"... to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
- Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address
The attacks against Taliban military targets and al Qaeda base camps initiated on a quiet Sunday afternoon (nighttime in Afghanistan) signaled the opening American response in the 11th war in United States history, 12th including the totality of the Cold War.
George W. Bush is the latest in a procession of "war presidents" ranging from the brilliant (Lincoln) to the mediocre (FDR) to the incompetent (LBJ). History judges the success of their administration, fairly or not, on the strength of American arms in the field.
In many respects, the 43rd president of the United States is similar to the 16th commander in chief (if you don't know who that is, read on. You're in college, you should know). There are similarities beyond Lincoln being the first Republican president and Bush as the latest. Both came to power amid a divided electorate, though divided for different reasons.
In 1860, Lincoln won with a plurality of the popular vote split among four candidates and an electorate torn asunder by the slavery question. In 2000, Bush's opponent won the plurality, but he carried a majority of the Electoral College with an electorate ambivalent due to pervasive boredom with American political culture.
Both men faced criticism and derision by media elites regarding their speech patterns and general intelligence. Lincoln, who hailed from the frontier state of Illinois, stunned eastern audiences with his use of "git" and "thar" when he talked. Bush, who hails from west Texas, is mocked in the electronic media centers of power for mangling the English language, "subliminable," for example.
Lincoln's presidency began on the day he took office, March 4, 1861. Seven states had already seceded, four more would flee the Union following the shelling of Fort Sumter.
Bush was lucky by comparison. He had an eight-month honeymoon that ended on Sept. 11 when al Qaeda tore a hole in the sky over lower Manhattan.
It would be criminally ignorant on my part to put Bush equally in the same category as Lincoln. The president has the tremendous advantage of a united country galvanized by the horrific images and unambiguous reality of the current situation. Lincoln faced half the Union armed and arrayed against him with the remaining half split over the war.
President Bush has the support of the civilized world and a military unmatched in the history of our species. President Lincoln faced the constant threat of British and French intervention on the Confederacy's behalf. Moreover, the preponderance of qualified generals, most notably Robert E. Lee, joined the opposing side.
Then there are the differences between the men themselves. Bush is heir to a Connecticut Yankee fortune and an aimless playboy the majority of his life. Lincoln was born into Kentucky poverty and crawled out through hard work. Bush is a compassionate, bright man not given just due for the latter. Lincoln was a brilliant, compassionate man not given credit for being either.
There is one important lesson the 18th Republican president can learn from the first, besides staying away from crowded theaters. Throughout the course of the Civil War, Lincoln remained under tremendous pressure to balance his primary goal of preserving the Union while not antagonizing those whose support he needed (border slave states) and those whose opposition he needed to avoid (Britain and France).
He always remained resolute in guiding his administration and the country towards the ultimate goal: victory. He did not wear ideology like a millstone around his neck, restraining him unnecessarily. "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."
Initially, he did not advocate ending slavery, merely restoring his legal authority in the rebellious provinces. Ultimately, the horrible cost of the conflict and the inevitable logic of human freedom compelled him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation after the Union victory at Antietam.
As he signed the Proclamation, shattering the bonds constraining millions of Americans, his hand began to shake violently. Not out of nervousness, but because he spent the previous two hours shaking hands with the public. "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper," he said, adding his signature to history.
Lincoln also knew ultimate success depended on achieving victories, even when the path became treacherous and costly. As Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Union armies, his bloody campaigns drew a firestorm of controversy. When commenting on the situation, Lincoln proclaimed, "I cannot spare Grant. He fights."
He committed himself and the Union to victory, clear and unambiguous. President Bush has done the same. "I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people," he pledged to a joint session of Congress.
Now, like Lincoln before him, he must not wavier. In the coming weeks, months and possibly years, there will be intense criticism of his actions and those of the American military. There already exists a small but vocal minority who propose the United States lay down their arms for the sake of peace.
These misguided fools do not realize our enemies will not lay down their arms and recognize no overtures of peace. As President Bill Clinton met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat last summer to create a new peace agreement, the terrorists were planning the destruction of Manhattan's skyline.
"I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine," blathered the villain Osama bin Laden on Sunday. The Confederates wanted Union with slavery as a precondition for peace. Bin Laden and his fanatics had peace yet waged war anyway.
My fervent hope upon Bush's inauguration was for an unremarkable tenure. The remarkable administrations prove so because of great trials and great suffering. Now Bush is burdened with the responsibility of becoming a great president. With luck, "the mystic chords of memory" will touch the president and grant him the wisdom divine providence granted Lincoln to see the Union through the fires of war and emerge victorious.