Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lincoln isn't spinning, he's snickering

Far be it from me to criticize Patrick Fitzgerald, he's certainly a very intelligent and capable attorney. But his use of history for a soundbyte was off yesterday when he said that Ol' Blago's corruption would cause Ol' Abe to spin in his grave.


Lincoln was no stranger to political corruption and scandal.

The name Simon Cameron ring a bell?

Cameron's sleazy reputation was well known and generated a drumbeat of opposition to his nomination in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. However, "Cameron and Lincoln were another of those odd couples that politics occasionally produces, to the wonderment of all. Cameron was a political insider of the slickest kind. For helping nominate Lincoln in Chicago in 1860, Lincoln's floor managers had promised him a cabinet seat. Lincoln had honored the promise and appointed him secretary of war," wrote John Waugh in Reelecting Lincoln.

Sound familiar? Only this time Honest Abe's hands were directly implicated in the quid pro quo, whether he liked it or not, not off in the distance and giving Cameron "nothing" while he maneuvered.

Cameron turned out to be monstrously corrupt, to no ones, especially Lincoln's, surprise, interfering in all manner of government military contracts at a time of war to the profit of his cronies. Lincoln eventually eased him out in late 1862.

A particularly apocryphal story for the current day, involves a conversation between Lincoln, then President-Elect, and powerful Pennsylvania Representative and Republican Thaddeus Stevens:

During one interview with Lincoln, the president-elected questioned Thaddeus Stevens pointedly: 'You don't mean to say you think Cameron would steal?"

"No,' said Stevens drily, 'I don't think he would steal a red-hot stove."

Lincoln partly as a joke and partly perhaps by way of delicate warning, repeated the statement to Cameron. He was not amused.

Stevens later returned to demand of Lincoln: 'Why did you tell Cameron what I said to you?"

"I thought it was a good joke and didn't think it would make him mad."

"Well, he is very mad and made me promise to retract. I will now do so. I believe I told you he would not steal a red-hot stove. I will now take that back."

To use Lincoln as completely clean of corruption, completely unaware, totally innocent, a saint in all things, is to ignore history in favor of canonization -- which makes Lincoln unrealistically dull -- the same thing we've managed to make George Washington into, even though all of the praised giant intellects of the Founders (Jefferson, Hamilton, etc.) always were small in any room the original George W. occupied.

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