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No Uncertain Terms

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-05-09


It's reassuring to think of American presidents as men virtually hewn from stone, as Rushmore-ready, intractable visionaries seemingly born with an innate sense of largesse and uncompromising righteousness. Unlike the commoners, larger-than-life leaders don't suffer from doubts and indecisiveness they attack the days' greatest dilemmas with confidence and unswayable conviction, and when their opinion is finally determined, nothing in the world can shake them out of their beliefs. It's as if their wisdom is pre-eternal, seemingly handed down to the mortal realm from a higher power, like Moses bringing back the tablets containing the Ten Commandments.

It is this authority of thought that apparently helps explain some of the most difficult presidential decisions in our nation's history Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Truman's go-ahead with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World and era-changing decisions both, and both served up by men of obvious moral understanding who never wavered in their respective stances. Ending slavery solved the great morality crisis of the 19th century, and stopping the Axis powers' horrific aggression in World War II was America's greatest contribution to the world in the 20th century. Difficult decisions, to be sure, and the ramifications of Truman's action will continue to be debated. Still, it seems obvious that both men relied heavily on their deep-rooted sense of moral correctness.

Or so it would seem. A deeper reading into the lives of American presidents show that great leaders often have to amend their previous interpretations of what is a "correct" moral stand. Ten points to the first person who can identify this quote from a 19th century American president: "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Those with an aptitude for trick questions will surely recognize the words of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, freer of the slaves, and consensus pick as the greatest president in American history. The quote comes from the Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858, only four-and-a-half years before Lincoln proclaimed the freedom from slavery for all American negroes. This debate took place in Charleston, Illinois, a strongly anti-Abolitionist city, and Lincoln the politician wanted to distance himself from the entire John Brown controversy by espousing beliefs that would have obvious appeal to the locals.
Pragmatic? Maybe. But what do we do, then, with the great man's awful words, from a speech that wouldn't have sounded out of place a hundred years later if it came from the lips of George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party? It's far too easy to damn the president from a distance, from the cozy perch of a hundred and fifty years of racial progress. But it remains a shocking quote, and it makes Lincoln a much more complex figure than the simplistic image of him as the saintly, fair-minded American leader.

What the quote reveals, I think, is the absolute proof that great men are made, not born. Above all, Lincoln valued the preservation of the Union, and the slavery question had to be evaluated purely in terms of how it would affect the nation's security and long-term stability. Far from being a moral decision, Lincoln's 1863 emancipation of the slaves was a practical one, for it was obvious that in 1863 freeing the slaves was the only way to guarantee the sovereignty of the country. I don't think it's fair to say that Lincoln "changed" I think it's more the case that the times had changed, and Lincoln had the foresight to change with them.

In modern political language, the term "flip-flopper" is just about the worst thing you can label a candidate, yet I can't think of a single great leader who hasn't had to change a previous opinion once he takes power. Conservatives love to lionize Ronald Reagan as the unyielding no-tax, no-Commie president but that doesn't explain the Tax Equality and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, the largest peacetime tax increase in American history, nor does it explain the centrist foreign policy leanings that dominated the president's second term. It's far easier for supporters to remember the Gipper's sound bites "tear down this wall," "There you go again." Reagan had iron-clad convictions, true, but they evolved; there was a decidedly pragmatic side to his presidency, something that gets ignored as time marches on.

It's been fairly predictable to see that Barack Obama's pre-election positions on Guantanamo Bay and the war on terror have been called into question, in light of the kill order on Osama bin Laden. In spite of the generally favorable approval rating for the military action, opponents of the president believe that his personal reversal shows an unsavory, inconsistency of belief. It's more likely that the president recognized that the world continues to change, and that a leader's greatest asset might be his willingness to respond to the new reality.

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