Home / General / My First Piece of Advice to President Obama is to Avoid the Theater

My First Piece of Advice to President Obama is to Avoid the Theater


I know that Robert Bray is a professional historian but the idea that Lincoln has useful lessons for President Obama as he enters his second term is 20 degrees of absurd.

Can we do 2 things? First, let’s look at Lincoln in his actual context and not as popular writers wish he was. Second, can we quit pretending that presidential administrations of 150 years ago have anything useful to say about 2012?

Is this really too much to ask?

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  • DrDick

    Is this really too much to ask?

    Why yes, yes it is.

    • Woodrowfan

      I think John Quincy Adams had some useful things to say about that. Maybe it was Van Buren. One of them anyway…

  • Lev

    The lessons themselves are about as specific as Mitt Romney’s five-point plan. And I’m beginning to get tired of lesson one, which is essentially, “pick a team of rivals.”

    Admittedly, some successful presidents have done versions of this. FDR picked Stimson and Knox to run the war effort, and eventually put another Republican at State too. But all these guys agreed with FDR 100% on foreign policy and were part of the wartime national unity idea that has become a distant memory (and didn’t happen much before WWII either). But what commentators mean when they say this is that John McCain and Joe Lieberman should have top foreign policy jobs, and Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson ought to be doing the economic stuff. That would be utterly mad.

    • Colin Day

      But what commentators mean when they say this is that John McCain and Joe Lieberman should have top foreign policy jobs, and Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson ought to be doing the economic stuff. That would be utterly mad.

      Wait, isn’t the idea to pick competent rivals?

      • Gchpaco

        Would that any were on offer.

    • Well, I wouldn’t call Stimson and Knox rivals, per se. Had FDR appointed Wilke to something, that would be a closer parallel.

      The thing about the Team of Rivals thing that people forget is that Lincoln did that because he was an insurgent candidate in a relatively shaky new coalition, so he wanted to prevent opposition to the administration from crystallizing outside of his control. It’s a tactic for a specific circumstance, not a categorically good practice.

      And it’s the weirdest advice to give Obama, who put Biden in as his VP and Hillary in as SecState. He’s been there, bought the t-shirt.

      • Craigo

        FDR actually sounded out Alf Landon about the War Dept., but changed his mind when Lamdon insisted on no third term. Otherwise, his intent (out the 1936 GOP ticket in his cabinet) was very team of rivals.

        • Weird. Oh well, not every move FDR made was a winner.

    • rea

      John McCain and Joe Lieberman aren’t what they meant when they talk about Lincoln appointing a “team of rivals”. Lincoln did not put Douglas, Breckinridge and Bell in his cabinet–he put in his rivals for the Republican nomination. Seward was to Lincoln as Hillary Clinton was to Obama.

    • JKTHs

      And of course when the Cabinet members disagree it becomes a huge issue and a sign of “White House dysfunction.” As I said before, Democrats have to be grown-up enough to pick a team of rivals, but Republicans are allowed to pick whatever incompetent shills they want.

  • anonymous

    If I recall correctly, rather than turning his enemies into friends, Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by one of them.

    • Desert Rat

      I’m trying to figure out in what alternate world John Wilkes Booth was a friend of Abraham Lincoln.

      But maybe that’s just me.

      • RepubAnon

        Wouldn’t that be the same parallel universe where Republicans negotiated in good faith with President Obama?

        I’d say the real lesson Lincoln could teach President Obama is not to get complacent after a crushing victory, and that even a defeated enemy is dangerous.

        • RedSquareBear

          An infallible method of conciliating a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured.

    • john

      There was also the whole “war” thing. Easy to forget, I know.

  • 150 years ago

    Oh, come on, Erik. It couldn’t have been that long.

    • De Tocqueville said those who cannot earn pennies from history are doomed to lie in it.

  • Aaron B.

    Have you written anything about your methodology or epistemology of history, Erik?

    • I don’t really think a whole lot in those terms, at least not enough to push a philosophy. But when it comes the use of evidence, I am about as traditional and conservative as one can be.

      • Aaron B.

        I’m just wondering if you have any dogs in certain hunts, because it seems to that on occasion you are very highly reductionist. (Which I do not at all mean as a term of abuse).

        • My only dog in this hunt is an opposition to bullshit.

          • timb

            Stay away from most professional historians

  • mch

    Thank you for this. I am so tired of the naive and simplistic reduction of history to a series of easily translatable “lessons.” The wisdom that the study of history may impart to us is more like that an Emily Dickinson poem may also impart. Truth but slant, success but in circuit, all of that.
    Note that the historians we most often hear from are “presidential historians,” that is, those who focus on the “great men” of history and who are also the favorites of “leadership programs” and political scientists (of a certain type). Not to knock all such approaches to history, not at all, but they are only a part of the picture.

    • TT

      I think the rise of the “presidential historian” over the past few decades has been on balance a negative both for the study of history itself and for the presentation of history to a broader public and readership. Invariably, the “presidential historian”, whether s/he sports an actual history Ph.D. or not, is a pop writer highly adept at cultivating the press, getting on TV, and, above all, getting occasional invites to the White House in order to discuss “lessons” and “legacy” (which might be the point in the first place). Not that some have interesting ideas and insights to offer on occasion, but I think U.S. political history deserves more than a group who fancy themselves members of a permanent court.

      • mch

        Court, yes. For example, Camelot, Kearns.

      • Also too, business conferences. They love that “Ben Franklin hated taxes” kind of history lecture.

  • Is this really too much to ask?
    In a nation still swooning over its 225-yr. old Constitution & so wrapped up in exceptionalism that only answers from w/in are allowed, yes.

    • Jameson Quinn

      To be fair, the US civil religion has its good side. I’ve lived in Mexico, which has one too, and in Guatemala, which has bupkis, and I’d say on balance I’d rather have the civil religion, Squanto and Johnny Appleseed and all. I mean, the first amendment rocks!

  • Murc

    I think that the Lincoln Administration, like all Presidential administrations (okay, maybe not William Henry Harrison) does in fact contain valuable lessons that are still applicable today and could be of help to President Obama.

    What is preposterous is the idea that they could be boiled down in an idiotic article on CNNs website. I honestly expected that list to include ‘wear a helmet.’

    • Aaron B.

      “Never trust actors”

      • bexley

        Invade the South to bring the nutjobs to heel?

        • catclub

          But he is doing it. Wasn’t one of the lessons: Fire lots of Generals?
          And here he is, firing the next incarnation of McClellan. A general who thinks he should be president. Also, MacArthur.

      • Halloween Jack

        “Make sure that your bodyguard(s) aren’t out having a drink during your public appearances.”

    • rea

      maybe not William Henry Harrison

      Don’t give two hour outdoor speaches in bad weather without a coat.

      • witless chum

        Wait until Tecumseh goes on vacation before attacking Indiana.

    • Woodrowfan

      Harrison’s lessons maybe involve (besides wearing a coat when out shopping) is not to pick guys who defect from the other party because the other party isn’t hard core enough to run as your vice president.

  • Warren Terra

    I thought the title was about Obama avoiding histrionic dramatics, rather than that he shouldn’t attend live theatrical performances.

  • cpinva

    obama could learn a few things from the spanish inquistion too. tortue someone enough, and they’ll admit to anything, and accuse anyone you want them to, of anything. of course, none of it is true, but when’s the last time truth really mattered? oh, wait, we did that just recently!

    ok, ok, how about burning at the stake for heresy and witchcraft? that was pretty damn popular. also, a good way to rid yourself of political annoyances. what the hell, boehner looks like he’s half way to toast most of the time anyway.

    in fairness, there is at least one similarity i can think of, between obama and lincoln, both of them were pictured as gorillas, by their more ardent foes. not sure what kind of lesson that is for obama though.

    • RedSquareBear

      I would take the Inquisition over your terrible abuse of punctuation.

  • Adrian Luca

    It’s just par for the course for a nation that regards its “founding fathers” as demigods and carves their likenesses into the sides of mountains. One of of these divine beings is even said to have given mankind electricity! Talk about Exceptionalism!

  • Sly

    So…. make friends of your enemies, be firm but flexible, and think ahead. Lessons that could not be learned from every other political leader in human history because they are pointless generalities.

    Obama needs to understand his opponents’ weaknesses and not be shy about appealing to popular support for his actions, just like Mahatma Gandhi and Josef Stalin.

    • Hogan

      And if you keep your toenails clipped, you won’t get holes in your socks, just like Napoleon and Cato the Younger.

      • somethingblue

        You know who else kept his toenails clipped …

      • mds

        Cato the Younger didn’t usually wear tunics or socks, due to posturing about traditional values. But your point about Bonaparte still stands.

        • Hogan

          Cato the Younger didn’t usually wear tunics or socks

          Indeed, and that is central to my point.

  • Thei lesson Obama could learn from the Aaron Burr administration is “always stay in the alternate-history universe lest you die a pauper.”

  • bradP

    Chinstrap beards are the stuff of legends. Grow one.

  • David Mathias

    First, let’s look at Lincoln in his actual context and not as popular writers wish he was. Second, can we quit pretending that presidential administrations of 150 years ago have anything useful to say about 2012?

    I do not think that I agree with this. Many things have changed, but it is still valuable to understand what the consequences were to different situations, even 150 years ago, in case similar situations reoccur in 2012. The lessons according to Robert Bray are very general, but they are based on an examination of how a politician was able to lead. I guess my point is that it can never be bad to have more historical data that are relevant to form a conclusion, even if the data are not all equally relevant.

    Frankly, I do not think that Bray’s lessons are vastly different from this article by you on salon that I just found in a search: Eight Ways We’re Headed Back to the Robber Baron Era.

    • bradP

      I think you make your point about how much presidential administrations from 150 years ago can inform current administrations.

      But Erik dealt with specific policy trends and their results in his piece. The lessons in that Bray article are just vague management styles/personality traits.

      Does Obama need to look 150 years in the past to decide to “Take the long view” or to see “the future in a way that many of his contemporaries could not”.

      That article should have been published somewhere in a Time Magazine.

    • As brad says it is completely different. In that piece, I am responding specifically to policy positions by the Republican Party, members of which have stated up front that they want to return to the Gilded Age. The Supreme Court overturning the Montana campaign finance law is one example–a law passed to prevent people like William Clark from buying the legislature. “Learning from history” is fine when you are exploring the roots of particular problems, understanding the reality behind the historical rhetoric people use to marshal their arguments, etc. But thinking that presidential administrations of long ago can teach the present vague platitudes about leadership doesn’t add up to much.

  • scott

    Seems a little sweeping to say that the past has nothing to say about the present or the future – we study history because it tells us something about how how we got here and even offers up suggestions about where we might go. If you take that out and say that the past has nothing to say about the present, then historians are just antiquarian cranks telling colrful stories about the past for kicks.

    • rea

      we study history because it tells us something about how how we got here and even offers up suggestions about where we might go

      Actually, we study history for the same reason we do a lot of things–it seems cool.

      • Dave

        Lucky you. Most of the history I study has, at best, the potential to be heart-achingly poignant, and is, at worst, an unending stream of folly, brutality, missed opportunities to do the right thing, and all-too-eagerly-seized opportunities to do the wrong one.

        But maybe you never got to the books with the big words?

        • Dave is a fun guy at parties.

        • rea

          No, you mistake me. The point is, history, like knowledge generally, doesn’t have to pass any test of utilty. And, say, Casablanca has a sad ending, but that does not mean that it not pleasurable to watch.

      • timb

        You mean, it IS cool

    • witless chum

      There’s plenty you can learn from history, especially history of the Civil War. But the idea that Obama should look at the specifics of the second term of the Lincoln presidency 150 years ago for guidance in how he should handle his presidency is absurd. The article might as well have just consisted. “Lincoln” “Click the link” “Lincoln” “Click the link.” again and again.

      If you click the link, what are offered is a bunch of mumbling general principles that you would advise a political leader to do even if you’d never heard of Abraham Lincoln, the United Stats of America or Sol III itself.

    • I never said the past has nothing to say to the present.

      I am all about a usable past. But it has to actually be usable and not mythologies about Lincoln that don’t much stand up to in depth scrutiny nor have any actual value to the present.

      • scott

        If the past has something to say to the present that matters for what we do in the present, isn’t that usable? Otherwise, as I said, the discipline isn’t a social science but just a fetish. You may be right about a specific, vapid piece about Lincoln, but the broader claim is pretty loose.

  • Hurling Dervish

    Totally right. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew.

    Or maybe not. After all, that’s just something someone said 150 years ago. Doubt we could draw any useful lessons from that.

  • JKTHs

    Is this really too much to ask?

    Absolutely not! If Lincoln were elected President in 2008, we would have full employment, growth that would make China green with envy, and zero national debt–in fact, trillions in surplus cash.

    • mark f

      And I wouldn’t look so stupid in this hat anymore, either.

  • Matt

    There’s a useful lesson to be learned: don’t turn your back on Confederate assclowns, ever. That goes for the whole country as well: “with malice towards none” doesn’t work out too good if Cooter’s still got a shiv and every intention of using it.

  • Woodrowfan

    to be fair, when Strom Thurmond was alive and in office it wasn’t a bad idea to look back 150 years….

    • timb

      Wasn’t Thurmond’s first term won in 1866?

  • Bruce Baugh

    Aaron Copland knew a thing or two about usable history. I can just imagine the right-wing howls if someone were to create Lincoln Portrait (this one with Henry Fonda as narrator) now.

    He said: “It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.” [Lincoln-Douglas debates, 15 October 1858]

    I admit to being entertained by the thought that Lincoln’s most relevant lesson for Obama might be “Never, ever, ever give Southern tyrants any break whatsoever.”

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