Lincoln and Nixon: History’s Strange Bedfellows (2/11/73)

No man’s story is more completely intertwined with America’s idea of itself than Abraham Lincoln’s. Lincoln long ago replaced George Washington as the personal symbol of the nation. Fittingly, there seems something of Lincoln’s personality—as well as a concrete sense of his work—in his monument. Washington’s is faceless—a symbol only, and of what, no one asks anymore. But we still ask about Lincoln.

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 so-called parallels between Lincoln and Kennedy that were turned up after the latter’s death. There is, in 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 efforts 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 of 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 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 (forty percent of the popular vote for Lincoln, forty-three percent 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 mostly by decree, ignored Congress, suffered military disasters and promised an end to the fighting even 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—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 what were named 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 ten percent 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 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.”

One can imagine that Richard Nixon got more than a little comfort from this knowledge, in a year of massive election scandal. One can imagine as well his amusement in knowing what was so righteously criticized and painstakingly exposed in the press was merely a walk in the political footsteps of a figure against which no editorial writer would dare to lift a pen: the sainted Abraham Lincoln.

If the Lincoln of the last few paragraphs is not part of our national memory, it is not wholly because our sense of history has been laundered (though there is that), but also 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 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. “The great prose of the presidential years,” wrote Richard Hofstadter, “came from a soul that had been humbled. Lincoln’s utter lack of personal malice during those years, his humane detachment… have no parallels in political history.”

One knows, reading Lincoln’s papers, that the deaths he caused—on both sides—were real to him, and he made them real to the nation. We remember Gettysburg not, as he expected, because of what was done there but because of what he said about it. When Lincoln spoke to soldiers it was not of trivialities like football, but of things that were real within the situation; families, money problems, medical treatment, the course of the war.

What matters is that Lincoln gave meaning to the war and its unprecedented carnage, meaning the nation could take as its own. There is nothing comparable in Nixon’s career. One shivers in the face of his moral vision. Lincoln’s greatness is not simply that he felt the consequences of his actions, but that he acted out the compassion of his response, found words for it, demonstrated it in his dealings with others. He made politics out of it.

Lincoln would have been astounded at Kissinger’s recent pronouncement that Vietnam will be a footnote in our history books, or at Nixon’s certainty that “if this [Christmas bombing] brings peace, it will all be forgotten.”  It would not have occurred to Lincoln that anything could or should erase the horror of his war. His job, he thought, was to draw out the deepest meanings of the war and present them to the nation. He did this with his Second Inaugural Address, the greatest political speech ever given by an American.

“Each side,” Lincoln said, “looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God… The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

Then, from the Bible: “‘Woe unto the world because of  offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!’” The war, said Lincoln, was God’s war only in that it was His punishment for the nation’s sin: slavery. And the nation, North and South, deserved its punishment even if “every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword.”

Lincoln would not even claim God’s blessing for his war—not even that it was right. Only, in terms not usually applied to national affairs, that it was necessary.

It is the tragic ambiguity of Lincoln’s message, more than his personal style, that has no political parallel; along with his style as a man, this is his original contribution to politics, and to American life. Nixon’s, if there is one, will be the idea that the nation can fight a war and evade not only its ambiguity but any meaning at all. Off to better things, Nixon barely mentioned the war in his Second Inaugural; his aim has been to fight the war while willfully denying any need to to come to terms with it. Finally, Nixon’s relationship to Lincoln is no more real than that of Disney’s famous Lincoln robot.

The boosters and fixers of the Nixon second inaugural committee had no idea what was in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural when they ordered music composed around readings from it for the pre-inaugural celebrations; when they found out, they (or the president himself) grew very nervous. This was not what they had in mind at all. The homilies they had expected were missing, and in their place were word of sin and punishment, scary ideas, the uncertainty of ambiguity: God is not on anybody’s side.  The “1812 Overture” was rushed in to fill the place of Lincoln’s speech; full of martial glory, written to celebrate the defeat of a foreign conqueror, it works well enough—if you take Nixon’s view of the war. It becomes quite ironic if you do not.

Still, Nixon may get the last word. American political biographers are mostly interested in the successful exercise of power on its own terms; Lincoln’s biographers tend to find his war strategy more compelling than what he finally had to say about it. If the war is really over and if the field of foreign affairs is as malleable and the domestic arena as receptive to his moral vision as he hopes, Nixon may win his battle with history. But he will have to wait until all those who were alive to witness the carnage of the last four years, and the ease with which he has dismissed it, are themselves dead—because there are too many who will never forget.

Newsday, February 11, 1973

(Note: this replaces a version of this essay posted earlier on this site, taken from The Lakeland Ledger. The Newsday version is the original—more accurate and comprehensive.)

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