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February 5, 2004

Scholars say politicians continue to manipulate Lincoln’s image

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 3: Park Service employee David Campbell cleans the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial November 3, 2003 in Washington, DC. Twice a year the National Park Service uses a pressure washer to clean the statue. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – NOVEMBER 3: Park Service employee David Campbell cleans the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial November 3, 2003 in Washington, DC. Twice a year the National Park Service uses a pressure washer to clean the statue. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

His political opponents dismissed him as an inexperienced hack. So did many of the generals he commanded in the Civil War. White Southerners reviled him. Even Northern newspapers routinely caricatured him as “the baboon” for his gangling appearance.

But upon his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was apotheosized as a martyr. Later generations would canonize him as a secular saint and sentimentalize him as a kindly, yarn-spinning railsplitter-turned-statesman, only to re-cast him in more recent years as a shrewd political operator willing to subvert the Constitution, and even protect the institution of slavery, if that’s what it took to preserve the union. U.S. politicians began fighting over Lincoln’s legacy almost before his corpse cooled, tweaking the great man’s image as needed in order to portray themselves as his rightful heirs.

They’re still doing it, according to three Pitt scholars.

“There are certain figures in American history whom politicians regularly quote and try to compare themselves with: Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King — but above all, Lincoln,” said David Barker, an assistant professor of political science. “The two major parties have their own favorites, but Lincoln is a unique figure in American politics. Everybody wants to associate himself with Lincoln.”

Unlike the other leaders cited above, Lincoln is a non-divisive figure widely beloved by the American public, Barker said. His reputation is clean except among what Barker called “a few right-wing nuts” and those legal scholars who condemn Lincoln’s wartime suspension of habeas corpus among other, arguably unconstitutional acts.

No mistresses. No drinking or drugs. No bribery or voting fraud scandals. “Honest Abe” was more than just a self-serving nickname, Barker noted.

History professor Van Beck Hall said: “On both the Republican and Democratic sides, there’s a lot of sophistry that goes on to the effect that this or that presidential candidate is ‘Lincolnesque.’”

Supporters of front-running Democratic Party presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts point to their man’s moderate-to-liberal voting record (practical yet compassionate, like Lincoln’s policies) as well as his Lincolnesque height and facial features. “Kerry has that same kind of craggy, rugged look that Lincoln had, although Kerry has not softened that by growing a beard, as Lincoln did,” Hall pointed out.

Gerald Shuster, a part-time instructor in Pitt’s communication department who teaches a political communication course here, said Kerry, like Lincoln, must play down a liberal record on domestic issues. “Lincoln knew he was making a very liberal, actually pretty radical, policy change in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Shuster. “He appeased his constituency by appearing more conservative on other issues, and I think Kerry faces the same challenge. He knows that if he holds to a more liberal focus, he’ll never win in the Southern states.”

Among the current hopefuls for the Democratic presidential nomination, the one whose life story most parallels Lincoln’s is Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, agreed Barker, Hall and Shuster.

“While Kerry looks like Lincoln, their backgrounds aren’t similar at all because Kerry came from a prosperous family and is part of the Washington establishment,” Barker said, “whereas John Edwards was born poor and worked his way up to become an extremely successful lawyer just like Lincoln, the humble guy who was born in a log cabin.

“One thing that’s different is that Edwards, unlike Lincoln, hasn’t experienced a whole lot of failure in his life — yet. I think he may be about to do so,” Barker said with a chuckle, “but he didn’t fail again and again before gaining political office, as Lincoln did before finally succeeding in national politics.”

Also like Lincoln, who won the Republican Party’s 1860 presidential nomination after having served just one term as a U.S. Congressman from Illinois, Edwards is a comparative outsider, a first-term senator who’s already running for president. “Lincoln came out of no place to emerge on the national scene, just as Edwards is doing today,” said Hall.

Both Republicans and Democrats justifiably claim Lincoln as one of their own. He was, after all, a Republican. His politics, on the other hand, were much closer to those of the modern Democratic Party.

“Pretty much everything that the Republicans originally stood for, the Democrats now stand for, and most of the things the Democrats stood for, the Republicans advocate today,” Barker said.

“The main thing we’ll always remember Lincoln for is holding the country together and enforcing the will of the national government over that of the states, which is the very thing Republicans typically fight against today,” he pointed out. “They’re against big government. They’re very much into federalism, which is the very thing the South was fighting for.”

“The Republican Party in 1865 was the national party, the civil rights party, the high-tariff party. There’s been a radical flip-flop since then,” Hall concurred.

“The only element that has remained in place, as far as I can see, is that Democrats have always been much more reluctant to use the power of the federal government to enforce standards of morality. Republicans have always been much more interested in that, whether it’s been arguing the moral case against slavery, or favoring Prohibition or promoting Sabbatarianism or, as we see today, opposing abortion,” Hall added.

Republican defenders of the anti-terrorist USA Patriot Act, condemned by some Democrats for infringing on civil liberties, have cited Lincoln’s emergency measures to combat Civil War sedition as precedents. But Hall doesn’t buy the analogy.

“Compared with the second President Bush, Lincoln was very cagey,” the history professor said. “He closed down some newspapers and had people arrested and tried before military commissions, all things that would later be determined to be unconstitutional. But, unlike Bush, Lincoln didn’t go to Congress and ask for legislation” to counter Confederate espionage and sabotage in the North.

According to Hall, the USA Patriot Act is closer in effect and spirit to President Woodrow Wilson’s World War I anti-sedition act that outlawed public criticism of conscription and any voicing of support for the Central Powers.

Hall doesn’t accept equations of today’s war on terrorism with the Civil War or the world wars of the 20th century. “As a person who lived through Pearl Harbor and World War II, I’m not terribly impressed with such comparisons,” he said. “I mean, get real.”

Lincoln rose to national prominence during his 1858 U.S. Senate race in Illinois against Democrat Stephen Douglas. Although Douglas won the election, Lincoln smoked him in their famous series of nationally reported debates.

But how would Lincoln — a homely man with a high-pitched voice — have fared in a modern televised debate or on the 2004 campaign trail?

Pretty well, suggested Barker and Shuster.

Shuster said: “As unhandsome as Lincoln was, he appeared on the same platform debating Stephen Douglas, a handsome and patrician man who was an excellent orator, and he overwhelmed Douglas time after time. Obviously, he had the rhetorical ability and audience analysis skills and public speaking skills to swing an audience over to his point of view.

“Lincoln’s physical characteristics certainly wouldn’t have helped him on TV, but I honestly think that had he somehow gotten access to that medium he would have adjusted to it and given some pretty spellbinding speeches,” Shuster said.

“Lincoln spoke in a plain, forthright kind of way that would hold up today,” said Barker. “Importantly, he would have come across as a regular guy. Americans always want their presidents to be regular guys from outside Washington, D.C. One of the knocks against Kerry as well as the Bushes is that they had privileged backgrounds.

“Lincoln also was tall,” Barker continued, “and taller candidates usually win elections, for whatever reason. He wasn’t the best-looking guy in the world but neither are most of these guys running for president today, right?

“There’s a saying, ‘Politics is show business for ugly people’ and that’s true of the people we see running in 2004 with the exception of John Edwards. Indeed, one of the things that people say hurts Edwards is that he’s just too pretty. People assume that you can’t take someone seriously who looks that good.”

Hall declined to speculate about the electoral prospects of a Lincoln magically transported to 2004. “It’s like asking what George Washington would be like if he were alive today. Well, George wouldn’t be the same George today. You don’t have people owning large numbers of slaves today, for one thing. The whole environmental mix that formed Washington — or Lincoln — would be vastly different had they been born in the 20th century.”

Hall did allow that, based on the basic frame of Lincoln’s biography, the man would be at a serious competitive disadvantage in modern politics. “Someone with Lincoln’s formal education — he barely made it through the equivalent of the 7th grade — and with his marital problems and the problems he had with depression, never would make it into the nominating process these days, let alone get nominated for president,” Hall said.

—Bruce Steele

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