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Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever

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Excerpt

Lincoln as Political Scripture

the year was 1992. The scene was the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas. Republicans were about to renominate President George Bush for a second term and then return home to try convincing American voters that the nation's economic recession had little to do with the Republican Party, its philosophy, or its standard-bearer. The task must have seemed daunting. In the end it proved impossible, but for one brief moment the goal seemed within their grasp. That was when the much-loved former president, Ronald Reagan, arrived at the speaker's rostrum to rouse the faithful to a renewed dedication to modern Republican ideals.

He did so by invoking the name of Lincoln. Exhuming a credo that President Reagan told us had been "so eloquently stated" by Lincoln generations earlier, the fortieth president quoted what he described as four of Lincoln's most appealing maxims. Here was a hallowed set of principles, Reagan declared, that had stood the test of time and deserved to be recalled and repeated again and again to fortify America against a resurgent liberalism. To some people listening to Reagan that night, the phrases must have seemed crafted to rebut with uncanny specificity the rise of Governor William Jefferson Clinton of Arkansas. As the newly anointed Democratic challenger to twelve consecutive years of Republican White House rule and leading in all the public-opinion polls, Clinton posed a formidable threat to Reagan's conservative revolution. Now Reagan summoned all of his rhetorical gifts to remind the hundreds of delegates packing the convention hall and the tens of millions more watching on television that another Republican, Abraham Lincoln, had once wisely offered the following timeless truths:

You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.

You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.

You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.

You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

The convention floor erupted in waves of applause. TV cameras captured the faces of emotional delegates whose nods of assent evidenced the deep understanding and gratitude one feels upon hearing a revered pastor deliver a grand sermon. Reagan had resurrected a tablet of political commandments more prescient and eloquent than any arid Republican Party platform or windy acceptance speech. No one had ever said it better than the Great Emancipator as revivified by the Great Communicator. It was a magical combination. As politics and performance, even liberal Democrats admitted that it was good.

As it turned out, it was indeed too good to be true.6 In fact, Lincoln had never uttered a word of it. The lines turned out to be the work of an obscure German-born, Brooklyn-ordained minister named William John Henry Boetcker, and they dated back to only 1916-fifty-one years after Lincoln's death. That year, Boetcker published a tract entitled Lincoln on Private Property. The pamphlet featured a unique format: the true words of Lincoln on one page followed by interpretive quotations from Boetcker on the next. The ideas quickly found an appreciative audience among conservatives. Republican clubs clamored for copies, and the booklet went into new editions in 1917, 1938, and 1945. Unfortunately, in each subsequent incarnation Boetcker progressively receded into the background until Lincoln was receiving sole and undeserved credit for aphorisms he had never uttered. One later edition boasted that the words were Lincoln's exclusively and were published at the "inspiration of William J. H. Boetcker." By the time Ronald Reagan got around to quoting these lines, the true source of the inspiration had faded into the shadows. When the truth finally surfaced, a Reagan spokesman, scrambling for an explanation, said that the former president had done all his own research. As the sole author of the speech he had found the "Lincoln" quotations in a book called The Toastmaster's Treasure Chest by one Herbert V. Prochnow. It was passed off as an understandable mistake, but it is an indelible one.7

Few of the millions who heard Reagan that summer night ever read the explanations or the corrections published in newspapers during the days following his remarks. Nor did they learn that with a brilliant editorial stroke, Reagan had craftily omitted two of those spurious Boetcker-authored quotes-two that did not seem to fit his call for fealty to Republican principles 1992-style. After all, how could the chief executive who had presided over the accumulation of the most massive federal deficit and debt in the nation's entire history possibly say:

You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.

You cannot establish security on borrowed money.

Ronald Reagan deleted those phrases from his recitation. But he had said enough to lay powerful, if spurious, claim to Lincoln's political blessings. Three full years after scholars had discredited Reagan's Houston Lincoln reference, one of the most widely read newspaper columnists in the nation blithely published the Boetcker quotes once again. To Ann Landers, the words Reagan had quoted still seemed irresistibly Lincolnian.8

Claiming the mantle of Lincoln started long before President Reagan's faux pas. It has been part of the fabric of political discourse practically from the moment Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, 1865-barely a week after restoring peace to a country torn by the long, blood-soaked Civil War. In eulogies delivered at churches throughout the north that Easter Sunday, Lincoln was confirmed as a secular saint. That was a nearly miraculous elevation for one who was among the most severely criticized of all of our presidents: Lincoln had been mocked, scorned, and ridiculed by much of the nation until he was lifted above the clamor by his martyrdom. Gone was the hateful derision. To many, he had suddenly become a second Moses, proclaiming liberty throughout the country but perishing before he could enjoy the promised land; to others, he was an American savior dying for the sins of his bitterly divided people.9

Before long, politicians took up where preachers had left off. In the furious debate over postwar Reconstruction, conservatives and so-called radicals both claimed they were pursuing the path to reconciliation that Lincoln himself had charted. Then at the dawn of the twentieth century, Democrats like William Jennings Bryan began suggesting that they, too, might be entitled to claim a portion of Lincoln's legacy. An angry New York Times article replied that "every word of that noble man ought to be a rebuke" to such Democratic presumption, but the indignation of the Times did nothing to inhibit the Democrats.10 Lincoln's reputation, buoyed by the centennial observances of his birth, remained high; and competition to claim Lincoln for political inspiration and advantage came to embrace all political faiths. A golden age of Lincoln literature was just getting underway, and politicians were eager to lay claim to its riches. It would have been unnatural for politicians not to clamber aboard the bandwagon.

Theodore Roosevelt, who as a child had viewed Lincoln's funeral procession in New York City, proudly confided to White House correspondents that he kept a portrait of Lincoln behind his presidential desk. "When I am confronted with a great problem," he explained. "I look up to that picture, and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done." Roosevelt felt comfortable pursuing what he called a "Jackson-Lincoln theory of the presidency," meaning that he would be an active executive prepared to do even what Congress was reluctant to approve. Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt claimed, had practiced "tempered radicalism," and so would he. By then the competition to claim Lincoln had come to embrace all political faiths. By the time the 1912 election rolled around, Democrat Woodrow Wilson felt compelled to establish an association of his own with the great Lincoln. Explaining that he was in search of the unique inspiration Lincoln could provide, the Democratic nominee even made a pilgrimage to the sacred and hitherto exclusively Republican mecca of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's hometown.

Copyright © 2004 by Mario M. Cuomo

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should

be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780151009992
Subtitle:
Today More Than Ever
Consultant:
Holzer, Harold
Consultant:
Holzer, Harold
Author:
Cuomo, Mario Matthew
Author:
Cuomo, Mario M.
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Location:
Orlando
Subject:
United states
Subject:
Presidents
Subject:
History & Theory - General
Subject:
Political Process - General
Subject:
Government - U.S. Government
Subject:
Practical Politics
Subject:
History & Theory
Edition Number:
1st ed.
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Series Volume:
MCEER 03-0004
Publication Date:
20040601
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
192
Dimensions:
8 x 5.31 in

Related Subjects

History and Social Science » American Studies » Culture Wars
History and Social Science » Politics » United States » Culture

Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever
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Product details 192 pages Harcourt - English 9780151009992 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Cuomo draws a devastating comparison between Lincoln's vision of the American ddemocracy and that of the George W. Bush administration."
"Review" by , "Cuomo, one of the most eloquent statesmen of our time, gives Abraham Lincoln reenewed eloquence and meaning for our time."
"Review" by , "A brilliant and nuanced tour de force."
"Review" by , "A thoughtful and challenging meditation on what Lincoln's wisdom tells us we Ammericans should be doing today and tomorrow."
"Review" by , "Patriotic without being schmaltzy, Cuomo packs a high thought-per-page ratio into his book, which every concerned citizen should examine."
"Review" by , "[O]ne comes away from this book modestly educated about Lincoln, nicely uplifted by Cuomo's intentions, but confused about why, precisely, Lincoln should be our guide."
"Review" by , "Lively, lefty, and — at times — laughable."
"Synopsis" by , Cuomo argues that in today's charged political climate, Abraham Lincoln--founding member of the Republican Party--would be hard-pressed to recognize the issues in the contemporary GOP.
"Synopsis" by ,
Abraham Lincoln is surely the most revered President in our history. His words are American Scripture. And like scripture, Lincoln's words are quoted for good and for ill. Mario Cuomo, three-term Governor of New York, is one of the great orators of our day and a staunch liberal, will write the book that shows what a liberal Lincoln was, and how his political philosophy should work as progressive ideas in the 21st century.

He takes up all the important subjects for our political era, and shows where Lincoln stood on the issues. The outline includes chapters on

EQUALITY

FREEDOM

OPPORTUNITY

RESPONSIBILITY

COMMUNITY

THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT

THE RULE OF LAW

and, in light of the recent war in Iraq, he is adding a chapter on JUST WAR and what that really means.

In sum, a historical, political, clear, and strong revisiting of the greatest president in our history from a distinguished and energetic public figure.

"Synopsis" by ,
Abraham Lincoln, long the most resonant voice of American political values, was a founding member of the Republican Party. In today's charged political climate, he would be hard-pressed to recognize the issues in the contemporary GOP, argues Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and a gifted political philosopher.

Challenged by slavery, secession, and war, Lincoln was able to forcefully articulate the values and ideals that have sustained our country since its inception. His speeches, writings, and actions melded the Constitution, the Bible, and his own experience into an American scripture that inspires faith in the future

Mario Cuomo shows how the big issues - equality, the role of government, war and peace, the responsibilities of the fortunate few - resonate in today's political climate as he brings to life the contemporary relevance of Lincoln's message for today's hot-button issues. Today's political discourse often lacks depth and wisdom, but Mario Cuomo's analysis of Abraham Lincoln will inspire readers to believe that government can still be a force for greater good in American society.

"Synopsis" by ,
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR Why Lincoln Matters:

"In this brilliant presentation Mario Cuomo draws a devastating comparison between Lincoln's vision of the American democracy and that of the George W. Bush administration. I was enthralled by the book."

-- Walter Cronkite

"When our President sounds like a 19th century fundamentalist preacher, the words of our greatest 19th century President, Abraham Lincoln, are ever more relevant to our crises in the 21st century. Mario Cuomo tells us how this great wartime leader might have addressed the war on terrorism. A brilliant and nuanced tour de force."

-- Alan Dershowitz, author of The Case for Israel

"Mario Cuomo is at home in the world of ideas as well as in the world of politics, and he is a long-time Lincoln scholar. WHY LINCOLN MATTERS is a thoughtful and challenging meditation on what Lincoln's wisdom tells us we Americans should be doing today and tomorrow."

-- Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

"Abraham Lincoln's words and acts remain relevant and essential as a panacea for today's challenges at home and abroad. This is a stand up book written by one of America's great leaders."

— Frank Williams, Chief Justice, Rhode Island Supreme Court and chair of the Lincoln Forum

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