February 25, 2009
by Joseph Sobran
People talk as if the president of the United States were omnipotent, his every wish were law. We discuss what each candidate is apt to do if elected. This careless habit leads us to utter a lot of nonsense, as if politics were just a matter of wishful thinking.
You would think that Abe Lincoln had ended slavery with a mere stroke of the pen, and that any other American president might have done so earlier, if only the whim had seized him.
Now I have little use for Barack Obama, the most leftist president this country has had for quite a spell. But at least he has enough sense to realize, as his inaugural address and other early speeches have shown, that he faces many serious obstacles to getting his way. His chief fear seems to be that he will be a scapegoat when he fails to perform the economic miracles and marvels the rabble are clamoring for. To his credit, he doesn’t advertise himself as The Decider. Most of his important decisions have already been made for him.
Long before we knew who would win the crown in 2008, it was obvious to me that our next emperor would have his work cut out for him: cleaning up the Augean horror of the last few years. And this was before the dimensions of that mess were as clear as they are now.
So Obama is now doing the opposite of what most politicians do. He is cautioning us against expecting too much of his administration. You can’t unscramble eggs or unshuffle a deck of cards. What George W. Bush and his allies have done, Obama and his can’t undo.
Political power in this country is not monolithic. Far from it. It is divided up with an intricate complexity that is supposed to protect us — and in fact often does — from the tyranny that arises from confiding too much power into too few hands.
The most powerful and ruthless despots also have great difficulty imposing their wills. Stalin and Mao must have found mass murder a frustrating and often cumbersome business.
It has lately become the fashion to express surprise that Obama is a mere mortal, after all the preposterous hype about his miraculous election. Why? What preternatural powers had he shown? Have I missed something? Sure, he spoke in complete sentences, but he was hardly the first American statesman to perform this feat. The underrated Millard Fillmore routinely achieved it. Even the first President Bush was known to do it at times.
Obama is the beneficiary of the drastically lowered expectations, both moral and intellectual, of the last two decades — as any normal human being in his place might be. How very little we ask of our rulers in the way of wisdom and honor, when even such a warmonger as Lincoln is regarded as a paragon of both virtues! The American demigod! No Roman emperor was ever so deified as this country has divinized “honest Abe.” The man himself, so modest and unassuming, would be utterly dumbfounded to find what we have made of him, idolatrously putting his image on every penny we coin and building an enormous temple to him in our capital city. Astounding!
Let me qualify that. The mad Roman emperor Caligula had his horse made a consul. This act had a distant echo in Lincoln’s fateful decision of 1861: Confederate troops at Fort Sumter fired on Union forces, killing a single horse, and Lincoln took the occasion to launch a war that killed over 600,000 young men. I think we may consider Lincoln’s horse amply avenged.
Not even Lincoln’s most apprehensive Southern enemies, expecting war, had foreseen this scale of retaliation. It went well beyond the Mosaic principle of an eye for an eye.
Yet Lincoln’s reputation remains that of a gentle, magnanimous ruler who resorted to violence only with the greatest reluctance — a decision for which the “rebels” are of course blamed, despite all evidence. He rejected any compromise, even when nearly everyone else wanted to avoid war somehow. To put it in a very few words, Lincoln was a quiet and very determined fanatic — surely, with Lenin and very few others in all recorded history, one of the most successful who ever lived. Obama will have to go some to match him.
© 2009 Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation