TCS Daily

Echoes of History

By Duane D. Freese - October 4, 2004 12:00 AM

"What has [the president done] to entitle him to re-election? We contend he has done nothing to earn this high distinction but that, on the contrary, in the conduct of the war, his deplorable mismanagement of our most important armies, with the disastrous and alarming consequences, have furnished evidence sufficient to convince the country he is not the pilot to carry us through the perils of this war. ..."

That pretty much sums up John Kerry's position on President George Bush's handling of the war on terror and in Iraq. Indeed, it's the position he and his followers have about everything Bush has done.

But the comment above did not come from Thursday's debate or from the stump. It came from an editorial in James Gordon Bennett's Democratic New York Herald -- called by President James Buchanan "the most powerful organ in the country for the formation of public opinion" -- in 1863 about Abraham Lincoln and his handling of the Civil War.

Much of the country, at the time, was uneasy about a war in which casualties were mounting monthly by the tens of thousands. Victories such as Antietam, Gettysburg and Shiloh came at huge costs in men and material.

As Harry J. Maihafer, in his book, War of Words, Abraham Lincoln & the Civil War Press, noted, many Republican editors were even thinking of dumping Lincoln from the Republican ticket in 1864, not least of whom was anti-slavery advocate Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune.

Maihafer describes Greeley as "ephemeral." And so he was, he was at various points a supporter of the war and a pacifist. He at one point became an emissary for a peace plan, writing Lincoln: "I entreat you to submit overtures for pacification to the southern insurgents, which the impartial must pronounce frank and generous."

For his part, Bennett, while hotly pursuing the war, greeted Lincoln's Republican nomination with an attitude that might befit Bush's harshest critics: "The politicians have again chosen this presidential pygmy as their nominee."

Both came around to Lincoln in the end -- Greeley more readily than Bennett.

But at the time of Lincoln's second inaugural, then in March some five months after the election and with victory for the Union in hand, Bennett wrote a singular tribute to the "presidential pygmy" in the Herald:

"He is a most remarkable man. He may seem to be the most credulous, docile and pliable of backwoodsmen, and yet when he 'puts his foot down he puts it down and cannot be budged.' ... Plain common sense, a kindly disposition, a straightforward purpose, and a shrewd perception of the ins and outs of poor human nature, have enabled him to master difficulties which would have swamped almost any other man."

Don't expect anything so kind to ever be uttered about Bush. Indeed, I can hear some pundit saying, Bush is no Lincoln. No he isn't. Not as eloquent.

But he is not the "presidential pygmy" many critics have liked to make him out to be. He states clearly what he means, and he means what he says.

Kerry can talk all he wants to about making just a mistake in his use of words concerning his voting for the $87 billion for Iraq before voting against it, and complaining about certainty being bad if you're wrong. But clarity of purpose and an ability to enunciate it is vital to a president. As the New York Times editor Henry Raymond wrote of Lincoln,

"He uses language for the sole purpose of stating, in the clearest simplest possible form, the precise idea he wishes to convey."

What does Kerry mean when he says the war in Iraq was a "diversion" and a "mistake," yet also claims that Americans fighting in Iraq are not fighting or dying for "a mistake"?

Just as Richard Nixon had a secret plan for bringing peace to Vietnam, Kerry has a plan for bringing peace in Iraq. Just as McClellan would have prosecuted the Civil War, Kerry will go after the terrorists. So he says.

But find in one Kerry utterance anything so clear as Bush's aspiration, uttered in the debate of our purpose of why we are fighting in Iraq:

"I believe in the transformational power of liberty. I believe that a free Iraq is in this nation's interests. I believe a free Afghanistan is in this nation's interest. And I believe both a free Afghanistan and a free Iraq will serve as a powerful example for millions who plead in silence for liberty in the broader Middle East."

America fought a world war to make the world safe for democracy. But to make our democracy really safe we must spread the word -- especially to places where it may in the end inspire the greatest hope for transformation.

Kerry, by several poll counts, won Thursday's debate. His followers are enthused, and he and they are clear, as was the Herald in 1863, about what they deplore. The only thing they lack is a clear vision of what they are for and what is their candidate's core.


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