A Different Time?

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

14 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    You accidentally struck me through the heart, Ruth.  I was thinking the same thing about Lincoln and the horrors he inherited as president.

    Last summer, my dentist was chatting me up and found out we’d recently visited Mount Rushmore. He said, in a tone which could only be construed as condescending, “Now, how would you like to see Obama’s face there?” And I said, “That would be fine with me.”

    I felt kind of brave saying this to a man who was about to stick a needle in my gums and rev up a drill.

  • You have put things in the perspective of time with a fascinating historical parallel.   I was groaning and moaning to Jerry that everything was terrible, that we will never, in our lifetime,  see a supreme court that will rule for the common good (all 5 of the “conservative” majority is a lot younger than Jerry and me), that Republicans will control the Senate and Presidency, that drug companies and banks will run everything and so on and so on.  Jerry said, “You never know what will happen in the future.  Lots can change in 2 years.

  • The only think I could think was that I hope this president doesn’t end his presidency the same way. That would be too horrific to imagine. Interesting to think that it is because of what Lincoln did that Obama was able to become president.

  • Winston Link

    Marble halls are eventually erected as grand memorials to public servants who pass the Pinocchio Test– choosing to become Leaders rather than Puppets.

  • I’m so happy to be able to watch American politics from afar now. Yes, the Civil War was MUCH more complicated than the average high schooler is taught. Complicated and fascinating.

  • Funny to read Frugal Kiwi’s comment about living abroad.   I used to live in France.  This weekend I was thinking the same thing as you, Ruth, about this brave new America, what it will be after the Supreme Court decision. When I lived in Paris, American politics did not upset me.  Now changes like this one shock me to the core.

  • I really appreciate this parallel and I wonder what time will do with Obama’s presidency. It has been SUCH a terrible week politically, so discouraging. Let’s hope things will get better (can they get worse?)

  • Sheryl Link

    Yes, quite a terrible political week; I wholeheartedly agree. And it is so discouraging to hear how Obama’s approval ratings have plummeted.  I, for one, hung onto him with high hopes. Yes, we still need heroes…

  • Sing it sister, shitty week indeed. As you and others point out, time will tell how the current and recent presidents fair in terms of history…
    As for who might deserve to be engraved on Mount Rushmore: A shout out to your reader Cindy A for sticking it to her dentist right before he was, literally, going to stick a needle (and a drill!) into her.
    Note to self: Never discuss politics while in the dental chair.

  • Craig Link

    History is a funny business. It is becoming increasingly more like Wikipedia, just keep editing till you like it. It will end up being more like a buffet, I’ll take a little isolationism and just a dab of  manifest destiny; the one nation under god looks ever so juicy and I still have room for dessert. Let’s eat  

  • No matter where your political feelings may be, what I find interesting right now is that people are becoming more involved. Having lived abroad I noticed that Europeans where so much more aware of what was going on politically than here in the US. Perhaps things are changing.

  • I love how you wove this all together. Definitely a shitty week.

    I love the bits with you and your husband. Cracks me up.

  • I was watching Meet the Press this weekend and one of the guests was reading a quote from Regan’s future biographer just a year into his presidency about how he was a disaster and would certainly be a one termer. Regardless of your personal opinions, he was no one termer! It will be interesting to see what Obama does going forward. Hopefully he has his sea legs and can get some things accomplished.

  • I’m still crossing my fingers for this presidency. I still have hope, though hope and patience aren’t the same thing…

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