Friday, December 26, 2008

With Malice Toward None

As a capstone to an extraordinary political year, I'm finishing up Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (I had originally picked it up before Obama's victory and the media's immediate overuse of that phrase). The last Lincoln book I had read was Joshua Shenk's Lincoln's Melancholy, so it was interesting to move from a lugubrious Lincoln to a masterfully crafty one. It is disquieting but necessary to remember that politicians, even when they are ultimately honest and well-intentioned, are by definition manipulators of people. And Lincoln manipulated beyond the best of 'em.

But he manipulated in a way that was neither deceptive nor disingenuous, and that was one of the several things that set him apart. He moved people with carrots far more than with sticks, and always in service of the high purpose of the time. He was extraordinarily ambitious, as anyone who would presume to be President during a Civil War would have to be, but his ambition was yoked to the interests of the nation from the beginning.

I think that psychologically, and apart from his world-historical significance, Lincoln fascinates because his identity was at once extremely complex and incredibly well integrated. His forthright and transparent manner was widely praised during his lifetime even before it became a cliche, and yet he was capable of the most subtle shrewdness when circumstances demanded it. He naturally inclined toward leniency and a somewhat laid-back and laissez-faire approach to life, and yet when he determined to do something he was immovable. He combined high seriousness with a deep appreciation of mundane delights, as countless anecdotes of his earthy humor attest. He could be at once an open book and suggest depths opening upon untold depths.

The point is not that he was a saint or that he made no mistakes; he wasn't and he did. What emerges most strikingly from Goodwin's book is Lincoln's capacity for forbearance, his virtually complete lack of vindictiveness. Lincoln was an intuitive master of, among many other things, human psychology, and as such he had a fine appreciation of human frailty. This was coupled with an absolute self-knowledge and emotional security (his famous bouts of despondency notwithstanding, for he skillfully compensated for them). He was capable of irritability and anger, but he bore no grudge, and few could say so well as he that "nothing human is alien to me." He made tactical mistakes, but he bore no trace of either narcissism or neurosis.

The downside of reading Lincolniana is that one knows how his story ends. Here is the opening stanza of Walt Whitman's great elegy for the fallen President:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and dropping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Ars Psychiatrica needs to recharge--will take a break and return in 2009. Happy New Year and thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

Maybe in another life he would've made a great psychiatrist or psychologist -- given his insight, personal experience, and manipulative ability.

vanderleun said...

Perhaps, but that would have been a waste of a great soul.

Not that there's anything wrong with those professions, but they are not exactly mission-critical.

Poets, on the other hand....

Novalis said...

If we have ever had a true poet-president, it would be Lincoln. And it was no mere hobby with him--it's easy to forget in the modern era of instantly forgettable, speechwriter-produced political pabulum, but Lincoln's compressed eloquence both on paper and in oratory really did help to rally and maintain public support in the north for the war.

What other major acting head of state anywhere or at any time produced pieces on a par with the Gettysburg Address or the Second Inaugural--at all, much less at a similarly critical time for his country? There was of course Jefferson and the Declaration, but at the time he wrote it he wouldn't be President for another twenty-five years. Churchill is the only parallel that comes to mind, in terms of both eloquence and national crisis. I'm sure there have been others--historians help me out here.

jon said...

Good stuff. Your command of Lincoln is admirable. Team of Rivals captures Lincolns greatness and capacity to not only mold and work with others, but other politicians at that. It is one thing to manage others well, it is quite another to assemble such a cast of ego's and work the strings as he did. I particularly liked the way the text captured the evolution of feelings his cabinet developed towards him throughout his saga.