The Descent of Presidents

Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. Image taken by Matthew Brady.

am writing this post on November 19, the 155th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address. In a mere 272 words, Lincoln movingly reminded a war-weary public why the Union had to fight and win the Civil War, and he redefined the meaning of America. Out of the awful, bloody toll of war, Lincoln said, might come “a new birth of freedom.” At Gettysburg, Lincoln uttered the second American Declaration of Independence, only this time “all men are created equal” meant all men.

As I reread Lincoln’s powerful and noble prose, I could not help thinking about how far the United States has descended in the last two years. Instead of a president who praises “our fathers [who] brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty,” the nation now has, as president, a man who thinks it clever to refer, in a tweet, to a member of Congress as “little Adam Schitt,” substituting “t’s” for “f’s” at the end of the name of the Democrat from California. I imagine President Donald Trump sitting in his private quarters at the White House saying to himself, “Oh, boy, this is a good one! I have the best words!”

Edward Everett

Remember, Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, a somewhat difficult journey in the middle of the 19th century, through hostile, pro-slavery Maryland. Though the small Pennsylvania town is only 80 miles from Washington, the trip took six hours and included two train transfers en route. Lincoln went to Gettysburg even though his invitation to speak was something of an after-thought. The featured speaker was Edward Everett, a famed orator, who delivered a two-hour address. No one remembers what Everett said, but schoolchildren memorize Lincoln’s words despite his disclaimer, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Our current president, by contrast, could not even be bothered to cross the Potomac River to attend the annual ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery marking the public observance of Veterans Day. In a rare expression of regret, Trump told Chris Wallace of Fox News, “I was extremely busy on calls for the country, we did a lot of calling, as you know — [but] I probably, you know, in retrospect I should have and I did last year.” Actually, he did not, commemorating Veterans Day in 2017 in Vietnam instead of at the more traditional Arlington site. Still, his comments to Wallace are about as close to an apology as the apology-averse Trump is likely to come.

Base Camp Donna on the Texas-Mexico border.

Skipping Veterans Day at Arlington Cemetery is strange, even for a president who has little regard for history. Laying a wreath is an easy thing to do. Trump claims veterans are “a tremendously important group of people to me… these are special people,” yet ignores the day dedicated to them and declines, as well, to attend an event honoring American war dead while in France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Nor does Trump seem bothered that thousands of U.S. troops will miss Thanksgiving with their families because they have been stationed at the southern border to stem the “invasion” of a “caravan” of migrants from Central America. And, remember the famous fundraiser candidate Trump held for veterans’ organizations? He had to be pressured by the media to donate the money, including one-million dollars of his own funds.

Retired Admiral William McRaven

Trump may say he respects the military, but he insults all groups, so it should be no surprise he escalated, in the Fox interview, a fight with retired Admiral William McRaven, the Navy SEAL and Special Operations commander in charge of the missions to kill Osama Bin Laden and capture former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Trump mocked McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and an “Obama backer” and suggested the four-star admiral, who is battling chronic lymphocytic leukemia, should have caught bin Laden faster. “Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn’t it have been nice?” Trump said. “You know, living — think of this — living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan in what I guess they considered a nice mansion, I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer. But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there.”

The president has a special animosity for McRaven, who has criticized Trump for describing the news media as the “enemy of the people” and defended John Brennan after Trump stripped the former CIA director of his security clearance. McRaven said in a Washington Post op-ed he “would consider it an honor if [Trump] would revoke my security clearance as well.” Still, as is often the case, Trump’s blast at McRaven betrayed the current president’s ignorance. As former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell pointed out on Twitter, “Correction needed to POTUS’s comment today that McRaven should have found bin Laden sooner. CIA did the ‘finding.’ McRaven’s special operators did the ‘getting.’ They moved within days of President Obama giving the order.”

President Lincoln with Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses Grant and Admiral David Porter.

Lincoln had his problems with the military during the Civil War. It took him three years before he found the right mix of military commanders — Ulysses Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Philip Sheridan — to lead the Union to victory. Yet, Lincoln never publicly humiliated his generals, using humor instead as a tool to prod reluctant officers to fight. He complained that Major General George McClellan had the “slows” because the Union general let Confederate General Robert E. Lee escape across the Potomac River after the Battle of Antietam in 1862. Lincoln also once sent McClellan a telegram that read, “If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time.”

Of course, comparing anyone to Lincoln is, in a sense, unfair. The Great Emancipator was sui genesis, a self-made man who molded himself into a successful political and wartime leader who became an inspiration for his contemporaries and, then, for all time. Still, Americans have every right to expect presidents who do not act like schoolyard bullies, do not insult their rivals, and do not pathologically lie. Pondering the line of presidents from Lincoln to Trump brings to mind Henry Adams, historian and descendant of two presidents, who in his great autobiography expressed “hopes that Grant would be George Washington.” Instead, Adams wrote, “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant alone was evidence enough to upset Darwin.” Yes, you guessed my next question: What would Henry Adams say of President Donald Trump?

Posted November 20, 2018

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