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Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Published: 12/5/2008

Obama channels Lincoln's spirit

ABE Lincoln and I go way back. Not that far back, but he and I have had a life-long relationship. Perhaps that's not all that unusual for one who grew up in the Land of Lincoln near Chicago. As a kid I took Illinois' abiding affection for the 16th president to a whole new level.

To the bemusement of family and friends, I devoured books about the man that dissected every aspect of his life from backwoods bookworm to gangly, clean-shaven Springfield lawyer smitten with Ann Rutledge, and his improbable journey to greatness in the White House. For some reason, I had a hunger to know him as a person beyond the biographies, almost with the kind of infatuation a teen usually reserves for a rock star.

Weird, I know. Even dressed up as Mr. Lincoln - complete with stovepipe hat and beard - one Halloween, and that's all I have to say about that. But the reason I prattle on about my Lincoln passion - and there is a reason, I assure you - is the intriguing affinity the next president also appears to share with him.

Certainly, as historians note, Barack Obama is not the first successor of Abraham Lincoln to seek solace or inspiration in the wealth of words written about him. Many have quoted him liberally to justify agendas from the New Deal to smaller federal government. And, of course, a hopelessly paranoid and distraught Richard Nixon used to retreat regularly to the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House to unburden himself.

"Every president in the Oval Office sits and thinks about Lincoln," said historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University, "because no matter how bad you've got it, he had it worse." No debate there, but it seems that long before Mr. Obama became President-elect Obama he, too, nurtured an enduring bond with old Abe and his writings.

And now, as the former Illinois senator methodically assembles a presidential administration-in-waiting, he reportedly is reading Lincoln's words again for whatever wisdom on governing might be gleaned from them. During a recent interview, President-elect Obama allowed how helpful it was to study Mr. Lincoln's approach to government, not the least of which was the humility he brought to the job even before becoming president.

But the Lincoln lessons of leadership include far more than the personality traits of a remarkably complex and extraordinary man, they also provide valuable insights into one of the greatest politicians to ever occupy the White House. "Lincoln is a crossroads of character and political shrewdness," said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith of George Mason University.

Consider the highly unusual administration of friend and foe he assembled in 1861. In her 2005 book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin writes of the president's willingness to surround himself with former opponents, including a New York senator - and party heir apparent - who was narrowly defeated for the Republican presidential nomination by an obscure Illinoisan with relatively little political experience.

Hmmm. Interestingly, that New York senator, William Seward, who had scorned his rival with the galvanizing rhetoric, wound up worshiping him as secretary of state in the Lincoln administration. Not that Hillary Clinton would ever do likewise in the Obama administration, but the fact that she was brought into the fold with others who have flatly challenged the president-elect and his positions is impressively Lincolnesque.

Clearly it's too early to say how well the new team of all-stars Mr. Obama has selected will work as team players, but in choosing those he deems the strongest and most able for the heavy lifting ahead, he emulates Abraham Lincoln's political acumen and temperament. Not only do the Obama choices exhibit a deft move to co-opt potential enemies of his administration, but they follow the Lincoln model of refusing to let past hurts cloud present judgment.

With President Lincoln, it was almost as if there was no time to dwell on personal or political animosities with the country splintering toward civil war. He said he simply needed the best people by his side, even if they argued with him, to help him steer the country through some of the most divisive and dangerous years in American history.

The crises bearing down on President-elect Obama, and his high-powered governing partners, are different from those a century and a half ago, but no less challenging. If making overtures to his former foes strengthens Mr. Obama's hand as a political leader determined to make sweeping changes, he will have shown the value of prudence and pragmatism in a time of great peril.

Just like Abraham Lincoln did on his own terms to preserve the Union and emancipate the slaves. There is no better mentor for the ages.



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