3 Reasons a Modern-Day Lincoln Wouldn’t get Elected to the U.S. Presidency

In the most recent Presidential debate, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, invoked the 2012 Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln. I remember watching and enjoying the film, quite literally, in a packed theater in Northern Ireland and was glad for the opportunity to think back to what the movie taught me. It wasn’t surprising that Spielberg told part of Lincoln’s story well, exposing the man’s flaws or struggles and including Lincoln’s tenuous family relationships during the height of political tension. Dialogue played a central role in the film, which is probably as it should be with such a brilliant rhetorician as Lincoln. One of the surprises of the film was, of course, that it was Republicans who led the charge to free the slaves. It was the sort of film that gave me goosebumps, that even made me proud (and also saddened) to be an American. Good stories, if we let them, will break our hearts while giving us enough hope to carry on. Though I haven’t followed through, I left the theater that day wanting to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bible-of-a-book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

At my undergraduate institution, I had been fortunate to take a couple classes with a respected Lincoln scholar. I specifically remember writing a paper about Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, a controversial but explicit power granted by the U.S. Constitution to the Executive Branch during times of rebellion. It was a bold move by Lincoln, but there are probably still those who would say it was at least a dangerous precedent to set if not an outright Executive overstep.

I also remember thinking about Neil Postman’s excellent book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Obviously this is speculative and it’s hard to compare across vastly different contexts, but I really don’t think Lincoln – arguably the most effective president in American history – would get elected in the modern climate (or even nominated by one of the parties). But why?

  1. President Lincoln doesn’t appear to have been particularly charismatic. While Hillary may not exactly fit the charismatic mode, Donald Trump does, and so do, in their own ways, President Obama and George W. Bush. Unlike the others, Lincoln may not have been the first guy you wanted to “go out for a beer with,” that is unless you were looking for intellectual stimulation. Truth is, Lincoln probably would have bored most of us. This is not to say he wasn’t a good speaker. Who could forget his Second Inaugural Address? “With malice toward none,” he said, “with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” What a beautiful sentence, but even his speeches were delivered in a soft-spoken manner that suggests humility, i.e. the very opposite of the grandiosity we glorify today. Inter-personally, Lincoln was border-line awkward. I doubt he would invest his efforts into, say, (ha, and I say that as one who loves Twitter!). I do think if he were to debate someone like Clinton or Trump that he would make either of them look quite silly in the process, but it probably wouldn’t impress us all that much. Frankly, we probably wouldn’t have much patience for his calculated, philosophical, analogous rhetoric. It wouldn’t be entertaining enough; we’d have to think too much to follow his reasoning.
  1. I’m sure my perception of Lincoln is a bit nostalgic, but he seems to have operated unapologetically, and thus made his decisions from, a deeply-rooted spiritual and moral vision. Not the say-what-your-audience-wants-to-hear kind of opportunism we see from the major parties today, but a contemplative and integrated, really-believes-it, congruence. A vision like Lincoln’s transcends partisan squabbling, which is what allowed him to not only take risks on the slavery issue but also persuade others to come along for the ride. Lincoln’s role on the slavery issue reminded me of William Wilberforce, who played a similar role in overturning the slave trade in England.
  1. I’m not so sure Lincoln would have the stomach for the degree of influence that big corporations and their money have in our elections and legislative action. It seems like the cycle goes something like this: run on standing up to the big lobbies, accept as much money as possible from the corporations who drive the lobbying, and after a successful election throw as many bones back to them as possible.

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