So, let’s call it what it was: a shitty week. The bungled and botched Massachusetts Senate election that may derail health care. The Supreme Court’s letting the corporate hounds loose on elections (the five conservative justices looking quite activist in spite of their protests against judicial activism). The exoneration of Sharon Keller, the chief judge of the top criminal court in Texas, who was too busy at home to accept a Death Row appeal. (She’d do everything the same if she had to do it over again, Judge Keller said; I do love it when people learn nothing from their mistakes — especially when that mistake cost a man his life.)
Anyway, bummer week and, on Saturday, we head to the New York Historical Society. We were really there for the exhibition about John Brown, but it was too crowded, according to my husband, who hasn’t perfected the art of elbowing his way to the front of a crowd the way I have. So we ended up at the Lincoln and New York exhibit.
After a while, the story of Lincoln’s troubled first term began to strike me as highly familiar. Elected with high hopes at a grave time in our nation’s history. War declared. The war goes badly — not at all the quick-as-a-snap finish the North expected. Casualties mount. The economy falters. Lincoln suspends habeas corpus, institutes an income tax, demands the first draft in the country’s history. He’s attacked by the abolitionists since he doesn’t immediately free the slaves, denounced by those sick of the war who want to make peace with the South at any cost.
The New York governor’s race in 1862 is billed as a referendum on Lincoln’s presidency — and the Democrat wins. The war rages on. Riots in New York break out and blacks are lynched.
“It’s so much more complicated than what we learned in high school,” said my husband, who took American history from a football coach.
So much more complicated. You look at the attacks on Lincoln, who wasn’t then the paragon or political genius we’ve now agreed on. He was just another politician to be called cowardly, vacillating, power-hungry, a hayseed from the rough frontier.
Now, a century-and-a-half later, he’s the president we all revere — because we need some heroes, after all. History didn’t just prove him correct; it came close to deifying him. I stare at the photos of him, the busts, the statues, trying to understand who he was, the source of his greatness; his drawn, troubled face is unfathomable. I delay going into the last section because — just like the Zapruder film — I still don’t want the inevitable end to happen.
All of it seems terribly close to our own current circumstances, except far worse. You look back and what do you learn? That you know nothing at the time something happens. That history lessons are too succinct and gloss over too many unsavory details. That we all want to believe the past was simpler and prettier than it really was.
“Just think,” my husband said cheerfully, getting into a gadfly mood. “Maybe a hundred years from now, they’ll have an exhibit glorifying George W. Bush for freeing the Arab world. You never know how things will turn out in history.”
“They’ll add two more spots on Mount Rushmore for him and Cheney,” I said, thinking Over My Dead Body.
Just then, some actors dressed in Union soldier uniforms passed by us. One of them tipped his hat to me and said, “Hello, ma’am.”
Behind them, a Lincoln figure lumbered along. Dressed in black, with a stovepipe hat, rangy and angular and tall. I looked at his gaunt face and, for a minute, I couldn’t even catch my breath.
Truth is, I wanted to run up to him and shake his hand and gush and tell him what a great job he did. Thank you, I wanted to say, oh thank you. I guess you had some pretty shitty weeks of your own.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about take this week and shove it