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George Bush and Lincoln

Posted by Christopher Shea  November 19, 2008 10:39 PM

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President Bush at the dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Ill., 2005

In his contribution to "Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World" (Norton), the Yale historian David Blight takes up the subject of "The Theft of Lincoln in Scholarship, Politics, and Public Memory." Both the right and the left have busily twisted Lincoln for their own ends. Ronald Reagan, for example, famously recited, to great cheers, a wholly bogus Lincoln quote at the 1992 Republican Convention: "You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer … " The lines dated to a largely fraudulent and propagandistic book, "Lincoln on Private Property," published in 1916.

For their part, left-leaning partisans long pointed to a supposed prophecy Lincoln made in an 1864 letter: "[T]he money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed." When did Lincoln really say this? Evidently at a seance in a small Iowan town, in the 1890s.

Blight devotes much attention to Republican efforts to brand themselves in recent decades as the Party of Lincoln, for the purposes of recruiting African Americans into their ranks -- a move that deletes large chunks the last half of the 20th-century from the historical narrative: The flocking of anti-civil-rights voters into the Republican Party in the 1960s; the "Southern Strategy" birthed by Nixon; Reagan in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

But credit where credit is due, Blight suggests. None other than George W. Bush, in an underappreciated speech, in 2006, to the N.A.A.C.P., confronted fairly directly that conservative trope. Only a year earlier, the Republican Party's Policy Committee had commissioned a calendar, aimed at African Americans, whose theme was "Celebrating a Century and a Half of Civil Rights Achievement by the Party of Lincoln." Yet Bush cited Lincoln only to express his regret that the Republican party had "let go of its historic ties to the African American community," a decision he termed "a tragedy."

He referred to racism as "the stain we have not yet wiped clean" and said he understood why blacks "distrust my political party," while referring to the civil rights movement as a "second founding" of the nation.

In all, Bush's speech was a "remarkable document," Blight writes, though one whose long-term effects remain to be seen. It must be said that Blight is skeptical it will amount to a turning point. (He seems to hint that Bush's speech writers may just have been on their game that night, and knew their audience.) But it is a document some Republicans may wind up weighing, as they pick up the pieces from the 2008 election and ponder possible new paths to chart.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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