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Archive for Friday, July 7, 2006

Lincoln lessons being repeated

July 7, 2006

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The maxim that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it has a corollary: Those who study history will learn something about the present. I'm rediscovering that truth courtesy of a book about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

As summer books go, Doris Kearns Goodwin's 750-page tome hardly qualifies as light reading. But for those looking for relevant history and a great story, it's hard to imagine a better, more timely book.

"Team of Rivals" focuses on what the author calls Lincoln's "political genius" in holding the country together during the war. The approach sheds new light on Lincoln, but the real fascination is that the portrait of a nation at war offers lessons about our divisions today over Iraq.

No, no, no - George Bush is not the second coming of Lincoln. Nor are we experiencing anywhere near the carnage of the Civil War, which claimed about 620,000 soldiers.

Unlike today, scarcely a family in the North or South was left untouched; Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, lost three brothers who fought for the South. She and the president also lost a young son to disease, probably typhoid fever.

Yet there are many striking similarities to our current problems, including how the war divided the North and how Lincoln's opponents tried to exploit military setbacks for political gain. There is even a faint echo of freeing the slaves in America's efforts to liberate Iraq and build a stable democracy.

The late focus on emancipation, which was not a Lincoln goal until midway through the four-year war, and then mostly for military instead of moral reasons, bears some semblance to how our mission in Iraq has shifted.

Though I've long been a Civil War buff, I never appreciated how perilously close the nation came to permanent division. Northerners fractured along numerous lines, especially how much weight to give emancipation. Lincoln's Republican Party was split between committed abolitionists and those less zealous.

Most Democrats were not concerned with emancipation and as the war dragged on, many were ready for peace at any price, even if it meant slavery continued in the South. Voters in the border states and territories had mixed feelings on the subject.

Author Goodwin (no relation), who has written about the Kennedys, the Roosevelts and Lyndon Johnson, weaves a compelling narrative that shows Lincoln mixing noble sentiment with flexible tactics and political horse-trading to keep public support for the war. Part of her clear admiration for Lincoln is that he brought three of his rivals into his Cabinet to build what we call today a big tent government.

Along the way, she presents personalities and conversations that ring as modern as the recent Senate debate on quitting Iraq. During a carriage ride, Lincoln and his secretary of state, William Seward, agreed, Goodwin writes, "that one fundamental principle of politics is to always be on the side of your country in a war. It kills any party to oppose a war."

Yet as late as 1864, a northern victory was still in doubt. A Confederate raid got within five miles of Washington and advisers told Lincoln the North had lost confidence in him and he had no chance of being re-elected that fall.

The rest is history - except we're repeating much of it now. Do we give up on Iraq? Do we shirk from the war on terror and hope for the best?

I think I know what Abe Lincoln would say.

- Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News.

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