The Locker Room

'There is a cowardly imbecile at the head of the government'

Posted by Mitch Kokai at 08:50 AM

That looks like the type of comment you would find today on a left-leaning blog.

It's actually a contemporary description of the Republican president now named the most influential American in a new Atlantic Monthly list.

In the book I'm now reading, James Taranto and Leonard Leo's Presidential Leadership (Wall Street Journal Books, 2004), Lincoln ranks No. 2 (behind Washington) in a list of the best presidents compiled by historians, law professors, and political scientists. 

Here's a highlight from Jay Winik's essay on Lincoln:

One of the great questions in history is, Why didn't Lincoln give up or give in? Why, when the opportunity for ending the killing presented itself, did he not grab the easy way out, or the expedient way, as a lesser man and a lesser president might have been tempted to do (and as Lincoln himself had done in the past)? He would have been no different from a long list of kings, monarchs, emperors, and other heads of state who bowed to the irrepressible pressures for compromise, or to the forces of nationalism sweeping the globe -- and who, far from being condemned for it, were praised for their statesmanship.

Consider how tempting it might have been to any other president. At several points during the war, it looked as though the Confederacy could, or even would, win, or at least not lose, which amounted to the same thing. The worst riots in American history, the four-day New York draft riots of 1863, raged after Gettysburg, and left anywhere from 105 to 1,000 dead, with black residents lynched and hung from lampposts. And there was no respite; storms of antiwar protests sliced through the Midwest. Once Lincoln had finally appointed Ulysses S. Grant, it was unclear whether the public would persevere with him. The Democrats were demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities ("after four years of failure ... by the experiment of war"). As the appalling number of Union casualties rose in 1864 -- yes, as late as 1864 -- the North was still far from victory, and nearly 200,000 men had deserted the federal army.

We all know what happened next. Winik cites Lincoln's "dogged tenacity" as a probable explanation for his greatness.

Perhaps the headline of this post isn't the only parallel between two war-time presidents who faced overwhelming criticism. 

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