the White House. Lincoln met them and was very friendly, and charmed them. His advisors didn't like this approach; how could Lincoln be so gracious to people who so recently had been his enemies? Lincoln replied that by befriending his enemies, he both lost enemies and gained friends.

The political period we are in now has, of course, echoes of the Civil War. An African-American is president; the South is largely one party, while most of the rest of the country is another. Andrew Sullivan thinks that the GOP has "declared war" on Obama. Sullivan, who should know conservatives, is surprised at the ferocity of the response to Obama.

I'm not. This does not surprise me in the least. But I am glad that Obama takes so much inspiration from Lincoln, because I think his conciliatory attitude is needed. The GOP is fighting Obama so intensely for one reason: they know they have already lost. They have lost the culture war on many fronts; civil rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion. They are losing the ideological argument.

The Republicans are simply terrified that they will be humiliated. That is, they are terrified that they will be more humiliated than they already have been by McCain's loss. At some point the anger will burn out, and they will concede. Obama's graciousness, his willingness to work with them, will come in very handy when that happens. But until then, the best that liberals, progressives, and Democrats can do is remember that, before Lincoln became an icon, a legend, a symbol of American democracy at its finest, he had to fight a war. And he had to win it.

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