Lincolnolatry

The author of this article is himself an activist, and his perspective is important. Lincoln, like all politicians, was a product of the pressures brought to bear upon him. That Lincoln brilliantly solved the conundrums that landed on his plate should not detract from the efforts of those who forced the issue through their own work. 

Franklin Roosevelt once told an activist who was requesting that the president take action on a matter, "You are right, now go out and force me to do it."

Just my small experience running for office gives me new perspective into the minds of both men. Successful politicians are not going to dream up an idea out of the blue and press it forward. They only use the ideas of others, and they only move when they feel pressure to act. If they did anything else, they would risk running too far ahead of the herd they are trying to lead. To extend the analogy, the leader in a democracy needs constant nudging from the herd members just behind. If he or she doesn't feel that nudging, it is time to slow down. 

Example: General McClellan drove Lincoln nuts early in the war. He wouldn't move. Lincoln had the right, and he had good reason from early on to fire McClellan. Arm-chair historians reading Civil War history get frustrated with Lincoln's refusal to act. What they miss is McClellan's popularity with his troops (marching is always more fun than fighting) and the American public. Lincoln's presidency was still on shaky legs. He was elected by a minority. He had no real mandate. 

Lincoln kept nudging McClellan, both in person and through letters. McClellan continued to be insubordinate and disrespectful, once refusing to meet the president, who had traveled hours to see him, because the general was taking a nap. 

Then one day as he rode through the ranks of the Army, as he was prone to do, Lincoln heard the troops grumbling about McClellan's inaction. He heard enough grumbling to know it was significant. McClellan was losing his own army. 

Lincoln couldn't get back to Washington fast enough. McClellan was out. But not until Lincoln sensed pressure.

The next few generals also failed, and Lincoln even gave McClellan a second chance. Eventually he found Grant, but it took years. 

The point is: politicians are a product of the forces brought to bear upon them. To expect even the most progressive politician to take an action in the absence of a solid movement demanding that action is to not understand what makes politicians tick. 

We constantly demand consistency from politicians, which is a mistake. We also view politicans who change their mind with the winds as deficient in character. This, too, is sometimes a mistake. 

Do you think Lyndon Johnson would have acted on Civil Rights unless there had been protests? Of course not. And it wouldn't have worked if he had. 

The genius of the great politicians is they strike a balance between shaping public opinion and being shaped by public opinion. They know just when to jump in front of the crowd and lead it to where it was going anyway. That is an admirable skill, not a sign of lack of character. 

So, the great politicians, like Roosevelt, value the activists who force them to do great things, even as they have to show resistance towards those activists until the right moment

Probably the only president who succeeded through sheer will at pushing the country in new directions was Theodore Roosevelt. He was a true titan, and his legacy lives on in places like the Grand Canyon, which was saved from mining (over the objections of Congress, which was bought up by corporate interests) when Roosevelt declared the whole canyon a National Monument, a designation previously reserved for buildings, but one which did not require the approval of Congress. Teddy Roosevelt's massive personality allowed him to pull off such acts of sheer gall. I do not think a single person has dominated the political scene so thoroughly since.