By Thomas Bray

The President "lied" us into war. Much of the pre-war intelligence was wrong. The civilian defense chief was detested as "brusque, domineering and unbearably unpleasant to work with." Civil liberties were abridged. And many embittered Democrats, claiming the war had been an utter failure, demanded that the administration bring the troops home.

George Bush? Well, yes – but also a President who looms far larger in American history, Abraham Lincoln. One is struck by the parallels in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful new book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln repeatedly asserted that his aim was to prevent the spread of slavery, not eliminate it in the South. "I believe I have no lawful right to do so," Goodwin quotes him as saying. Thus when he finally issued his Emancipation Proclamation two years into the war, freeing the slaves in the Confederate states, his Northern critics claimed that he had misled the country. A bloody and unnecessary war was being fought in a Utopian effort to bring the blessings of democracy to a people who had little experience with it.

Oh, and by the way, where did this President get off claiming, as Lincoln did, that his implied powers as Commander in Chief allowed him to tinker with institutions, such as slavery, expressly acknowledged in the Constitution? Or suspending the writ of habeas corpus, perhaps the most fundamental bulwark of liberty in the Anglo-Saxon tradition?

Only much later did Lincoln seek congressional authorization for the suspension of habeas corpus, despite the Constitution’s explicit instruction that Congress must agree beforehand. And not until 1865 did the administration get around to pushing for the 13th Amendment officially ending slavery.

After the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln’s closest advisor, predicted the war would be over in 60 days. Lincoln called on the states for only 75,000 troops – who promptly got whipped at a place called Bull Run. And as the casualties mounted – 23,000 would die or be wounded on both sides in the Battle of Antietam – the civilian chiefs, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, were the subject of fierce criticism.

The criticism, moreover, came not from a retired general flogging his memoirs but from the active duty commander himself, Gen. George McClellan. McClellan, a media hero who referred to Lincoln as "the original gorilla" and once kept him waiting at his headquarters while he took a nap, had a familiar complaint: Washington wasn’t giving him enough troops to do the job.

With the support of the "Peace Democrats," McClellan wound up running for President in 1864. Lincoln won by 400,000 votes and a landslide in the Electoral College, but it could have gone the other way. Before Sherman took Atlanta in early September, signaling that the war was winnable after all, Lincoln, an excellent political nose-counter, had predicted he would be reelected – but only by three electoral votes.

No, Bush is no Lincoln. As Doris Kearns Goodwin makes clear, Lincoln was a rare combination of visionary – his rhetoric may be America’s greatest poetry – and "political genius." Most, if not all, historians agree that a bloody Civil War was probably inevitable. Iraq bids fair to be the quagmire critics say it is, though its consequence is dwarfed by that of the American Civil War, which, as Goodwin points out, cost the equivalent of five million casualties in proportion to today’s population.

But the parallels suggest a degree of modesty among those inclined to see Bush – and his embattled Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld – as unmitigated disasters. As with Lincoln, much will depend on the outcome.

© RealClearPolitics 2006

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