Lincoln and Nixon (02/18/73)


No man’s story is more completely entwined with America’s idea of itself than Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln long ago replaced George Washington as the personal symbol of the nation. More than any President since Wilson, Richard Nixon has sought to find and of course, to pass on his idea of himself in the images of Lincoln’s career. An identification with the greatest figure in our history can produce more than votes: it can bring a sense of drama, self-worth, even private justification in the face of public scorn or rejection. Most of all, if it works as politics, such an identification can bring that prize Presidents are seemingly most concerned with: a great “place in history.” Nixon has been a serious student of political biography, especially Lincoln’s, for many years.

It would be foolish to deny that the links between Lincoln and Nixon are real, a lot more real than the trivial, coincidental “parallels” between Lincoln and John F. Kennedy that were turned up after the latter’s death. There is, at the beginning, a poor and unromantic boyhood; lack of good looks; tremendous drive for education; an early career as a lawyer with no special suc­cess.


But the most profound side of the kinship is purely political, in the determination to prove oneself in some kind of public arena. For the young man it was athletics–Nixon’s effort to outdo his physical limitations in football, Lincoln’s exploitation of his physical gifts in brawls and feats of strength. This impulse shifts, with manhood, to a remarkable and unquenchable political ambition, a will to recognition, distinction and power.

Early in their careers both men were known primarily as political opportunists—”a Tammany Nietzsche,” Men­cken called the Lincoln of the Illinois legislature, and we all know what was said about the Nixon of the 1940s.

Both men were retired from politics after their first successes–effectively exiled from the only vocation that had ever made them feel alive. In this exile, they suf­fered. Nixon recently spoke of his “years in the wilderness” after the 1960 election; though the explicit reference is to Moses, the implicit one is to Lincoln, who also made it home that is, to the only home either man ever wanted, the White House.

Because of splits in the Democratic Party, both men backed into office as minority presidents (40 per cent of the popular vote for Lincoln, 43 per cent for Nixon; neither had any kind of “mandate”) and proceeded to prosecute unpopular wars, which, it can be argued, they neither wanted nor chose, but which were forced on them. Both acted here mostly by decree, ignored Congress, suffered military disasters and promised an end to the fighting as they planned its extension. Both got civil disorder as a result (the New York draft riots of 1863 were far worse than anything Nixon has seen): both responded with punitive measures (trials, legislation and grand jury inquisitions in Nixon’s case; the suspension of habeas corpus and mass arrests [numbering] more than 20,000 in Lincoln’s). Both were reviled by the press with almost unprecedented intensity (Lincoln, in fact, more so than Nixon), and both took steps to check those attacks. Lincoln closed “seditious” newspapers and even offered an ambassadorship to an angry editor in order to shut him up (it worked).


Both were crisis politicians, changing position and policy. Though neither had a grand plan of attack, late in their first terms an increasingly moralistic vision emerged to justify and explain all policies.

Both exercised complete control over the Republican Party apparatus, which they did not much distinguish from that of the government. The management of the 1972 Republican convention and campaign is already legend. Lincoln too, as David Donald points out in Lincoln Reconsidered, a book undoubtedly familiar to Nixon, left nothing to “party democracy” or to chance: he furloughed thousands of troops at election time to be sure of their votes, and sent others to police the polls in New York to prevent a Democratic “steal.”

As both men sought to appear above the partisan battle, both took great care with its seamiest side. Here is Donald on the 1864 campaign: “It is certain that a large part of the (campaign treasury) came from assessments on federal office ­holders. A man who received a job from Lincoln might expect to contribute regularly 10 per cent of his income… (the) chairman of the Republican National Committee planned systematically to levy upon war contractors, customs officers, and Navy yard employees. When the upright secretary of the Navy protested this proposal… (the chairman) summoned him into the President’s of­fice in the White House and gave the secretary a little lecture on the political facts of life, with Lincoln silently approving every word.”

If this Lincoln is not part of our national memory, it is not wholly because our sense of history has been laundered (though there is that), but because we have something else to remember: the depth of meaning Lincoln found in the experience he took the nation through. Unlike Nixon, he had no fantasies of controlling events: “I confess plainly,” he wrote, “that events have controlled me.” Yet he knew he was far more than a pawn; if he did not control the events of the Civil War, he knew that they were still his responsibility. The extraordinary humility that he derived from this recognition did not affect his exercise of power so much as it determined how he would understand his power.

Lakeland Ledger,  Feb 18, 1973 (originally from Newsday)


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