If there’s one thing that America lacks as a virtue (or at least finds itself in short supply), it’s perspective. We have a widespread tendency to get wrapped up in our own problems and opinions and forget to take a breath and a chill pill every once in a while. The relevance of this problem is perhaps greatest today; Today the American people will celebrate the freedoms and rights of our democratic republic by electing the next President of the United States or allowing our current President to serve another term.
The importance of perspective in an election (and the seemingly universal lack thereof) lies in an examination of the consequences of the outcome. For many, a second term by our sitting President is apparently akin to taking a time machine directly to 1960s Soviet Russia, while for others, Romney’s election signals a one-way plane ticket to Canada. We view the results in the context of how they affect us personally, failing to keep in mind Kennedy’s famous mantra on “what we can do for our country.” Of all Americans, in fact, few give as much to their country as the President: being leader of the free world isn’t easy. The most trying Presidency in our history, however, will likely not be the Obama administration, nor the potential Romney administration, but Abraham Lincoln’s.
Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is one of the most compelling pseudo-biographies of all time, and is a fascinating look into the life of a man whose Presidency is as much myth as fact in our day and age. Based off of extensive research into biographies, letters, memoirs and diaries and proclaimed factually sound by the leading Lincoln experts and historians of our time, this novelization of Honest Abe’s presidency is a perfect election-day read. The Lincoln here is alive and breathing, and is a strong-willed yet flawed man – A real person rather than the simplified, bearded face in the history books. What makes the person of Lincoln so intriguing, Vidal shows, is that his entire Presidency is a tragedy.
Lincoln’s election served as the signal for the secession of the Confederacy’s first seven states in 1860, the final of many signs that civil war was coming to America. “I hold,” he once said, “that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these States is perpetual.” Vidal portrays this determination to “preserve the Union” as an obsession, an idea to which Lincoln is forced to wholly dedicate himself in the face of a war-weary North and a cabinet full of dissenters. The tolls of the Presidency on Lincoln are horrific – Domestic troubles, political betrayal, and the failing of his health all consume his well-being, leading Lincoln to the tragic realization that, in my opinion, defines the novel as such an emotionally riveting and intense story: He must become a martyr for the Union.
“I have no justice, or anything else now. It is fate that guides us all – and necessity.”
Lincoln’s resolve to restore the Union is nothing less than heroic. He tiredly utters the words above as he sits in Jefferson Davis’s chair in Richmond near the end of the war, the conflict and his defiance of those who would abandon the cause having robbed him of most of his strength. The only peace Lincoln seems to know during his embattled Presidency comes at its end: “He is lucky. He will belong to the ages, while we are obliged to live on in the wreckage.” It is poignant indeed to think that President Lincoln knew he must give himself entirely to the Union, and the cost, in the end, was “the last full measure of devotion.”
After you cast your vote today, pick up a copy of Vidal’s novel, sit down and read through it instead of watching the polls. The Presidency will be decided whether or not you have the news on, but you may be able to feel more empathy for the victor having seen the cost of the station: These men deteriorate in the Oval Office, sacrificing their health, their families, and, in some cases, their lives to the nation. The responsibility of maintaining a moral compass in peacetime, much less in a crisis like that of civil war, at the helm of the United States is tremendous and impossible to completely understand as an American citizen. That being said, Lincoln makes it a lot easier.