Monday, July 30, 2012

Hands Across The Sea: What Hyacinth Bucket Could Teach Mitt Romney

Hands Across The Sea; What Hyacinth Bucket Could Teach Mitt Romney

A handsome, immaculately dressed man strides purposefully into Buckingham Palace, is led by liveried servants to an inner sanctum where the Monarch sits at her desk, escorts her (and her Corgis) through the hallowed halls to a waiting helicopter, where the pair are whisked through London, and  parachute into a rhapsodic Olympic crowd.

They alight, remove their gear, and the man turns to his companion and says “I’m not sure pink really suits you.”

Mitt Romney had travelled many thousands of miles to hoist the flag of American Exceptionalism at the very center of the people who had sought to deny it (albeit 250 years ago) and he wasn’t going to give an inch of deference. Diplomacy be dammed.

So, he criticized his hosts for the way they were handling the Olympics.  The implication was clear-he could have done it better. The Brits, needless to say, were not amused, and let him know. “Mitt The Twit” was my favorite headline. 

Really, this is a tempest in a Royal Doulton teapot with hand-painted periwinkles.  It was a gaffe, and Romney walked it back a bit before going on to a GOP campaign rally in Israel. But a small gaffe. one of delicacy rather than of substance.

Besides, if you ask the Brits, they revel in poking a bit at the egos and pretensions of the better than thou.  One of my favorite Brit-coms is “Keeping Up Appearances” where the indomitable Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet, it’s of French Origin”) holds court, desperately holding on amidst a sea of crassness and hopeless relatives.  She’s bossy, pretentious, loud, overbearing, and every bit a delight.   Part of the genius of the series is that everyone is on to her-she's the only one not in on the joke.  And part of the genius of the actress, Patricia Routledge, is that she never breaks character

Once in a while, a politician will give you that unscripted moment, a little glimpse behind the curtain, that tells you more about them then they want you to know.  Sometimes it’s pretty prosaic: a campaign contribution from a questionable source, or an old film clip of them saying something they would rather just have forgotten.  In a world of 24/7 news and omniscient opposition research, there’s very little that can be hidden for too long, and so the public has grown used to contradictions and even a little indifferent to it.  The 2012 Presidential Election is a study in this.  Few people thought Mr. Obama would be the kind of President he has been, for good and bad.  And even the most full-throated supporters of Mr. Romney, would, in a quieter moment, acknowledge the changeable nature of his convictions.

But policy sometimes matters less than personality.  We want to like the people we elect to lead us.  We will occasionally go against the grain and pick a hothead for a state or local office to shake things up, but realistically, in a democracy, we need to feel some connection.  Reagan and Clinton could make it, Dukakis not at all. 

The jury is out on Romney, but the early returns are not looking good.  I’ve been fascinated by Mitt’s refusal to release his tax returns, and the mystery around exactly what happened at Bain, and when he left.  It fits a pattern of everything Mitt has done-he sanitized the public records of his time at Governor of Massachusetts and there is virtually no public access to the papers regarding his time as head of the 2002 Olympics.

Conventional thinking is that the information is politically embarrassing: tax dodges, Swiss bank accounts, off-shore money, businesses stripped of their assets while workers are let go. The rumors are probably worse than the reality, and (conventional thinking again) Mitt should just get it out there.  Even the estimable Karl Rove has suggested that Mitt be more forthcoming (he knows none of the above would turn off GOP voters.)  But Rove, I think, for once is missing something. 

Mitt’s a cold fish.  That is what the documents probably show.  The guy who famously strapped his dog to the roof of his car (and might have strapped the Queens’ Corgis to the roof of the helicopter if given the chance) is all cold-blooded businessman, all the time.  He is proud of what he has accomplished, proud of the money he has earned, and unabashed by what it can buy.  He’s also unabashed at the methods used to obtain that success.  If I had to guess, absolutely everything Mitt did-every tax deduction, every corporate tactic,  was perfectly legal.  All in the clear.  So why the caution?

There is nothing wrong with either money or pride, when they are earned honestly.  But, a President needs more, and the electorate, on a gut level, understands that.  At Bain, Mitt's job was to maximize returns through financial engineering and “creative destruction.” As President,  he's going to have to do better.  Creative destruction may involve sacrifice by tens of millions of people and wrapping it up in a “good management” bow-tie will be cold comfort for the losers.  As Woodrow Wilson can attest, there’s a line between self-assurance and arrogance.  Fate has an odd way of humbling even the highest.

Poor Hyacinth Bucket learned that as well.  Once, her plans for an afternoon yacht cruise and “nautical buffet with riparian entertainment” came crashing to Earth (and river) leaving her with soaked clothes and a meal of fish and chips.

The Brits know how to laugh at themselves.  Does Mitt?


Monday, July 23, 2012

Dad, What's A Sununu?

Dad, What’s A Sununu?

For Father’s Day, my kids gave me David McCullough’s “The Great Bridge” the fantastic story about the conception and building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Smart children.  The Great Bridge has some of my favorite obsessions.  My big, noisy, pushy, awful and altogether appealing city.  Interesting and obscure technical details about wires, trusses, coils, braces, the Bends.  And politics; lots and lots of politics, Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed, juicy bits of graft, spittoons, mistresses, bribes, blackmail, no-show jobs.

It is the kind of book that can put a smile on your face as you jump from one appalling story to another.  But there was one item that seemed out of place. John Roebling, the engineer and architect of the Brooklyn Bridge, a precise, correct, dignified, highly organized man renowned for his attention to detail, his grasp of minutia, his austere and unemotional demeanor, also became a devotee of spiritualism in the last years of his life. 

Roebling wasn’t alone.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the supremely rational detective Sherlock Holmes, was also a believer, as was the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace.  These men held meticulously planned séances, with each “manifestation” deepening their conviction that an alternate spirit world did exist.

The idea that people of high intelligence and great accomplishment in the “real world” should think this way may seem outlandish to many of us.  We tend to associate spiritualism with dotty old Aunts in long dresses and longer hair, Ouija boards, and bad teen movies.  But they were committed, and no amount of debunking would shake them. 

It is easy to make fun of this, but faith need not know of reason.  And wanting very badly (Roebling had lost his wife) can make the sanest people deaf to contrary facts.

This is especially so in politics, where memories are evanescent, and an ends and means dissonance can express itself aggressively.  We equate our desires with moral imperatives.  That can sometimes mean winning by the sword.  In the 21st Century, helmets and lances are out, but making it up as we go along, flinging out wild accusations and half-truths is decidedly not.

The last week we had few excellent examples of this.  First, the profoundly unhinged Michelle Bachmann demanded an investigation of the highly regarded Huma Abedin (a key aide to Secretary of State Clinton) alleging Ms. Abedin had ties to terrorist organizations and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Then, up sprang an ugly little conference about a film challenging Mr. Obama’s parentage.  It alleges that the President was really fathered (and still influenced) by Frank Marshall Davis, a radical Communist Party USA propagandist.  This disgusting piece of garbage is supported by Cliff Kincaid, who heads the conservative watch group Accuracy in Media 

So, what was the Romney campaign’s and the establishment GOP’s reaction to this?

Bachmann was apparently a bridge too far.  John McCain condemned the accusation, and Speaker Boehner termed Bachman’s allegations “dangerous.”  And in the flocked-wallpapered rooms of the wirepullers of the GOP, they gave a silent prayer of thanks. They don’t want Bachmann to be featured at the Convention, which is going to be one big happy family of Ozzie and Harriet solidity, good solid conservative values, prayer, and patriotism.  Nothing to look that’s in the least bit odd or fringe out there.  These aren’t the droids.  Move along.

But for the bizarre cult of Obama-haters who met under the embracing eye of Mr. Kincaid, a bit more of a hush falls over the GOP crowd, because they like and need Kincaid.  No harm in letting a little doubt flow, is there?  Of course, this does have the inconvenient effect of actually making Obama a citizen (sorry, Donald and Sheriff Joe) but there’s no reasons why rational people can’t hold opposite views when they confirm core irrationality.  Perhaps the Commie whisked Obama’s mother to a foreign locale for romance?

And that brings us to Mr. Sununu.  Last week, Mr. Sununu said, on a Romney campaign conference call, and “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.”  Then he traipsed off to the succoring arms of Fox, where he declared that Obama “has no idea how the American system functions….because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia.”  And he offered that Mr. Obama came from Chicago “that murky political world where politician and felon have become synonymous.”

Ok, so, now we have Obama the unborn, or Obama born of Communist seed, or Obama the un-American sucking up weed and worse while immersing himself in radical thug culture here and abroad.  Pick it, Mitt?  Which mole do you care to whack in the name of decency? 

I’m afraid it’s none of the above.  Ms. Bachmann just got the full-throated support of Tea Party Nation so we will let McCain’s righteous indignation stand on its own (no need to rile the base.)  And Mr. Kincaid is really an ok guy (after all, he’s urging Rupert Murdoch to do more to support the Romney campaign.)

And what about this Sununu fellow?  Apparition from another world? No, Mr. Sununu is the former Governor of New Hampshire. He’s also the former Chief of Staff to the first President Bush.  Wrap your head around that for a moment.  He’s not the Bachmann crazy lady portrayed by Kristen Wiig on SNL, all hyperactive eyelashes and freak-show statements, and he’s not a conservative operative immersed in muck.  He’s the 75-year-old former Chief of Staff to the most powerful man in the world, and he’s clearly not off the reservation when making those statements. 

When you want something really badly, even conjuring up scary things from the spirit world is justified.

Kids, that’s a Romney surrogate.  That's a Sununu. 


Monday, July 16, 2012

What Isaac Bashevis Singer Could Teach Mr. Obama And Mr. Romney

What Isaac Bashevis Singer Could Teach Mr. Obama And Mr. Romney

The great storyteller I. B. Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature,  but my personal favorite is a small non-fiction volume, “In My Father’s Court”, in which he tells of his own childhood in Poland.

The “Court” is Singer’s father’s rabbinical court, a single room in his house, as much a concept as a physical place, where congregants and members of the community go for religious decisions, advice and guidance.  Singer’s father isn’t just a devout man, he’s a profoundly moral one.  He lives in a world of absolutes of right and wrong, he abhors the coarseness of everyday life, but he has empathy for the frailty of the soul.  

There is the story, early in the book, that seems almost inconsequential. It sneaks up on you in memory afterwards.  In “The Secret” a middle-aged woman comes to unburden herself about a horrible act.  Decades before she had been seduced and abandoned.   Fearful and without resources, she had left the baby on a church doorstep.  Now, she is haunted by what he may have become-a thief, a bully, maybe even a murderer.  Singer’s mother, highly educated and the daughter of a prominent Rabbi herself, speaks to the woman first.  While the sin is grave, she makes various references to religious tracts, and speaks of penance.  The woman is unmoved and inconsolable.  She wants to see the Rabbi. And a small miracle happens between them.  Singer’s father also refers to the texts, but while he acknowledges the enormity of the sin he also speaks of the value of every human life, offers comfort, suggests penance in a manner that is strict but compassionate, not too much for her strength.  Her tears turn to those of joy and relief, and she leaves, pronouncing blessings on everyone.  The gates of redemption are rarely closed.

I wish Mitt Romney and Barack Obama would read this story, and then hand it out to each and every Senator and Representative.  Right now, Congress’s approval rating stands at 17%, which is lower than either Nixon or Bush II at their nadirs.  Lower than public caning.  Lower than Tiger Woods in the middle of his scandal, or Barry Bonds in the middle of his.  One point higher than BP during the Gulf Spill.  In fact, Congress has only one clear cut victory.  It beats, hands down, John Edwards.  Alert the media.

Why does everyone disapprove of Congress?  Because these folk deserve it.  The Democrats excel in drift, and the GOP in obstruction. 

Last week was a case in point.  With all the crises, real or imagined, that we are faced with, here’s what John Boehner and Eric Cantor decreed had to be at the top of the agenda.  The House voted on party lines to repeal Obamacare.

Wow.  What courage.  If only they had thought of this before?

Actually, they had.  This is the 33rd time that the GOP-controlled House has voted to repeal Obamacare.  Of course, there’s the pesky matter of the Senate, and the fact that the “Obama” of “Obamacare” still occupies the White House.  But, nonetheless, the House gathered in all its austere dignity and voted once again. 

They acknowledged it was a symbolic vote.  The symbolism escaped me at first, so I checked into the importance of the number 33.  It turns out that Eisenhower, when sworn in as President, rested his hand on the 33rd Psalm while taking the Oath of Office.  Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord: and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.”  Coincidence?  I think not.

As to the actual battle for the White House (forget Eisenhower, he could never get nominated by the modern GOP) it’s getting ugly and a little infantile.   One might hope that Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama,  who are actually both very intelligent and talented, would debate the great issues of the time. No.  Right now, the two campaigns are locked in a “did not”, “did too” argument about the duration of Mr. Romney’s Bain tenure that’s more suitable for third-graders.  Mr. Romney claims he was out of Bain by 1999 (before some of the worst of the outsourcing and job and pension-killing) and has demanded an apology from Mr. Obama.  Unfortunately the public record says something different, so Mr. Romney sent an adviser out there on Sunday to announce that Mr. Romney retired “retroactively”.

It is fascinating that Mr. Romney spends so much time “retroactively” running away from his past.   His time as Governor of Massachusetts?  Nothing that wasn’t the distilled essence of strict conservatism occurred.  Bain?  Yes, he has great management skills that should qualify him to be President, but the damage done to the workers, the planned bankruptcies, either didn’t happen, or didn’t happen on his watch, or if they did happen, were a positive good. Retroactively, of course.

Could this possibly be more tiresome?  Is there anyone in Washington who doesn’t see the other side in terms beyond pure sin?  Anyone who possesses enough self-knowledge to realize that perhaps they aren’t perfect? If redemption is possible for the woman who left her illegitimate child on a church doorstep, surely these people can do a little better?

There’s another Singer story, “Why The Geese Shrieked” that has Singer’s devout but spiritual father facing off against his devout but intellectual mother.  A woman brings in two dead geese, who, when smacked together, make an unearthly sound.  His father sees the supernatural, but his mother has a more corporeal explanation (the windpipes weren’t removed).  Mom removes them. The woman is sent home with her quiet geese, and Isaac and his father are left to contemplate the triumph of logic over faith.  “Your mother takes after her Grandfather…he was a great scholar, but a coldblooded rationalist.  People warned me before the betrothal...”  He then gestures as if to say: “It is too late now to call off the wedding.”

Mr. Singer’s father was on to something.  Right, left, or center, we’ve all been married for 235 years.  It’s too late to call off the wedding. 


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Andy Griffith, John Roberts, Chris Christie, And The Death Of Civility

Andy Griffith, John Roberts, Chris Christie, And The Death Of Civility

For those of us who might have been traveling to parts unknown over the last two weeks or so, the Supreme Court, with Justice Roberts in the majority, upheld the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act.

In other news, Andy Griffith passed away.  He was predeceased by Barney, Aunt Bee, Floyd the Barber, Goober, Ms. Crump, Otis, the Town Drunk, and my mother, who just loved him as the small town law man and the wily country lawyer. 

Mr. Griffith is survived by son Opie, and millions of friends who watched (and still watch) every week and found humor and comfort in his ease, his fairness, and his quiet authority.  And that of his extended Mayberry family-small town folk, sometimes parochial or even silly, but honest, decent people who looked after each other and displayed kindness and simple charity.

Justice Roberts, has, in most conservative quarters, been declared dead for heresy.  He has been mocked for upholding the individual mandate and torched by a scabrous Wall Street Journal Editorial.  The whispering (and shouting) campaign directed at the Chief (which also includes questions about whether he was impaired by an epilepsy drug) has fed the furnace of conspiracy theorists everywhere, since the idea he might have reached this result through careful consideration of the law apparently seems preposterous.  A few conservative columnists have tried to give Roberts cover by saying he planted a virus on the Commerce Clause hard drive, but most insist he’s a craven turncoat cowed by the massive power of the liberal media.

Compounding this, there are leaks coming from inside the Supreme Court that cast Roberts in a particularly bad light while holding Justices Thomas and Scalia as paragons of rectitude.  Those leaks have filled the bucket of a CBS News reporter (Jan Crawford) who has a good relationship with Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginny (a coincidence, I am sure). Leaks are not supposed to happen at the Supreme Court, and there haven’t been any juicy ones since Chief Justice Burger, who apparently was so heartily disliked by the rest of the Brethren that he was called “Captain Stuebing” (of Love Boat fame).

Meanwhile, back in Mayberry, newspaper obituaries elicited an outpouring of affectionate stories, of baby boomers talking about favorite episodes, of quiet little moral lessons mixed with humor.  Last November, I wrote about one of my own, in which a hard-boiled businessman’s car breaks down on a Sunday and he is temporarily driven mad by being stranded in a town that does nothing on the Sabbath.  He recovers in time to enjoy Aunt Bee’s pie.

Those same obituaries also brought out some of the ugly in us.  As readers reminisced and posted condolences in on-line forums in The Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, others indulged themselves in political grievances, angry that Sheriff Taylor and Madlock had endorsed Barack Obama in 2008.  Some of these comments were so vitriolic that the moderators removed them. 

Nasty and crass is in these days.  In Illinois, Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, in a tight race for his seat with Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War Vet who lost both legs and the use of one arm after the helicopter she was piloting was shot down, criticized her as “not a true hero.”   Walsh, who seems to have a remarkable gift for the inappropriate, then followed up on his comments by getting into a shouting match with a CNN interviewer, Ashleigh Banfield.  Classy guy.

Back in Jersey, Chris Christie, the formidable Republican Governor (and fantasy-baseball Presidential candidate) got into his own shouting match with a bystander who asked a question about education (actually, Christie shouted, the bystander asked).  This followed closely on the heels of Christie calling a reporter “stupid” and an “idiot” for asking a question at a press conference that Christie did not want to answer.  The Governor’s easily pricked ire has been pricked a lot recently with the disclosure that a Christie-favored private company that runs half-way houses for the State under a favorable contract hasn’t been doing a particularly good job. 

What’s going on here?  I can understand disagreement and even anger with Justice Roberts’s decision, but is it really acceptable to take after him personally like this?  As to Andy Griffith, must we carry our politics to his gravesite? Joe Walsh is clearly a jerk, but Chris Christie is a very intelligent man, and a talented one.  I can’t help but get the feeling that these folk act this way because their ideological soul mates cheer them on.  They are rewarded for their outrageousness, rather than ashamed. 

That just wouldn’t fly in Mayberry, and my guess is it wouldn’t fly in most people’s homes, either.  My mother, the Andy Griffith fan, wasn’t much for shouting, but she had a way of expressing herself when she thought you had been mean, or spoiled, or selfish, or boorish, or unjust. My father called it “The Face” and he absolutely hated it, because he knew she was right. You never wanted to see The Face, and as the totally deserving recipient of it on too many occasions, I assure you it could take weeks before the guilt passed.

I’m all for bringing back some of that guilt.  If the good people of Mayberry, or my Mom, wouldn’t have approved, you just shouldn’t be doing it.



Monday, July 2, 2012

For The Fourth Of July, With Apologies To Mark Twain

For The Fourth Of July, With Apologies To Mark Twain

For decades, it was an honored tradition in small towns and cities that some elected or worthy, would, on the 4th of July, get up and make a stem-winder of speech.  Often these things would go on at length in the summer heat, flies buzzing around half torpid (and often half-tipsy) listeners. 

Mark Twain was called upon to make one in 1886 in Keokuk, Iowa.  After a parade, fireworks display, musical interludes, reading of the Declaration of Independence, more music, invocation, main speaker (who kindly limited his remarks to 30 minutes) Twain got up in all his white-ducked white hatted Twainness and was, well, Mark Twain.  In 405 words.
For this 4th of July, I want to confirm that I look nothing like Hal Holbrook.  Nor am I particularly droll, so, I am going to fall back on one of the more prosaic aspects of 4th of July Speeches, and bore the heck out of people.  I am going to talk about Abraham Lincoln, and, more specifically, his Second Inaugural, and with apologies, I am going to use more than 405 words
Lincoln, on the other hand, had a gift for clarity and eloquent simplicity.  At Gettysburg, in less than 300 words, he reframed the principles of the Declaration of Independence to include all.  In his Second Inaugural Address, in 700 words, he reaffirmed us as a nation, as one people.
The Second Inaugural is remembered today primarily for its majestic final paragraph “with malice towards none,” a phrase that has come to define Lincoln himself.  A closer reading, however, reveals perhaps the best definition of America in its role as a just nation, firm, but compassionate, and mindful of its broader responsibilities.
The Address begins in the most prosaic manner. “At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies [sic ] of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”

How perfunctory this section is, how lacking in grandeur.  March 5, 1865, and after four years of being lampooned as an ignoramus and a gorilla in the North, and vilified in the South, after 600,000 deaths, after despairing of re-election in the summer of 1864, Lincoln has been propelled by military victories to an electoral landslide.  The Union armies are triumphant virtually everywhere.  Vast swaths of the South have been conquered; crops destroyed, industrial and military installations lie in ruins.  The great Confederate Generals now lead ghost armies.  In a few weeks time, the government of Jefferson Davis will be in full flight, and Lincoln himself will enter Richmond, the capitol.  Lee’s surrender at Appomattox will follow shortly after. 
And yet, as he stands at the summit, at the culmination of four years of bloody battles, of immense sacrifice, of his own personal political vindication, Lincoln tone is measured and uncelebratory.  He does not recall glorious victories, heroic actions.  He mentions no one by name-not even Grant or Sherman.  Instead, he returns to his First Inaugural, and retraces the steps that brought the nation to the brink of war. “On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it---all sought to avert it.”

How different it is, when the leader of the victorious side acknowledges that neither party wanted war.  And yet, Lincoln is not, and never will be, ready to acknowledge moral equivalence. “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

It is an essential part of Lincoln’s genius, both as a leader, and as a communicator, that he never condescends to his audience. He addresses his listeners with simplicity of language, but a layered, textured content that reflects the moral complexities in the conflict.   Lincoln’s rhythms are those of the Bible and Shakespeare. He has an intuitive understanding of the tragic hero, the imperfect mortal who makes an incorrect choice.  He sees both North and South in that context. He affirms that the South chose war, but he does not demonize the Confederacy, he sees commonality instead.  Circumstances of geography and economy have separated them, but “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other”

Can both North and South have God on their sides?  Can slave-owners possibly claim moral supremacy?  “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.”

It is an extraordinary statement, since the answer, to our modern sensibilities, seems self-evident.  But Lincoln, however deeply felt his moral convictions, is not willing to take that step.  He recognizes that as a people, whether they owned slaves or not, Americans of both the North and the South have been complicit in slavery.  He himself has been accommodative, his “government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it….” His initial war aim was the reconstitution of the Union, not freedom for the bondsman.   
For Lincoln, an essential point.  While the war “came” over the dissolution of the Union, its moral clarity and force emerges from its root cause, the existence of slavery.  Yet Lincoln does not claim this ground for himself.  He has already acknowledged that neither side planned for emancipation. “Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Regardless of its role of conqueror, and liberator, the North has, in Lincoln’s construct, no moral right to vengeance.  God has not chosen North over South. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

That purpose is not the victory of one people over another, it is not the political reconstruction of the Union, it is the righting of an ancient wrong, and the wrongdoers are not confined to one region. “He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came….”

The rendering of an account, vengeance, if there is to be any, is permitted only the morally blameless, the slave; “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ``the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.''

The blood already drawn by the sword is drawn from all, mere partial recompense for the centuries of wrong done to bondsman.  If that is insufficient, the end of the war is not a forgone conclusion. Lincoln does not turn a blind eye to history, including his own and that of his people.  He knows that many of the men he admired, indeed, many of the nation’s founders were slave-owners, even the Northerners.  This communality of guilt is an essential first step towards re-uniting the Union, a first step towards consensus.

Despite this uncertainty, despite Lincoln’s own innate caution and deep misgivings, he knows the end is near.  This, of course, leads to the majesty of the final paragraph: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan---to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

He says, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”  Here is an essential ambiguity, and one, which, I believe, goes to the heart of Lincoln’s sense of history and duty.  What is “the work”?  Is it to win the war?  At first blush, that is the logical conclusion. And yet, he uses a semi-colon instead of a comma.  He defines “the work.”  To finish the work, we must “bind up the nation’s wounds”; we must restore the Union.  We must “care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”  Just as he had acknowledged the North’s complicity, he now embraces the South.  Lincoln makes no distinction between either Northern and Southern soldiers, or Northern and Southern non-combatants.  It is the duty of the victor to care for both.

Finally, Lincoln speaks to an even larger imperative, greater than either military success or political goals. We must “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Not merely the cessation of war, but a just and lasting peace.  Lincoln wants reconciliation, he wants to restore true nationhood, and that can only be achieved with a fair peace.  He knows the roles of conqueror and conquered are incompatible with this goal, and the broader aim of having the United States resume its place among nations. 
The tragedy, of course, is that Lincoln will not live to see either peace, or Reconstruction, and that, with his death; it will take an entirely different turn.  Yet his vision has, on occasion, informed future Presidents.  Many of our greatest triumphs have been marked by great generosity; Hoover’s work in the European recovery after World War I, the Marshall Plan. This was not all altruism, but it identified a future beyond just victor and vanquished. This generosity, along with our democracy, is what marks us as a great people. We still are.

And on that note, I will return to Mark Twain in 1886, “I know that the man who makes the last speech on an occasion like this has the best of the other speakers, as he has the last word to say, which falls like a balm on the audience--though this audience has not been bored to-day--and though I can't say that last word, I will do the next best thing I can, and that is to sit down."
Enjoy the 4th.