How to feel better about your country

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds …

Abraham Lincoln

Second Inaugural Address, 1865

Just finished the longest book I've ever read. Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals inspired the recent film, Lincoln, which should have won the Best Picture Oscar.

The film inspired me to read the book it was based on. At 754 pages, it's a remarkably quick read. What comes across in both the film and the book is Lincoln's humanity. I knew he was a remarkable president. I didn't know he was such a remarkable human being.

As Kearns Goodwin notes in her book, Abraham Lincoln was the embodiment of the famous line from his Second Inaugural Address: "With malice toward none, with charity for all." It was the way he lived, it was his political modus operandi, and it was how he managed the people working for him.

In spite of presiding over the nation's worst crisis and living with unimaginable stress — not to mention the grief of losing a son — he treated everyone with kindness and respect. As a politician, he kept his ego in check, his backbone in place and his eyes on the prize. Two prizes, actually: preserving the Union and abolishing slavery (permanently), in that order, which didn't always endear him to his critics — then and now.

Almost everyone underestimated him, and almost all were eventually won over. He was blessed with an engaging personality, a poet's facility with language and an endless supply of stories and humorous anecdotes that enabled him to communicate effectively when most needed.

Lincoln experienced great loss and suffered severe depression, but he overcame it because, as a friend put it, "he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived."

Politically, he was a paradox: People driven by powerful ambition almost always have powerful egos, which is both their greatest strength and usually their insurmountable weakness — in fact, it's often their tragic flaw. But Lincoln was different.

He understood the adage: In the long run, the long run is all that matters. Lincoln's was the long game, which is why he usually seemed several steps ahead of all the big-ego short-gamers around him. He saw further. At one of the lowest points of the Civil War, following the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, when the North suffered 13,000 casualties, more than twice as many as the South, the president, searching for signs of hope, did the "awful arithmetic" and realized, "that if the same battle were to be fought over again, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone."

The loss of life and limb sickened him, yet he knew the Union would prevail, and his resolve never wavered.

A lot of short-gamers, then and now, question whether he did enough soon enough to abolish slavery. They questioned his commitment, even his morality. Because slavery was the greatest evil of the time (what could be more obvious?), ending it as soon as possible was the equally obvious course. But, as Kearns Goodwin establishes, Lincoln had a higher priority than even the abolition of slavery: preserving the Union. If the country were split, slavery would continue in the South and might spread West. And if that happened, government of the people, by the people and for the people might very well perish from the Earth.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, was a war powers act, leaving it vulnerable to a legal challenge after the conflict ended. So following his re-election, Lincoln insisted on pushing for the 13th Amendment before the next Congress went into session. That's the fight the film focuses on.

It is a film that helps present-day Americans believe in their country again, just as Lincoln helped Americans believe in one country again when a lot of them had given up hope. The film also gives us reason to believe that, in spite of its flabbergasting flaws and foibles, government of, by and for the people is capable of rising to the occasion — as Lincoln himself put it in 1862: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country."

Doesn't exactly sound like a modern-day Republican, does it?

In fact, the Congress depicted in Lincoln has the Democrats acting like current Republicans (clueless obstructionists) and Republicans acting like today's Democrats (divided by factions yet working for progress). There are lessons here for both parties — and for the people who vote for them.

As Kearns Goodwin so aptly and succinctly summarizes in her book, "His conviction that we are one nation, 'conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,' led to the rebirth of a union free of slavery. And he expressed this conviction in a language of enduring clarity and beauty, exhibiting a literary genius to match his political genius."

It's a thrill when one of the heroes you grew up revering turns out to be even better than you thought. If you see the film and read this book, I suspect you'll feel proud of your country.

And that just might catch you by surprise.


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