By Preston Manning - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - 0 Comments
Preston Manning on the new Spielberg film, ‘Lincoln’—and what Obama could learn from it
Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s new film, tells the story of a dramatic period in the life of Abraham Lincoln near the end of the American Civil War. It is the period between Lincoln’s re-election to a second term as president of the United States on Nov. 8, 1864, and the passage, several months later, of the constitutional amendment that permanently abolished slavery throughout the U.S.
President Barack Obama has been re-elected to his second term at a time when America is again seriously divided racially and politically—racked by what CNN commentator John King described on election night as “an ideological civil war.” This conflict currently prevents a divided U.S. government from averting the fiscal crisis that threatens to plunge the American economy into recession.
So what were the principles and tactics employed by Lincoln to bring together a Congress divided over abolition? And how might they apply to bringing together a U.S. government divided over the fiscal issue and hasten the end of America’s ideological civil war? Continue…
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, July 1, 2012 at 10:53 AM - 0 Comments
Our literary editrix sent me the oddest book to review, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it; I decided not to review it for our print books section, where space is tight, but I thought I’d put on record that I did read Stephen L. Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln from front to back.
A lot of respectable pulp-class writers, from Harry Turtledove to whomever ghosts the books sold under Newt Gingrich’s byline, earn good coin from the art of alternate-universe U.S. history. (I think Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is the major inspiration for this genre, but feel free to apply the rod of correction in the comments.) Lincoln being the perennial topic he is, one imagines that Carter’s basic premise—a world in Lincoln survives the wound he receives at Ford’s Theatre—has probably been done a dozen times before. But one expects Carter’s book to be more serious than the general run of this stuff, because he’s a moderately important public intellectual, not to mention the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale. (This is one of the few jobs in the United States whose title practically demands a tympani roll and a trumpet fanfare.)
The book, however, is just plain weird—an action movie, a courtroom drama, and an interracial romance thrown into a big blender. The portrait of an impeachment proceeding turns out to be quite interesting and informative, because even though we have recent experience of a president’s trial in the Senate… well, to be perfectly honest, what I remember most from the trial of President Clinton is Chief Justice Rehnquist’s wacky robe with the striped sleeves. The proceeding itself was a bit perfunctory: by the time the trial commenced the ending was foreordained, the public was exhausted, and neither theoretically-possible outcome was likely to please anyone much. Moreover, the trial was carried out in an odd, slightly confusing order, and no live witnesses were examined in the well of the Senate chamber. As theatre, it was a bust.
Carter’s fictional trial shows us what a real, proper, open-ended presidential impeachment proceeding would look like—yet it, too, fails as theatre. You know how courtroom movies like A Few Good Men always end up letting star witnesses testify uninterrupted and fight exciting verbal duels with cross-examining counsel in ways that would never be tolerated in real life? Just to refresh your memory: the lawyer for the baddie will usually explode to his feet once and demand that the good guy’s Hail-Mary line of questioning be shut down, but the judge, who has been crushing the hero’s huevos throughout the movie, suffers a mysterious and unexplained attack of leniency and says “I’ll allow it—but this had better be going somewhere fast, mister!”
Carter is too much the law professor to let a “real” courtroom drama like that develop: his portrait of an obstructionist, cranky 19th-century Senate is so accurate that the witnesses are barely allowed to breathe, and Lincoln’s impeachment trial turns out to be kind of boring. (And, by the way, the actual impeachment of Lincoln by the House technically happens off-camera in a short passage on page 34, so the title’s a little misleading, too.)
There are other credibility problems with the plot to balance the too-much-credibility issue with the courtroom scenes, but my big problem with this book is that its portrait of Lincoln is unrecognizable and unattractive. I can’t help thinking that this is a decisive, unmitigable flaw in a Lincoln book. Carter seems to have thought it was important that Lincoln not be portrayed as a plaster saint, so he overemphasizes the cynicism, the backwoods cunning, and the borderline-megalomaniac sense of sacred mission that contemporary detractors saw in Lincoln. This is certainly fair. What we don’t get is any sense of Lincoln’s mind, which was one of the finest of its era.
Certainly we get no taste of his gift for English, which only a trivial handful of individuals have shared in equal measure since our alphabet included the yogh. I think literally every single bit of Lincoln dialogue we get in the book is prefaced by one of Lincoln’s countrified stories about travelling salesmen with ferrets in their trousers or what-have-you. The anecdotes all supposedly authentic, but they are laid on much too thick. In real life, when the President deployed these stories, they were charming and inevitably to the point. By contrast, Carter’s Lincoln seems cryptic and distracted, even a mite demented. Maybe it’s the head wound?
By John Geddes - Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 3:31 PM - 0 Comments
A few years back I came upon one of those historical footnotes that gets you thinking: after Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865, as he lay dying in a boarding house across the street from the Ford Theater, one of the small group that watched over him was Dr. Anderson Abbott, Canada’s first black physician.
Reading the Prime Minister’s statement today in recognition of Black History Month, my mind’s eye again created the tableau of Lincoln’s deathbed and the singular Canadian in the room.
Stephen Harper makes reference today to black Canadians who fought in the War of 1812 (thanks, Farandwide); last year, he reminded us of black icons ranging from a rodeo cowboy, to a newspaper owner, to Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins. All worthy of note, I hasten to agree.
But at the risk of hinting at a hierarchy of trailblazers, I can’t help wondering why we don’t hear more often about Abbott. What a story: a Toronto-trained black doctor who served with distinction in the Civil War, was befriended by the president, and returned to Ontario to forge an impressive medical career.
There’s a good biographical note on Abbott here, on the website of the Oxford African American Studies Center, which is headed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
David Naylor, the current president of University of Toronto and a former dean of medicine at the university, sends a candid email, admitting that Abbott is “under-recognized” at U. of T., where he took some of his medical training, and stood for an examination in the discipline in 1867, two years before being admitted to Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“I heard nothing about Dr. Abbott in medical school in the 1970s,” Naylor writes, “and only encountered snippets about him later while doing thesis work at Oxford in social history of Canadian medicine and health policy. In recent years, Abbott occasionally has been flagged by the Faculty of Medicine as a pioneering figure whom we proudly claim. But frankly, he’s received limited profile, and I’m one of the culprits as a past dean. Furthermore, so far as I can tell, Abbott isn’t mentioned in the 2001 official history of the University.”
By Nicholas Kohler with Erica Alini - Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 10:05 AM - 25 Comments
Rumours about bin Laden are only the latest in a toxic new wave of conspiracy theories
On Good Friday in 1865, Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary, appeared at Ford’s Theatre in Washington to watch Our American Cousin, a contemporary farce. During the play, John Wilkes Booth, a popular Shakespearian actor and Confederate sympathizer, made his way to the president’s box with a .44-calibre derringer and fired a single shot into the back of his head. Booth then leapt down onto the stage and is said to have cried: “Sic semper tyrannis”—“Thus always to tyrants!” Somehow, amid the subsequent commotion, Booth escaped, leading authorities on a 12-day chase that ended with his being locked in a burning barn in Virginia.
The men carrying Lincoln from the theatre hadn’t yet laid him down in the boarding house across the street, where he died the next day, before the conspiracy theories surrounding his shooting, Booth’s part in it, and the shadowy forces that might really lie behind the plot began proliferating. These narratives began with the conspiracy led by Booth to kill Lincoln in the days following the Confederate side’s surrender to the Union and the end of the Civil War, but quickly became more baroque.
By 1937, when amateur historian Otto Eisenschiml published his tract on the assassination—Why Was Lincoln Murdered?—Booth had become just a patsy to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s steely secretary of war. In the one figure of the scheming Stanton, Eisenschiml sewed together all the accidents and curiosities of Lincoln’s shooting into one, cohesive plan. The book marshalled arguments that cast Stanton as an individual of such capacity and ambition that he could first manufacture a situation in which Lincoln was left unguarded, engineered Booth’s improbable getaway, then orchestrated a means of spiriting his fellow conspirators away, their heads hooded, to isolated prisons where they could never report on Stanton’s role in the plot. The book was a bestseller.
By John Parisella - Sunday, February 20, 2011 at 9:32 PM - 12 Comments
Every third monday in February, the U.S. celebrates a national holiday honouring George Washington…
Every third monday in February, the U.S. celebrates a national holiday honouring George Washington and his successors as president. The presidency was not originally meant to be the most important elected office in the world. The separation of powers between the exceutive and legislative (Congress) branches made sure that American Revolution would not replace a royal monarch with a civil one. Also, at the time of the founding Constitution, the new nation was far from being the superpower it would become less than 200 years later. Yet, no one today would dispute that the American president, despite the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution, is the most consequential political actor in the world.
Whether it is FDR announcing direct U.S. involvement in WWII after Pearl Harbour, Truman dropping the bomb at Hiroshima to end the war, JFK confronting the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis and deciding to launch the program to put a man on the moon, Nixon going to China, Reagan telling the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall, or Bush choosing to go to war after 9/11, a president’s decisions can go a long way to steer the course of history. As a Canadian living in the United States, I choose to honour this February 21st holiday by highlighting those inspirational presidents who made an impact on me and otherwise made a significant contribution to improve the human condition:
-Abraham Lincoln for the abolition of slavery;
-Franklin D. Roosevelt for social security;
-Lyndon B. Johnson for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, as well as Medicare, Medicaid and the War on Poverty;
- and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton for active, inspiring and productive post-presidencies.
I know there have been many other significant presidencies and they deserve to be highlighted. It is also too early to draw conclusions on the current presidency of Barack Obama (although healthcare reform, if it lasts, and the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will be historic). Fifteen presidents governed a nation that condoned slavery, and women did not have the right to vote until the 28th president. But the rhetoric and vision of Jefferson and Adams, as well as the contributions of Andrew Jackson, have contributed to making Presidents Day a worthwhile celebration.
Tough presidential decisions have been made in the course of history around the world that have improved the lot of many in the world. Overall, the two-party system has produced men (and, hopefully soon, women) of stature, though only few of true greatness out of the 44 who have served.
What is truly inspiring and worth honouring this President’s’ Day is the stability and vibrancy of the world’s most successful democracy, and the importance of role the occupants of the office of the presidency have played in building it. Happy Presidents Day to my American friends.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, December 6, 2010 at 11:19 AM - 7 Comments
Peter Wehner notes the difference between civility and weakness.
Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.
By Aaron Wherry - Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 6:39 PM - 52 Comments
“Mr. Speaker, my question is for the minister responsible for public health and for H1N1,” said the white-haired one. “It is very clear that there was a delay in the decision of the federal government to order the vaccine. It is very clear that there has been a delay in the distribution of the vaccine. I would like to ask the minister, in light of these two clear facts that are delineated by the evidence, does she not understand that these delays have cost and will cost lives?”
The Conservatives groaned, having apparently expected something more laudatory of their efforts.
On this question of health policy, it was of course Tony Clement, the Industry Minister, who was offered up to respond. Just as Christian Paradis, the Minister of Public Works, would later take a question on climate change, the Treasury Board President Vic Toews would expound on the scourge of organized crime, and Heritage Minister James Moore would stand and account for the government’s approach to taxation.
“Mr. Speaker, in fact our Minister of Health has been working with the Chief Public Health Officer and has been working assiduously with the provinces and territories across this land to deliver the vaccine,” Mr. Clement informed the House
And surely we can all agree that assiduously is a very impressive-sounding word. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, September 11, 2009 at 1:24 PM - 5 Comments
Andrew Steele draws the line between raucous debate and what it is that we have.
Politics is a clash of ideas. Those ideas arouse passions. Parliament should not be a garden party. But at the same time, it should not be a cattle call. The role of MP in Canada’s current era of the minority government to that of chess piece, vote token, and occasional theatrical chorus member…
Our House of Commons has rarely been anywhere near the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but it would be nice if we could elevate our game to at least the caustic feud of Pearson and Diefenbaker rather than the morass of gormless blather we can anticipate.
By Brian Bethune - Thursday, February 12, 2009 at 11:17 AM - 4 Comments
Marx and Freud have faded badly, but Darwin still rules today
It was 200 years ago today that Charles Darwin (and Abraham Lincoln, for that matter) saw the light of day, the first-born of the secular trinity of 19th-century thinkers who created the modern world. Darwin was widely hailed in his own day—he ended up buried with other English greats in Westminster Abbey—and his fellow titans admired him as much as anyone. A new edition of Darwin’s revolutionary 1859 tome The Origin of Species (packaged like a bestselling novel, with the author’s name in type larger than that of the title) has the presumably unique distinction for a 2009 publication of bearing a front-cover blurb from Freud: “An extraordinary advance in our understanding of the world.” And in 1873, Marx mailed Darwin a copy of his earthshaking 1859 book, Das Kapital, inscribed from “his sincere admirer, Karl Marx.”
The admiration was a one-way street, though. Darwin the well-mannered English gentleman did write Marx a polite thank-you note—“I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge and that this in the long run is sure to add to the happiness of mankind”—but the copy itself is more revealing of his real reaction. Now on display in his home-cum-museum, the volume’s uncut pages prove the scientist got less than a third of the way through it. (It’s impossible to guess what the socially conventional Darwin, who died in 1882, long before Freud’s major works, might have made of The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900.) And as it began, so it continues. With Freud and Marx dating badly in the modern era (notwithstanding Marx’s recent economic stimulus bounce), Darwin is the only one still dominant in his field today. That’s not because evolution by natural selection is, as Darwin’s more fervent admirers like to declare, the single greatest idea anyone has ever had. Even though it may well be that, at least as long as you keep your list of potential contenders to how-the-universe-works concepts, as opposed to ideas on how we should treat one another; in the former case evolution’s only real competitors are Newton’s gravity and Einstein’s relativity. No, it’s because evolution is the finest example ever seen—and possibly ever to be seen—of an idea whose time has come, the ultimate intellectual supply and demand phenomenon. Continue…
By Jonathon Gatehouse - Wednesday, January 28, 2009 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
Obama looks to Lincoln, who gave Americans the optimism they craved
A beard and a stovepipe hat could hardly have made it plainer. Barack Obama now occupies a unique place in American history, but his ascension to the presidency was carefully modelled on a giant from its past, Abraham Lincoln. The 44th U.S. President retraced the 16th’s train journey from Philadelphia to Washington, stopping in the same communities to make speeches. He made the official theme of his inauguration “A New Birth of Freedom,” borrowing a line from the Gettysburg address. At six minutes after noon on Jan. 20, he took the oath of office on a Bible belonging to the Great Emancipator. And the celebratory lunch served in the Capitol afterwards consisted of that other Illinois president’s favourite foods, served on replicas of Mary Todd Lincoln’s china.
For a man who is expected to change so much, such backwards glances were a telling choice. A deliberate referencing of the darkest period in the country’s history. A reminder, not of triumphs and glories, but of struggle and sacrifice. And a stark acknowledgement that America’s incandescent dream has been largely forged from the ashes of its collective nightmares. “Obama is unlike many of our presidents, someone who has read history and who thinks he can learn from history,” says Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political historian. “And Lincoln has become the man whose spirit he most wants to summon.”
By Aaron Wherry - Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 1:40 AM - 853 Comments
Back, for a moment, to David Foster Wallace’s take on John McCain.
Near the end of that little book Foster Wallace arrives at his definitive division of political leadership—laying out a distinction between “leaders” and “salesmen.”
“A real leader,” he writes, “isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with ‘inspire’ being used here in a serious and non-cliche way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think we are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own … In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own…
“There is a difference,” he continues later, “between a great leader and a great salesman. There are similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest—if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be)—still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself.”
This leads to a consideration of whether John McCain (circa 2000) could quite literally sell himself as a real leader, without, in the process, becoming a salesman. (see also, Barack Obama circa 2008).
But, for the moment, let’s consider something else. Namely, when was the last time Canada had a real leader? Continue…