Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout History II

Following up last night’s post — I’ve done some Bush-Lincoln comparisons in the past, such as this one from October

I still can’t get over the fact that his staff had to perform a bleeping intervention days after the hurricane had struck to get him to pay attention to the crisis. Didn’t he care about what a hurricane might have done to New Orleans? I guess not, until someone whispered the dreaded words “political damage” in his ear.

I keep remembering that Abraham Lincoln used to hang out for hours around the White House telegraph, reading dispatches from the generals, sometimes sending questions and comments back. He didn’t sit around by the fire waiting for his aides to bring him reports. Some historians accuse Lincoln of being a micromanager, but at least he was fully engaged in doing his job. Unlike George W. Bush, he wasn’t just a figurehead or a ribbon-cutter.

I didn’t think Bush compared well to other presidents, either.

I keep thinking that another president–I usually imagine Harry Truman or FDR–in these circumstances would be all over these problems, kicking butt and busting heads. And I imagine them working hard on a solution to the shelter problem. But does Bush even know these problems exist?

One fascinating point about the current Lincoln v. Bush flap is that the righties are dumping on Robert Kuttner instead of Doris Kearns Goodwin, even though the Kuttner op ed is essentially a review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book Team of Rivals, and Kuttner cites Goodwin for his facts. Yesterday I dumped on Kenneth Anderson’s tortured critique of the op ed, noting that Anderson failed to even mention Goodwin (he added Goodwin to a postscript later), leaving his readers the impression that Kuttner was just making shit up. From a psychological point of view, the sidestepping of Goodwin by John at Discriminations is even more interesting:

Kuttner’s article is a gloss on a new book by Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals (or perhaps I should say, a new book that purports to be by Doris Kearns Goodwin). I haven’t read Goodwin’s book, and probably won’t, and so I have no comment about how much of the silliness here is Kuttner’s and how much is Goodwin’s (or her research assistants’). I should thank whoever is responsible, however, for providing some good laughs.

He doesn’t dare take on Goodwin on historical fact, so he kicks her out of the way by claiming she didn’t write her own book. As I said, fascinating.

John continues,

Here’s a representative howler:

    Goodwin’s unusual title, ”Team of Rivals,” refers to the fact that Lincoln deliberately included in his Cabinet the prominent leaders of different factions of his party who had opposed him for the 1860 nomination. Some, like his treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, a fierce abolitionist, wanted Lincoln to proceed much more aggressively.

Salmon Chase had been and was many things, but “fierce abolitionist” is definitely not one of them. He came out of the Free Soil Party, a movement that grew up in Ohio, Illinois, and the midwest dedicated to limiting the expansion of slavery, but this “anti-slavery” position was definitely not abolitionist. Indeed, it was motivated in large part by a racist desire to keep blacks, slave or free, out of their territories; it was also anti-slavery in large part out of a desire not to compete with slaveholders and slave labor.

This is partly true, and partly not. It’s true that the “free soil” position was about keeping slavery out of the territories, not about abolishing slavery. And it’s also true that the majority of free soilers were not abolitionists. The Republican Party also placed a “free soil” plank in its 1860 platform, and Lincoln ran on a promise to keep slavery out of the territories. Lincoln was, in fact, much more of a “free soiler” than he was an abolitionist.

Salmon Chase, on the other hand, was an abolitionist, much more than Lincoln was. This is a simple fact. He was also a free soiler because he believed that, if slavery could be contained in the slave states and not allowed to spread, eventually it would die (or, there would be enough “free” states to amend the Constitution). Like Lincoln, and unlike more radical abolitionists, he did not believe the federal government had the constitutional authority to abolish slavery in slave states, so more incremental measures were called for. The Free Soil Party founded by Chase was a fusion of other small parties, and members held a variety of opinions, but above all it was an anti-slavery party. As one congressman at the organizing convention said, “Our political conflicts must be in future between slavery and freedom.” (See discussion of Chase and the Free Soil Party convention in McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, pp. 61 ff.) After the war began, Chase pressured Lincoln to emancipate the slaves, a pressure Lincoln resisted for more than a year. Later, Chase would be a dedicated proponent for African American suffrage.

I don’t have time to go chasing around the Right Blogosphere and cleaning up rightie messes, so this will have to be representative. But in short we’ve got a whole lot of people given to overstuffed rhetoric who don’t know as much as they think they do.

As I said yesterday I haven’t read the Goodwin book, so I’m not comfortable giving it a blanket endorsement for factuality. And I have to assume Robert Kuttner’s op ed conveyed Goodwin’s work accurately. But IMO Kuttner’s basic point — that Lincoln was a uniter but Bush a divider — is exactly right.

Update: Glenn Greenwald writes a stirring defense of Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. I would like to add that Lincoln was faced with an emergency situation (civilians shooting at soldiers in Maryland; civil authority totally breaking down in parts of Missouri and Kentucky) at a time when Congress was out of session, and it would have taken weeks to re-convene it. So he acted extraconstitutionally, but openly, and when Congress was back in session Lincoln took his case to the legislators and humbly asked them to sign off on what he had done. Unlike Bush he did not act in secret, nor did he assume an inherent authority to do whatever he pleased, Constitution be damned. He acknowledged that the authority to suspend habeas corpus rested ultimately with Congress (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 2).

9 thoughts on “Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout History II

  1. Maha – This is a superb point which I am going to add as an Update. I have been trying to make this point in response to virtually every defense of Bush’s FISA-violating eavesdropping that I see:

    Even if there are plausible legal or policy arguments justifying Bush’s eavesdropping outside of FISA – and I believe there are none, but even if one assumes there are – he could have sought a judicial declaration that he was permitted to act outside of FISA (as Harry Truman did) or at least declare openly that he was doing so (as Lincoln did, as you point out).

    Instead, not only did he secretly break a law which has been adhered to for the last 30 years and which was everyone assumed was being complied with, but he went out of his way to mislead everyone into thinking that he was complying with it by giving speech after speech trying to mollify fears over the Patriot Act by assuring everyone that the Government could eavesdrop only if it obtains a warrant first.

    Thus, unlike other Presidents who openly invoked crises and threats in order to assert the right to act extra-constitutionally or extra-legally, Bush broke the law secretly, pretending all the while that he was obeying the law (and taking extraordinary steps to conceal his activity, including pressuring newspapers not to disclose them), and then began rolling out the excuses and justifications only once he got caught.

    The actions of Lincoln and other Presidents are the actions of executives who believe that they have the right to certain powers and who argue for those powers. The actions of Bush are those of a criminal who gets caught despite his best effort to conceal his wrongdoing, and then begins searching around for excuses once it’s revealed.

  2. One other thing – I love how the Bush-defending bloggers, in response to Kuttner’s column, shrieked about the impropriety of “using” Lincoln in the current debate, because “Lincoln belongs to the ages” and all of that.

    Then, when right-wing bloggers (such as Powerline) began doing exactly that – that is, “using” Lincoln to justify Bush’s lawlessness on the “Lincoln-did-it-too” ground, they began madly backtracking about how it IS OK to “use” Lincoln after all, but not for partisan gain, which Kuttner (of course) is guitly of when using Lincoln to make anti-Bush points, but Powerline et al is not (of course) when using Lincoln to make pro-Bush points.

    And all of that obscures what an idiotic notion it is to try to place off-limits historical events, as though they should be enshrined in some holy laminated state only to be genuflected to but never analyzed.

  3. Lincoln also never advocated torture, didn’t go to war for spurious reasons, didn’t put ideology ahead of the good of the country, and succeeded in reuniting the North and South and never stole an election. Rumor has it he also was literate and could speak good English and never was a party animal, nor claimed God was talking to him.

  4. I actually think that Lincoln is going to come out of his grave to change parties because today’s Republican party has done so many things that do not represent the party of Lincoln. It doesn’t even represent the Republican party I knew in the 50s that I did have some respect for.

  5. You can’t compare substance to void. Bush is fabrication, a cheap illusion that’s been marketed through deception to present an appearance of greatness and vision. He’s Oz incarnate. But behind the curtain stands a weak, unanchored, and insecure man who is nothing but a prop for more sinister characters.
    Lincoln might have been enlarged in death to more than he was in real life, but we can be assured that description of Lincoln as” Honest Abe” was born of observation by people intimate with his life and not the product of a slick political spin machine. Bush on the other hand is refined bullshit.

    ” that a government of the people, by the people and for the people should not perish from the earth”

    “some day fish and mankind shall learn to co-exist peacefully”

  6. Selective editing seems to be the order of the day, both of Lincoln’s legacy and of the recent past. Linked you in the update to the series Gonzo Gettysburg.

Comments are closed.