Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mississippi and Peoria

The debates showed the bankruptcy -- of the political class.

Jim Lehrer was begging them to educate the public on the bailout plan. Neither was willing or able to do so.

Both instead stressed their personal qualities and sniped at the other.

This is a start contrast to the speech that launched Abraham Lincoln's national political career. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act roused him from being in a sort of political sleep mode, and landed him six years later in the White House.

The Act that so stunned Lincoln overturned the Compromise of 1850, and left the decision on whether to allow slavery in the two territories to the vague promise of "popular sovereignty."

If that reminds you of the horror of high school history, perhaps that's why modern politicians are so scared of facts and history.

But in his "Peoria speech" of Oct. 16, 1854, Lincoln addressed the history, and future, of the nation. (He had actually given the speech earlier in Springfield, but better copies were made of the Peoria speech, so it gets the honors.)

Anyway, if the very mention of the Wilmot Provisio still fills you with dread, you might want to check out the Peoria speech. Lincoln begins telling the legal and political history of slavery in the U.S. that most teachers should envy.

I'd like to compare it to the public remarks of the candidates this year. I think the candidates' approaches are familiar. I don't mean to pick one over the other; their flaws seem evenly distributed.

First, Lincoln believes the past is an invaluable tool for understanding the present, and guiding us to the future. This may seem a truism, but note how often politicians duck talking about the past.

Even the soc-called conservatives in America in our era believe the past is dead and gone. They are forward-looking; indeed, that is a universal compliment.

But that leaves us marooned in the present, without understanding of how we got here, and bereft of clues for indeed moving forward.

Lincoln also eschewed the politics of personality. Though his family was one of those that fled Kentucky for the free states of Indiana and Illinois, he doesn't mention that directly. He doesn't tell anecdotes about splitting rails or living in a log cabin -- or, of course, having a Kenyan father, or field-dressing a moose, or being held prisoner.

His speech itself was the best display of the talents and traits needed for the job.

I couldn't help thinking McCain and Obama didn't show much. They showed they could repeat oft-rehearsed jibes. But they didn't show they understood the issues.

Lincoln, after reviewing the history, turned to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He didn't focus on the traits or character of those behind it -- at least directly. He discussed why it was harmful to the nation.

More important, he discussed why slavery was wrong. To say that sounds odd to our jaded modern ears.

Candidates in our relativistic time dare not say so. A policy is misguided, or a budget buster, or it harms the economy, but they seldom say something is just flat wrong.

Lincoln's racial attitudes were less than admirable by our lights. But, as Frederick Douglass noted, to the white voters of his time, they were bold and even threatening.

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