Why Lincoln Matters by Mario MCuomo

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo believes that Abraham Lincoln was a great president and that George W. Bush has so far proved a pretty bad one. Perhaps, Cuomo suggests, we can learn where and how the latter president went wrong by comparing his actions and ideas to those of the former.

Cuomo’s venture is an engaging and lively one, marked by a deep appreciation for, and familiarity with, the life and thought of our sixteenth president. “What appealed to me most about Lincoln was not his humble background,” Cuomo writes, “but his lucidity, the sureness of his logic, the cogency of his analysis, and the apparent reasonableness of his conclusions.” It is clear why it is Lincoln’s intellect more than his biography that appeals to Cuomo, who, after all, is remembered most of all for his eloquence and common sense, qualities rapidly disappearing in today’s political environment.

Lincoln matters for almost more reasons than one can count. Of course he saved the Union. Had the South been allowed to go its own way, Cuomo reminds us, other regions would have taken the hint as well. Our country is fractured enough as it is. Permitting any group that does not like what Washington does to simply walk away would spell disaster. In addition, for Cuomo, preserving the Union makes little sense unless the Union stands for something, and here Lincoln matters again, for he gave concrete meaning to the hints toward equality made in the Declaration of Independence.

There are other reasons to appreciate Lincoln. Despite what Cuomo says about the relative unimportance of Lincoln’s background, he does believe that America at its best offers opportunity to the many, a position both lived and articulated by Lincoln long before he became president. Unlike today’s Republicans, Lincoln had no fear of government. His ability to use the language of religion in his speeches while endorsing principles of religious freedom and diversity (he was the first to appoint a Jew as a military chaplain and took the lead in denouncing an anti-Semitic comment made by General Ulysses S. Grant) got the balance between religion and politics just right. Although he never traveled abroad, Lincoln, according to Cuomo, understood what today we would call global interdependence.

It would be difficult to find a president less Lincolnesque than the current occupant of the White House. Bush, Cuomo argues, wants those who have already had all of life’s opportunities to have even more of them. He crosses the line separating faith and politics that Lincoln worked so hard to establish. Bush was anxious to go to war in contrast to Lincoln’s well-known hesitation. If racial injustice moves our current president, he has neither the eloquence nor the passion to address it. By making government the enemy, Bush has distanced himself from his own party’s once rock-solid commitment to internal improvement. Abraham Lincoln matters so much to Mario Cuomo because George W. Bush has accomplished so little.

Cuomo is right to compare these two presidents and to find the current one lacking; Bush, after all, invokes Lincoln in his speeches, thereby inviting a comparison that can only make him look bad. Still, Cuomo’s method, inspired at the start, slowly tires. There are two reasons for this-one he acknowledges and one he does not.

As Cuomo is not loath to admit, there are similarities between our greatest president and the present one that work to the disadvantage of both. Lincoln was no great civil libertarian, and were Bush interested in history, which he is not, he could cite Lincoln’s administration in support of the Patriot Act. The same could be said of Bush’s approach to the Supreme Court. In the aftermath of Dred Scott, Lincoln certainly applied political litmus tests to the issue of who would succeed Roger Taney, just as Bush does in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade.

Yet even while admitting that Bush and Lincoln are not far apart on some issues, Cuomo insists that Lincoln’s record is better. “As serious as the threat is of an act of terrorism,” he writes, “it cannot compare with the threat to the nation posed by the Civil War,” implying that Lincoln had greater justification for his violation of civil liberties than Bush. Yet no one, in the aftermath of September 11, knew whether other attacks would be coming and how serious they might be. At this point, the scorecard approach adopted by the governor to compare these two men begins to break down.

It also breaks down when Cuomo ventures too far into what the academic experts call “counterfactual history.” Do we really need to know what position Lincoln would have taken on stem-cell research or whether he would support the interstate highway and space programs? Cuomo ventures too often, at least for my taste, into the realm of the imagination, even offering a speech that Lincoln would have given as an address to Congress in 2004. Although relying on Lincoln’s own words and applying them to our own situation, the speech sounds Cuomoesque-a compliment, I hasten to add. Still, it raises the question why Cuomo does not simply address the current situation in his own words, for surely we need them.

Why Lincoln Matters, though short, is really two books. The one that appreciates Lincoln is as good as the one that lambastes Bush, but combining the two does not always work. Still, as Bill and Hillary Clinton reminded us, it makes little sense to turn down the offer of two for one, especially when the two come from a man as admirable and thoughtful as this one. Lincoln matters to us, among other reasons, because he matters to Mario Cuomo, and we should be indebted to the governor for bringing him once again to our attention.

Published in the 2004-09-10 issue: 
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Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

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The Roads to Modernity

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