A First-Rate Legal Mind

Lincoln’s Gift Was in Reason, Not Rhetoric

Posted February 2, 2009 at 3:48pm

2009 is a milestone year. In addition to heralding the first African- American president, it’s also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

These two events have been noted endlessly, of course. Lincoln especially can be credited for giving a huge boost to the book-publishing world, with an avalanche of new books out on him this year, in addition to the thousands written before.

One new book in particular raises some interesting bonds tying our 16th and 44th presi-

dents, links that go beyond the obvious connection between the man from Illinois who freed the slaves and the African-American Senator from Illinois who became president. These bonds reveal surprising parallels in the mindset and demeanor of these two men, parallels that show their connections in fascinating ways.

Written by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, “Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Lincoln, Darwin, and Modern Life” makes no overt references to Barack Obama, but the implication is certainly there.

What was remarkable about Lincoln, Gopnik writes, was not just his soaring rhetoric or evocative biblical references, as wonderful as those were. Lincoln was, at heart, a small-town lawyer with a first-rate legal mind. And it was that reverence for the power of reason, that faith in the ability to persuade in a way that rejects cant and illogic, that set Lincoln apart from his peers. Belonging to the ages is all well and good, but the man who could make things happen in the here and now was the actual man and not the statue, the top hat and the life mask that we treat like the relics of saints.

“The real ascent of Lincoln,” Gopnik writes, “is not from log cabin to White House; it is more from backwoods to the bar.” In other words, Lincoln first fashioned himself into a lawyer and that was the demeanor that he relied on for the rest of his life. Later, Gopnik argues that “we miss the thread of continuity in his life if we miss the passion of his belief in dispassion. The law existed in order to remedy and cure old evils; the right way to cure this one of slavery, which was fixed in law, was by using the law to fix it.”

Like Lincoln, Obama is, at heart, a lawyer (and law professor) with a legal perspective on the world. Criticized by some during the debates with GOP candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) (those who preferred a knock-out round after a good fight), Obama kept his cool, never once showed anger and countered every McCain point with a perfectly reasonable charge of his own. Wrote Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor about the second debate on Oct. 7: “Still, for all the jabs during the evening — and Obama gave as good as he got — Obama seemed almost preternaturally calm. It may be that he knew his assignment was to make no mistakes, and that by maintaining a cool composure he would be less likely to say something he would regret.”

That observation points to a second Obama-Lincoln trait: the ability to let ego take a back seat to efficiency. As author Doris Kearns Goodwin so effectively shows in her 2005 masterpiece, “Team of Rivals,” Lincoln’s rival Edwin M. Stanton — who once described Lincoln as a “long-armed Ape” — became Lincoln’s secretary of war.

Stanton eventually considered Lincoln one of his closest friends and mourned him for weeks after his assassination. And Goodwin also observes that nearly every member of Lincoln’s Cabinet was either a political rival or one who was personally opposed to him becoming president. Lincoln could tolerate fools and oversized egos, if he felt they were the best men for the job.

Obama, too, is employing some of the same approaches, starting with his appointment of former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to be secretary of State. There are still many differences between Lincoln and Obama, of course. But for all the lawyer jokes that get passed around, it’s useful to remember that there are actually reasons to value a lawyerly approach. Having a reverence for the rule of law and arriving at that reverence through the discipline of a first-rate legal mind may not be exciting, but it has served us well in the past.