Waiting for Lincoln 

Reflect on our national history, and you’ll be struck by how often the leader we needed showed up just when we needed him most.

click to enlarge LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

By the time this reaches print, America will have elected a president. With luck, we'll actually know which of two manifestly imperfect candidates will lead us for the next four years. Even if the results remain in suspense for a few days or weeks, the machinery established by our remarkable Constitution soon will produce a decision.

After an endless campaign, most of us will sigh with relief — and a bit of resignation — and turn our minds to other matters.

We shouldn't. Instead, we should all do that we can to help the man we've elected to enter history as a great president, because right now we could really use a little greatness.

It's curious, but great presidents have a way of emerging at times of extraordinary challenge. Reflect on our national history, and you'll be struck by how often the leader we needed showed up just when we needed him most.

Take a minute to jot down your personal list of great presidents. No doubt your list and mine will differ in detail, but few Americans with an understanding of our history would rank Abraham Lincoln anywhere but first or, perhaps, second (after Washington).

Yet how unlikely must it have seemed to contemporaries that this small-town, Midwestern lawyer and politician would emerge as one of the greats.

Consider Lincoln's résumé: almost no formal education. Administrative experience limited to running a failed general store. A few weeks of military service, none in combat. No diplomatic experience or even travel abroad. A single, two-year term in Congress.

Lincoln's gifts weren't the kind you can put on a job application: A ferocious commitment to self-education, including a willingness to read and reflect upon opinions with which he deeply disagreed. A gift for communication, honed by years of courtroom advocacy, stump speeches, and reading and re-reading the works of Shakespeare. A trial lawyer's facility for finding his way to the simple core of a complex factual situation.

None of these gifts guaranteed that Lincoln would be a great president. Time, as they say, is everything. Lincoln also had a unique opportunity — the challenge of a Civil War that threatened to dissolve the young nation.

In ordinary times, American presidents often face the challenge of awakening their fellow citizens to problems they prefer not to face. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of ignorance. Sometimes, powerful interests, with much to lose, demand that we cling to an untenable status quo. Sometimes, the people themselves — reluctant to embrace new efforts and new sacrifices — simply don't want to listen.

Because we select our leaders from the ranks of career politicians, it isn't surprising that they tend to avoid getting too far out in front of public opinion. During the years leading up to independence, political men such as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and John Adams were years behind firebrands such as Sam Adams. Likewise, Lincoln lagged well behind the abolitionists — or even fellow politicians such as William Seward, his rival for the 1860 Republican nomination — in confronting the prospect of an "irreconcilable conflict."

But timing is everything, and in this, Lincoln was fortunate. Between his election and his inauguration, seven states left the Union and set about establishing a rival Confederacy. By the time Lincoln took office, only the blind could deny that America faced an existential crisis.

Devising a solution to that crisis took time. It wasn't clear that the Union could legally be held together by force. Nor was it clear that force would succeed. The diplomatic situation was unprecedented, as was the problem of converting a small, limited government into an administrative machine capable of waging mass warfare.

Knottiest of all was the role of the slavery question in the great struggle.

After many a false start and failed experiment, Lincoln found answers to each of these problems, and in the process developed a vision of America's future, communicated it to the people, and earned his place in history.

In the process — as a byproduct of his political ascendancy — he signed legislation creating a transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, and a nationwide system of land-grant universities — and effectually ended the scourge of slavery.

In recent years, Americans have lamented the failure of our nation's political class to address problems including an anemic economy, expensive and ineffective public schools, spiraling national debt, and a crippling combination of rising medical costs and vanishing private health insurance.

All of these problems require urgent attention, but none presents the sort of urgent challenge that mobilizes public opinion behind a leader. In other words, none of these problems — nor all of them together — seems to have the potential to bring forth a great president.

Last week Hurricane Sandy presented the American people with such a possibility. Scientists will prudently resist saying that it was the direct and absolute result of global climate change, but few will deny that climate change inevitably will produce more and greater such storms in the century to come.

Of all the issues confronting this nation and the world, climate change alone presents the sort of existential threat that could bring forth greatness in our leaders, and in ourselves.

In the campaign just ended, neither President Barack Obama nor Gov. Mitt Romney seemed interested in discussing the challenge of climate change. But we can demand that our next president rise to that challenge.

And in doing so, our president could do worse than to consider the words of his great predecessor:

"The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

And our planet. S



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