It is August, 1864. The Civil War is in its fourth year, the war effort has stalled, the public is exhausted, and President Abraham Lincoln’s many political enemies sense a great opportunity in the coming election on November 8th of that year.
Lincoln himself was pessimistic about his political future. Republican insider Thurlow Weed had recently advised Lincoln that “his re-election was an impossibility”. His own party chairman joined many who urged him to negotiate peace with the Confederates and leave the question of slavery for resolution at a later time. The Democrats had nominated former Union General George McClellan and McClellan looked to have the inside track to election victory.
So on August 23rd, Lincoln sits down privately and writes the following memo:
“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards. — A. Lincoln”
Lincoln then does a curious thing: he folds the memo in such a way that the contents are hidden, brings it to a cabinet meeting, and asks his cabinet to sign the outside despite them not being aware of the contents. He dates it and keeps the memo, which historians now refer to as the “Blind Memo.”
Soon thereafter, the war takes a positive turn, McClellan’s candidacy loses its luster and the rest, as they say, is history.
The most powerful line of the short memo surely is his pledge to commit himself to his “…duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration”. As ever, Lincoln viewed the Union and the Constitution paramount, and his own role as a servant to something greater than himself.
Fast forward to January, 1993. George H.W. Bush is in the Oval Office. After a lifetime of service to his country that spanned his service during World War Two – where as an eighteen-year-old he was the youngest aviator in the Navy, eventually flew fifty-eight combat missions and received the Distinguished Flying Cross – to his later positions as U.S. Liaison to China, Director of the CIA, Vice President, and eventually, President of the United States. He has lost his bid for a second term in a bitter election, and is sitting down to write a memo of his own to his opponent – and successor – Bill Clinton.
If we were in his shoes, we might understand it if Bush felt bitter about how his opponent characterized him and his service during the election. All of us have suffered disappointments and have felt unfairly maligned, but few of us have suffered the public disappointment of a lost election or the particular type of maligning that is unique to political campaigns.
The encouraging memo he writes, and then leaves in the Oval Office for the incoming President, closes with the following:
“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck – George”
These two memos – written by two great Americans over one hundred years apart from each other – stand in stark contrast to the current Republican nominee’s statement at a televised presidential debate that he will keep America “in suspense” as to whether he’ll accept the outcome of the election if he loses. That, plus his repeated assertions that the election that he is about to lose is “rigged”, demonstrates the difference between public service and self service.
But too much has been written and spoken about that candidate. As the election draws to a close, the focus will move from candidates to citizens, and good citizenship sometimes requires us doing our best to give the other side the benefit of the doubt as they assume their responsibilities.
Amplified by always-on, conflict-oriented media coverage, our divisions have become less intellectual but more emotional. The anti-Clinton anger of the 1990’s morphed to anti-Bush (the son) anger, which then morphed to anti-Obama anger, and is now poised to morph again into another round of anti-Clinton (the spouse) anger. And the government becomes more lethargic at a time when America’s economy and demographics are becoming more dynamic.
Lincoln could have been bitter, but instead he prepared himself to serve. George H.W. Bush could have been bitter, but instead he encouraged.
To borrow a phrase from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, it will soon be time for us to move beyond bitterness and toward “the better angels of our nature”.
Published late October 2016, a few weeks prior to the Clinton/Trump presidential election. Like many prior to election night, I expected a different outcome.