quinta-feira, 22 de janeiro de 2009

'Lincoln's Lessons for a New President'

Um artigo de Jay Winik, historiador de Presidentes americanos e autor do livro «The Great Upheaval: America and the birth of the modern world»

«Now that the grandeur of the inauguration is over, this morning is President Barack Obama's first in the Oval Office, and the hard work of governing finally begins. More than any president in memory, Mr. Obama has evoked Abraham Lincoln. He made his presidential announcement in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln once served as a legislator. He copiously read Lincoln histories. He placed his hand yesterday on the Lincoln Bible. But what are the real lessons of Abraham Lincoln for his presidency?

Early on, Lincoln learned that tumult is inherent in governing. Mr. Obama has already declared that he doesn't want "drama" within his cabinet and staff, but Lincoln's experience suggests that he should expect precisely that. From the outset of his administration, Lincoln's secretary of state, William Seward, a former senator from New York, was assiduously scheming against his president. Where Lincoln saw civil war as inevitable, Seward was freelancing, calling for negotiations with the South and privately telling Confederates that their differences could be peacefully resolved.

Then there were Lincoln's problems with his generals. In 1862, despite Lincoln's pleading, Gen. George McClellan refused to attack the Confederates. When senators clamored for McClellan to be removed, Lincoln feebly replied, "Whom shall I put in command?" "Well anybody!" Sen. Benjamin Wade told Lincoln. "Well anybody will do for you," Lincoln said, "but not for me. I must have somebody!"

Only after much wasted time was McClellan finally dismissed. But from there, Lincoln had to contend with a procession of woefully unsatisfactory generals until he eventually found Ulysses S. Grant: He had to fire Ambrose Burnside, get rid of Joseph Hooker, and marginalize George Meade. Even at war's end, Lincoln was still struggling to forge consensus inside his administration. He outlined his vision for reincorporating the South into the Union, only to meet with fierce resistance from his own cabinet. In one revealing moment, the president sheepishly said, "You are all against me."

Another lesson from Lincoln is to blend clarity of purpose with steely pragmatism. It was Lincoln and Lincoln alone who had a mystical attachment to the Union, and he was willing to do almost anything to preserve it, even as the body count mounted and it became clear that the sacred struggle would be neither brief nor necessarily victorious. Checking out books from the Library of Congress, the president gave himself a crash course in military strategy, and day after day, year after year, dragged his tired body to the War Department to monitor the progress of Union armies in the field. He hectored his generals constantly to be on the offensive: "hold on with a bulldog grip and chew & choke," "stand firm," "hold . . . as with a chain of steel."

He was unfailingly pragmatic in his command of military strategy as well. Early in the war he made it a central tenet that the goal of Union generals should be the destruction of Confederate armies. But by 1864, when public support was waning, and it looked as though he might lose his bid for re-election, he allowed Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to unleash total war on the South -- a form of war that Robert E. Lee had adamantly rejected when his armies moved north through Maryland and Pennsylvania. Sherman ravaged Atlanta beyond recognition, sending innocent civilians fleeing the city. He then laid waste to a vast corridor stretching some 400 miles, culminating in the burning of Columbia, S.C. Said one Southerner who witnessed this cloud of destruction and plunder, "We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth." Sherman was unrepentant, and so was Lincoln.

But Lincoln was never vengeful. Once the tide of the war finally changed, he made sure that the looting and burning ended, particularly when Union armies made their way into North Carolina and Virginia. As Lincoln fatefully told one general, "I would let 'em up easy."

Perhaps more than anything else, President Obama should learn from Lincoln the importance of perseverance. The fact is that as late as 1864 -- well after the battle of Gettysburg, which in hindsight is often seen as the great turning point of the war -- the Union was still suffering frightful losses. In six weeks alone during the Wilderness Campaign, Lee inflicted some 52,000 casualties upon Grant's men, nearly as many soldiers as America would lose in the entire Vietnam War. The single battle of Cold Harbor was an unmitigated bloodbath; 7,000 men slaughtered in under an hour, most of them in the first eight minutes, more than the Confederates lost during Gen. George Pickett's infamous Gettysburg charge.

A stunned Lincoln declared that the "heavens are hung in black," and most of the North agreed. By then, some 200,000 troops had deserted the federal Army, and everywhere Lincoln turned there were fervent antiwar rallies. The influential journalist Horace Greeley wrote that "our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country longs for peace." The Democratic Party, headed by former Gen. McClellan, ran on a peace plank.

How easy it would have been at this juncture for Lincoln to give in or compromise, and history might well have celebrated his refusal to subject the North to the continuing blood and wreckage. But a gloomy Lincoln resisted the calls for Grant's head. Instead, when Grant marched his army across the James River in pursuit of Lee, refusing to retreat as so many other Union generals had done, Lincoln, with tears in his eyes, telegraphed Grant: "I begin to see it: You will succeed. God bless you. A. Lincoln."

Related to perseverance is the importance of rhetoric -- the words that inspire and articulate national ideals and deeds -- but Mr. Obama shouldn't expect instant results. Lincoln's first inaugural was a masterpiece of conciliation, but it did little to soothe antagonistic passions in the South or keep the Confederacy from seceding. The importance of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, another masterpiece, was almost wholly overlooked by much of the country. A mere 272 words, it was so short that only one fuzzy photograph of the occasion exists. And Lincoln's second inaugural, arguably the finest speech given in American history, was treated with contempt by most Southerners. In each case, only with the flow of time do we see how important these speeches are to the overall narrative of the American story. And only in retrospect did they more fully illuminate our path and stitch up our wounds.

Mr. Obama can also learn from Lincoln about the personal side of being president. If Lincoln was marked by one trait, it was humility -- and the fact that he was always himself. Resisting temptations to fit in with established Washington, Lincoln liked to say, "I presume you all know who I am, I am humble Abraham Lincoln." His self-derogation was real, and so was his simplicity: He referred to himself as "A," greeted visitors with "Howdy," and stuffed notes in his pockets and stuck bills in his drawers. Lincoln also knew the importance of diversions to help him weather the strains of war, frequently going to plays and comedies -- he often liked to say that he needed a "little laugh."

And finally, Lincoln knew that as president of the United States, he was the steward of the precious fabric of American democracy, and equally importantly that he was just one link, and a temporary one at that, in the chain of presidents elected to watch over it. As Carl Sandburg once remarked, there were 31 rooms in the White House, and Lincoln was not at home in any of them. He knew it was never really his house.

Mr. Obama, as improbable and eloquent a president as Lincoln, will almost surely come to feel the same.»

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