(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, October 31, 2020)
Of course, the party would not be complete without Abraham Lincoln. And it’s a good day to ask America’s 16th president what he thinks of it all, Tuesday’s big vote.
As I write, on a window sill behind my desk sits a bust of Lincoln, otherwise known as Honest Abe. Small enough to fit into one hand, the trinket was once gathered with memories into my knapsack from a Washington conference. Journalists from various countries had met in America’s capital to talk about things like truth: how to best communicate truth, or at least get out of the way when it rises.
Not that politics has ever had an intimate relationship with truth. It hasn’t. But in these four years, the time allotted to the Lord of the Lies, the anti-Lincoln, America’s sitting president and, ironically, the leader of the Party of Lincoln, we’ve witnessed how on any given day Donald Trump can make even the most seasoned of liars like, say, old Beelzebub, blush.
The Washington Post’s fact checker, recording Trump’s misleading or false statements in his presidential term, will likely hit 25,000 by Tuesday. Let that sink in. Twenty-five thousand. I mean, even with generous margin for error, you know? Recently, Trump has been on hyperdrive, averaging 50 a day. Like any of us, he’d do well to ask why, more than 150 years later, they even make busts of Lincoln to sit in places like the window of some Canadian thinking about it.
Helpful here is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller Team of Rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln. Other politicians were more celebrated and educated, Goodwin notes, but what set Lincoln apart was his honesty – they started calling him Honest Abe while he practiced law – and his magnanimity, that is his unusually generous and forgiving spirit.
There was no grudge. No getting even. Lincoln never let personal insults get in the way of the higher good. Those who’d wronged him found themselves even invited into his cabinet. In the tumult of America’s civil war, which killed more than 600,000, this is the spirit that ultimately pulled and stitched together the bloody brokenness.
It’s also helpful to understand that Lincoln himself was a broken man. Born into poverty, he suffered from genetic disorders and health traumas, including depression. His mother and sister died when he was young. Two sons died prematurely. His wife, later in an asylum, was unwell and strained his marriage. Which is to say, Lincoln struggled with life as much as anyone. In this, he’s a president who, like the God he prayed to, reminds us that we’re not alone.
In three days America votes. Again. And who knows? What we do know is that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Quoting the biblical reference of a house divided in Mark 3:25, Lincoln said, in his 1858 nomination speech, how slavery and freedom are simply not compatible. “I don’t expect the house to fall. But I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”
All one thing. Or all another. This is how freedom, and slavery, work. We become what we choose. As individuals. As nations. Which is why, as the adage goes, people get the leaders they deserve. In our post-truth culture, it’s an especially sharp thought. And it’s a good reason to pray, if you’re like Lincoln, for our American friends. Our neighbours. Our family.
I’ve befriended, likely like you have, good Americans. They’re from Minnesota and Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and South Carolina and Georgia and California. We’ve visited some in these places, even as my family first met many of them overseas. Once we invited several into our Ugandan home to watch Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie, Lincoln, which is loosely based on Goodwin’s book.
There he is, the lanky president, voice resonant, larger than life, filling the wall of our African living room. It’s a memory.
Now, looking at polls and suppressed voting and electoral college possibilities, Tuesday’s vote can still go either way. So, really, what would Lincoln think of it all? Maybe, using his well-known wit, he’d somehow find a way to laugh at the strangeness of it. As he once said. “I laugh because I must not cry. That is all. That is all.”