Democracy on the Verge: Leadership in Times of Crisis
This event took place on Wednesday, May 6, 2020
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Carnegie Council lunchtime webinar series. Like many of you, we're working remotely these days, so we're using this time to reach out to our Senior Fellows, friends, and constituents to talk about the important issues in ethics in public life that are at the heart of the Council's work. Thank you all for joining us.
Today's topic is "Democracy on the Verge: Leadership in Times of Crisis." This title is a play on the title of the new book Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington written by our good friend and Carnegie Council Fellow Ted Widmer.
It's great to see you, Ted.
TED WIDMER: Thank you, Joel. Great to be here.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I'm going to let Ted describe the book, but I will say at the outset that it's really a thriller. The book is cinematic, it's philosophical, it's a great story, and for me it's inspirational. Like all of Ted's work, Lincoln on the Verge uses the past to enlighten the present and to suggest a better future. This is not a bad formula for understanding the intersection of ethics and public policy. For this and for many other reasons I'm grateful to Ted for his own leadership in our field.
In addition to his career as a writer, scholar, and teacher, Ted has been a White House speechwriter and a State Department historian. He has witnessed the messy, real-time compromises of democracy in action, and as Max Weber put it: "Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective." In this way, Ted—along with Lincoln—reminds us that ethics is not merely about dreams but also about making hard choices.
We have asked Ted to relate some of the lessons of his new book as well as his personal experiences to the current moment. Specifically we have asked him: How should we be thinking about the health and well-being of democracy these days, especially as it is challenged by the urgencies of the pandemic and the deeper fault lines of polarization?
Before I turn it over to Ted, just a word about our format. We have asked Ted to kick things off with a short presentation. After that, Ted and I will have a bit of a dialogue, and the back half of the program will be interactive.
So now, over to you, Ted. Congratulations on the book. Perhaps you could just kick us off with some brief reflections on the book and how it meets the moment.
TED WIDMER: Thank you so much, Joel. What a lovely introduction. I want to thank you and the Carnegie Council for being such good friends for quite a few years. I think I met Joel about 20 years ago. We were both friends with a great historian who was also an ethicist and a careful student of current events and foreign policy, James Chace, who was a very good friend of us both. He knew that you can't really study the current political environment without a sense of history. Also, knowing where we are as a nation now paradoxically can inform the writing of history.
The present was often on my mind as I did this deep immersion into a two-week period in February of 1861. We are a divided country now, as everyone knows. We're divided in many ways, not just Republicans and Democrats. The Lincoln moment that I chose to write about is I think the only time the division was even worse. I think the solution of how we got out of that problem began in this 13-day train trip that Lincoln was on.
I didn't know when I began this project almost 10 years ago that our problems would be as deep as they are. We have international problems, which I hope we can talk about. I'm very worried about the standing of the United States in the world, as I know you are, and what it means to be an ethical leader in the world community, and it's so important for the United States to fulfill that role.
I'm also very troubled about how deep the political divide is, mainly between Democrats and Republicans, but even within the two parties. It's restive, it's not settled, people are not happy for a lot of reasons. We're racially divided. We just saw that terrible shooting in Georgia that got into the news over the last couple of days, so we're still trying after all of these decades and more than 200 years to figure out what it means to be American. Joel and I have talked about that many, many times.
This book project has helped me a lot to reflect on that larger question. It began in a pretty ordinary way. I was writing a series of almost blog posts—I wouldn't even call them quite "articles," but short essays in The New York Times beginning around 2010 and going up to about 2015, all around the 150th anniversary of our Civil War. The idea was that we could find younger historians who were comfortable in the digital environment and could put more articles about history in the online New York Times than they would have been able to put in the printed paper.
When it started, the online New York Times was like a backyard that no one cared about, so it was fine to let a bunch of Civil War historians write there. Since then the online New York Times has become the main deal, and it's fascinating to see now how things have changed in not that many years where the online environment is basically everything.
But I was part of a kind of digital experiment to see if history could be done well in The New York Times, and we found that it could be, that in some ways it's a much better environment to write history. You can put up beautiful photographs, all kinds of graphics, you get instant questions in from readers, like we can do in this conversation today. It was thrilling.
Way back then, I was thinking, What is a kind of a story I could tell well in a format that wants me to write one post a day? That was basically my job for them: what happened 150 years ago? I saw that Lincoln had this 13-day train trip, and I thought: That is a perfect kind of a story for submitting a daily blog. I can just do, "Here's what Lincoln did on day one of the trip; here's what he did on day two." And we can put some photographs up of the cities he's passing through.
It turned out to be a much better story and a much deeper story, and for me it ended up literally consuming 10 years of my life because it was so deep that it was basically bottomless, and it goes into the endlessly fascinating question of who is Abraham Lincoln, who is still elusive to a biographer, even though more than 15,000 books have been written about him.
Why did his speeches become so good? He had given a few important speeches—not too many, but a few. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates are important, the Cooper Union address in New York is very important—but he steps it up to an even higher level while traveling under very difficult conditions on a rapidly moving railroad through all these different cities of the Upper Midwest and the North.
How did he deal with some of the worst political problems any incoming president has ever had to deal with? He's elected with a very weak plurality. It's not a mandate. He has less than 40 percent of the vote. He has the second lowest vote of a winning presidential candidate in our history, which is amazing if you think of how famous Lincoln has become to look at the bad hand he was dealt when he won the election. After John Quincy Adams, he's the second-weakest victor of a presidential race. Seven states secede after he's elected, so he's only the president-elect of half a country. As I develop in the book, it was not at all certain that he could even make it to Washington to become the president of a country called the United States.
Believe me, I spent many years studying this period, and I was shocked at how much new information I was able to find by really digging into journal accounts from the winter of 1860–1861, private correspondence between important players like William Henry Seward, New York senator and future secretary of state, and Lincoln. Basically our democracy was hanging by a thread, and the idea of a country called the United States of America was also hanging by a thread because Washington was not a very sympathetic capitol to the presidential hopes of Abraham Lincoln and this very new and unformed party called the Republican Party, which was not a "Grand Old Party." It was not "grand" and it was not "old," and it was barely one party. It varied a lot. If you're a New England Republican, you're very different from an Illinois Republican or a Wisconsin Republican. They all have different goals, and they're barely cohering as a party, and Lincoln isn't much of a party leader. He's a kind of accidental nominee of party bosses. That's good for him, but he's not really dictating party policy.
Then the situation in Washington is terrible. The Republicans are unpopular. There is another president, a Democrat, James Buchanan, who is sullen and uncooperative with Lincoln and is coming very close to recognizing the new Confederate government, which doesn't even really have a name yet, but the states have seceded away from the United States. They just haven't quite formed their new government.
But foreign powers are "on the verge"—a phrase I use a lot—of recognizing this new slave-based country without a clear name yet. What I was shocked to discover was how close the South came to sending a pretty small set of militia soldiers—it wouldn't have been organized troops, but a couple hundred men with guns—from Virginia and Maryland into the city of Washington, DC, which was barely defended at all, and just taking over the U.S. government, taking over the U.S. Capitol, which included the Library of Congress, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the House.
They would have had all the treaties of American history. They would have had the patents that dictated so much commerce. And—there are paper records indicating this—they would have been able to call themselves the "United States of America," and then Lincoln would have been a kind of rogue president-elect of something else who probably would have only been able to make it to Philadelphia, and he's the one who would have had to rename his country. No one quite knows what would have happened.
But through incredible moral leadership, which gathered huge numbers of Americans behind him, including people who had not even voted for him, and physical courage, and I talk a lot about how brave he was just to stand out on that train platform day after day and night after night, where anyone could get very close to him—and that was the whole point, because he's defending democracy, and it's our need. Then, on one really wild ride the last night of the trip, he went all night in an ordinary passenger car of an ordinary commuter train that went from Philadelphia through Wilmington and Baltimore, where there was a very serious assassination conspiracy to take his life, and he arrived at dawn in Washington on February 23, 1861, and walked up Capitol Hill.
By arriving safely, I argue that he made everything possible, not just the four years of his presidency, which we now know very well as historians—the Civil War is one of the most important episodes in American history—but in my epilogue I argue it also made possible so many episodes of America's moral leadership in the world and America's greatness as a country, including our late but important entry into World War I and then our transformative role—on us as well as on the world—in World War II, when we with our allies crushed fascism, not just a few countries, but an ideology that was very powerful, and reasserted the importance of race-blind democracy and democracy with an economic component, as FDR always articulated it, as the primary organizing idea of the world from 1945 on.
FDR dies in 1945, but we know very well what he says, and I argue that if Lincoln doesn't survive his train trip and then win the Civil War and in the process revitalize all of those ideas about democracy and specifically the soaring language of the Declaration of Independence—which is a document about human rights in addition to declaring the right to form a new country; it's also asserting the rights of all human beings to foundational human rights—if Lincoln doesn't get off that train alive, I'm not sure how World War II turns out for the United States or the world. If we're fighting that war with an equally powerful Southern version of ourselves that still has either real slavery or some modernized version of wage slavery, we're not able to inspire the world's peoples to fight in World War II the way we successfully did.
I'm very aware that we have often fallen short of our own standards since then in Vietnam and Iraq, and I'm very aware that other countries often hold that up against us, but still the fact that we won a civil war to reassert a better version of ourselves—and Lincoln's language is still important in learning how we did that—and that we stood up to fight fascism and then build the international architecture that this community of listeners knows so well—the United Nations with so many of its dependent agencies including in a time of pandemic the World Health Organization—all of that is because people can work together and they should work together. We solve problems more effectively when we are united internationally as well as nationally and when we stop attacking each other for all of the well-known problems that we have.
It is a Civil War book, and even more specific than that it's about 13 days only in the life of Lincoln, but I argue that by surviving those 13 days and developing the big concepts that he does develop on that trip he gave us all the rhetoric to use in every future predicament, and we're certainly in one now.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Ted, thank you. That's a terrific summary, but it also brings us forward to today and even into the future about how our principles relate to the formation of not only public policy but, as you were saying, our role in the world.
There are so many dramatic moments in the book, and I want to come back to one of them because I think it's really at the core of what you were just saying. If I remember correctly, it's Washington's Birthday in 1861, and it's when Lincoln's train arrives in Philadelphia, and Lincoln is called to speak at Independence Hall.
Maybe you could help the audience understand what actually comes together for Lincoln at that moment and compare it to what was happening to his counterpart, Jefferson Davis, who is also having a journey of his own through the South. What I took away from that was that what actually inspires the solidarity that you're talking about was the point that Lincoln came to in that famous speech in 1861 in Philadelphia, which became the rallying point. It became the "true north," if you will, for Lincoln, for the Union, and for what the country should be.
TED WIDMER: Thank you, Joel, for that question. That really is the pivot of the entire book. It's a very short speech he gives inside Independence Hall on the morning of February 22, 1861. It's loaded with drama.
As you say, Jefferson Davis has been racing on a train of his own across the South, and he has arrived. Lincoln is still trying to get to Washington. The night before he has heard from a brilliant female spy in Baltimore that there's an extremely serious conspiracy involving as many as a thousand people who will stab and shoot him when he comes through Baltimore in the transfer between two train stations, when he has to ride in a horse and carriage. He has taken in that pretty dark information the night before, and he has to go out and talk about democracy and trust between people. So it's a very heavy moment for Lincoln.
But brilliantly they have scheduled the talk for the morning of Washington's Birthday, and I argue that was a triumph of something we don't always think of in 19th century history, but then as now they were thinking about the equivalent of photo ops and how to position the president-elect in as attractive a light as possible. I argue that Southern leaders, including Davis, had just as good a claim to George Washington. George Washington is a Southerner, and Jefferson Davis had close personal ties—relatives of his and his wife—who had fought in the American Revolution more than Lincoln did, but Lincoln was smarter in the way he thought about Washington's Birthday.
Washington's Birthday is the second-most important day of the year after the Fourth of July. To talk in Independence Hall gave him a chance to talk about the Declaration of Independence, which for Lincoln is a core document. He has been talking about it for years, and he has an almost mystical attachment to that document and specifically to the second paragraph, with the great soaring language: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
That is a lot of Lincoln's political program just in those sentences. In fact, affirmation of the Declaration of the Independence was written into the Republican platform of 1860. It's unusual that the Declaration goes into a political platform, but it was really under attack in the 1850s as Southerners were saying in more and more aggressive language that that was a mistake, that it was just some boilerplate of 1776.
It obviously doesn't apply to African Americans, who aren't really people in the full sense of the word and are definitely not "citizens" in any sense. They can't get married, they don't have last names, they don't have any civil rights. That was a strong Southern position in 1860, and Jefferson Davis himself goes on record, including in his farewell speech to the U.S. Senate, where he goes out of his way to say, "By the way, the Declaration of Independence does not apply to black people."
Lincoln comes in, and in his always very calming and unifying language says, "There is not a political thought I have ever had that does not stem in some way from the Declaration of Independence."
It's a powerful moment. He has been traveling in his mind through some of the darkest days of the American Revolution. The day before he talked about Washington at Valley Forge, and he is saying: "Why are we all here? Why did they fight a very difficult war and go through a lot of hardship to create a country to hand off to us?" He says it wasn't merely to be separate. That was easy. It was to establish a new kind of model for the world. It was a better kind of government in which people run things for themselves.
The adversary to the Continental soldiers was a monarchical system. But in Lincoln's mind that was still going on. Most of Europe was run by monarchies, but also just any system in which the wealthy have all the power and the poor have almost no political power. That wasn't what the Founders were fighting for, and Lincoln—having grown up as poor as he did—I think felt a real sympathy for the plight of the slave.
There are a lot of complicated ways to get at his complicated racial thinking, but basically he is in my opinion the greatest "abolitionist" in American history. He wouldn't have called himself that word in 1860 and 1861 when he couldn't use that word and be elected, but he's taking big steps toward racial equality, even in this train trip, and then as we know he does the Emancipation Proclamation, and at the end of the war he calls for black citizenship, and then all those amendments come through, and black citizenship becomes a reality. If he hadn't made it on that trip, I don't think any of those things would have happened.
I also argue that he has purged Independence Hall, one of our most sacred historical shrines, of its own sinfulness in this story because in the 1850s it had become a holding cell for African Americans who were rounded up in Philadelphia—often incorrectly and including free people of color—by U.S. marshals and held in a holding pen on the second floor of Independence Hall before being sent into the South and back into slavery. In a way Lincoln is giving this building back its integrity as well as the country.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: One of the parts of the book I enjoyed so much—and again it comes out of that scene, but it permeates through—was the sense that Lincoln felt that he was somehow "communicating" with the Founders, that they were alive in some way and that he summoned them, and he was actually sort of speaking with them in working things out. I presume the way you're thinking about it too is that Lincoln then joins that pantheon and becomes kind of a source for leadership.
I wanted to press you on one particular theme. We were talking a little bit about leadership. My simple way of understanding the American DNA in terms of how we think about leadership is that the Founders had two concerns. They certainly had great concern about a king. The whole point of the experiment was to be a democracy and non-monarchical. So they feared the king, but they also feared the masses. They feared both. So the whole idea of the founding documents was to somehow work that out.
Lincoln was probably seen by many as a tyrant.
TED WIDMER: He was, yes.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Later we see other American leaders seen that way. FDR is seen as tyrannical. How do you think about this DNA, if you will, this anti-king idea and how that's playing out because I see this playing out now as part of the polarized environment that we're in. It somehow seems distinctly American in a way that we're not going to be taking our direction from the central authorities.
TED WIDMER: I agree with you that Lincoln felt to an unusual degree that he was communicating with the Founders, and I mean that in as strange a sense as it may sound. I think he almost was having private seances with them, and there is a fair amount of evidence—and I write about this—that he really tried to talk to dead people. He could hear them, and they could hear him in some way that we don't fully understand.
He wrote poems as a young man about trying to communicate with the dead. He loved Edgar Allen Poe. His law partner asked him why he liked Poe so much, and he said, "Because he's so gloomy." There is a kind of dark side to Lincoln that I was very intrigued by. The light side of Lincoln is great, and his sense of humor and his clear understanding of our best qualities is all good, but there are these strange aspects to Lincoln too.
So he's trying to correct the kind of gyroscope that the Founders created and set spinning, but it gets out of whack every generation or two. One way it was getting out of whack in 1860 and 1861 is that slavery was supposed to fade away. The Founders themselves had expressed the hope that it would fade away. It was a kind of temporary inconvenience for a country talking a lot about freedom and democracy in 1776, but then it got a lot stronger, and Lincoln says that in the Cooper Union address: "How did it get so strong when the Founders wanted it go away?"
He comes in very weak at the beginning and becomes extraordinarily strong over his four-year presidency—I don't think any president with the possible exception of FDR ever reinvented the office itself as totally as Abraham Lincoln did—and that worried many advocates of democracy in other ways. They thought the executive is not supposed to be as strong as it is now under Lincoln. He really reinvented what the U.S. government was. It did a hundred times what it had been doing before he came in by the end of his life and his administration.
Some of those worries had reasons attached to them. He suspends the writ of habeas corpus, he arrests newspaper editors working in sensitive parts of the country, and he runs roughshod over his political opponents.
But he never loses sight of the big picture, I would argue. He submits to a very difficult reelection campaign in 1864. There are moments when it looks like that's not going to go his way. He does some slightly funky things to help it go his way, including sending soldiers back to their home districts to help in a state like Pennsylvania that could go either way, but he never suspends the election itself.
On that note I might say parenthetically that's a specific democratic fear that I feel in 2020, that the 2020 election is very fragile, and it could be suspended or postponed or the result contested. It's pretty easy to contest a result afterward, so I hope all of us from both parties will keep an eye on the November election and just keep it as honest as it can be, and if we have to mail in our ballots, that's fine; there's very little need to worry about a mail-only election, if it comes to that, although I hope we can vote in person.
The best thing Lincoln does is not just submitting to a reelection campaign, but he talks so beautifully about what democracy is, and he gives strength to democracy through his words. His first inaugural does that beautifully; Gettysburg probably does it better than any speech in American history, although it does subtle things to change the gyroscope of what—as Garry Wills wrote in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Lincoln "substitutes a version of democracy that he likes better over the one that the Founders had written"; and then in his second inaugural address and in a few other minor speeches—I found interesting some speeches to Ohio regiments in which he talks a lot about the 20th century. He talks a lot about the grandchildren of these young men and how what they're doing will make democracy safe for Americans of the 20th century.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you for raising this point about the future. To what extent was Lincoln thinking about democracy as a universal experiment that might go beyond just the Union but for the future of the human race in that sense? Did he have that big a vision for it?
Related to that, I'm curious because you mentioned the election. Today we're thinking so much about our democratic institutions, so it's not just the president, but how is our society functioning? Are we moving in a progressive way in a sense of inclusivity, genuine participation, and making the system work for "the people?" That is an institutional question.
Again, Lincoln had a lot on his plate. There was the leadership, there was the vision, and all of that, but did he also connect it to the idea of the institutions of democracy and keeping those healthy?
TED WIDMER: I think Lincoln absolutely is thinking about democracy for all people and for all time. He says that, in fact, in the Philadelphia speech you asked me to talk about. It's a short speech, but I argue that it's the "beta version" of the Gettysburg Address. He's working out the ideas. He didn't have a piece of paper in his hand; he's just talking. But he says, "There's not a sentiment in my own politics that doesn't stem from the Declaration of Independence." Then he says, "They were working out a new form of government for all people for all time," which is essentially what he says at Gettysburg in the same state two-and-a-half years later. So I don't think those two speeches are unrelated.
Why Lincoln—who is also a very canny and practical politician, who knows the defects of democracy very well—has this kind of philosophical and nearly spiritual way of talking about democracy is kind of a mystery. Not everyone had that.
In fact, I think if you have been in politics for 20 or 30 years, you go through the ritual of saying a few words about democracy, but it's not quite as elevated as it obviously was for Abraham Lincoln, and I'm still wrestling to figure out where that comes from, and other people have been wrestling with that for a long time.
But many of his contemporaries noticed that there was something unusually intense about his feelings about what is democracy, the right and the ability—two different things—of the people to govern themselves, relevance of this system to all people on earth, including people of different skin colors and religions, and then the relevance of what we are doing at any given moment toward the future. In all of those ways he was unusual.
William Henry Seward, fellow Republican and his closest ally in the White House—they co-wrote the final paragraph of the first inaugural, about the "better angels of our nature"—had this fascinating quote. He said: "There is something very unusual about Abraham Lincoln. He appears to actually believe all the things he's saying." I love that quote.
Another person who said something similar is a fascinating figure on the other side, Alexander Stephens. He's the vice president of the Confederacy; he's from Georgia. He knows Lincoln very well. They served in the House together in the late 1840s, and they correspond in a very meaningful way during this crisis of the South seceding and Lincoln not yet president. They're friends, but they're on opposite sides, and he says the same thing: "Lincoln actually believes all that stuff he's saying about the Declaration of Independence. He really believes it."
It can be a danger to go too far, to be too naïve and too idealistic and to think democracy will just naturally settle on people, and their lives will be ameliorated forever. We can drift into some of the language—I love Eleanor Roosevelt, but Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson did in the exciting years following the creation of the United Nations and well into the early 1960s when Adlai Stevenson is our ambassador to the United Nations—but we now know that we have to combine idealism with pragmatism. That's very important for anyone who defends democracy, as I believe anyone in the community of the Carnegie Council wants to do.
Toward that end, I find really fascinating the steps Lincoln was taking at the end of his life to get over the really big stumbling block of how to make democracy real for African Americans, which was a "work in progress," to put it mildly. Yesterday we got the news that the 1619 Project at The New York Times got a Pulitzer for its very good and very emotional writing about American history, but I personally objected to the way they described Abraham Lincoln because I thought in a kind of unmethodical way, not looking at the full picture, they dismissed Lincoln as a racist and yet another guy on the side of the patriarchy and the oppressive system that delayed democracy for African Americans.
If you look really carefully at his life, he did an extraordinary amount to maneuver the argument into a place where, after only four years, it was so much further than it was when he comes in very weak on this train in 1861, and he is right on the eve of announcing forms of black citizenship in 1865, and it's almost certainly for that reason—he announces it in his final speech—that he is murdered. He is murdered because of how brave he is on that score. I would like people to understand how fast he was moving on the most difficult question in our history.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Your book includes some lesser-known figures for most, who are quite heroic in their role on Lincoln's behalf, such as Winfield Scott, a Virginian and Washington insider of sorts but a Unionist. As we know, Lincoln as president built a "team of rivals," but how as a callow congressman from Illinois did Lincoln inspire—against all odds, it would seem—a diverse group of people dedicated to seeing him safely brought to office, even many who had not voted for him?"
TED WIDMER: Oh, what a great question.
I try to complicate the story at every point. I try to show how many pro-Southern people were in the Northern cities that he was obligated to travel through, including New York City, which was filled with pro-Southern agitators, politicians, and businessmen, but then I try to equally show how many brave Southerners showed up to defend Lincoln and the United States, and Winfield Scott is a Virginian, Sam Houston in Texas is pro-Union, and those guys were really important at a time when it could go either way.
Scott does a lot. He keeps Washington, DC from falling into the hands of this Southern country that doesn't even have a name yet, so he keeps Washington as the capitol of the United States of America, a country that is waiting for its president to come in.
Crucially Virginia stays in the United States. This isn't always remembered, but Virginia is still in the United States at the time Lincoln makes his inaugural address, and that was really important for keeping Maryland in and Kentucky and Missouri. Virginia does go out, but it was really important that it stayed in during the time of Lincoln's train trip. Those Southerners who stood up for the Union are crucial.
How does Lincoln do it? Largely through his words. He did something remarkable then and even more remarkable in 2020—he didn't talk about himself too much. It's a radical thing to hear about in 2020, but as president-elect he kept saying: "The cause is bigger than me. I'm just the temporary occupant of this office. I'm going to do the best I can to keep our country and the ideals behind it together. If you don't like my policies, you can vote me out." He's already saying that on the train trip in.
I think that appealed to the very large numbers of Americans who had not voted for him. As I said, he got only 39 percent of the vote, but he's saying: "I'm just holding this office temporarily. We're in this for a much bigger cause. We're in it for the cause of eternal democracy for all people." So by not talking about himself and by including other people who are politically opposed to him as part of his constituency, I think he made a smart idealistic argument, but also it was shrewd politics because he helped people to think, We want this guy to have a chance, and just having a chance was all he needed to do what he did.
STEPHEN HIBBARD: Ted, thank you for your wonderful remarks. You've commented on how strong Lincoln became as an executive, including "running roughshod over his political opponents," but is it a singular feature of this presidency that leaders of the president's party fear or are remarkably reluctant to question in public the president's actions? If so, why?
TED WIDMER: My personal feeling is that I regret the absence of a strong and principled Republican Party standing up for its historic values against a president who doesn't even remember what those values once were and is really a party of his own, I would say. He was a kind of Democrat for a long time in his earlier career and then became a Republican for some reasons I understand and some I don't, but I miss what used to be called a "liberal Republican." I'm from New England. We had a lot of them, and they were wonderful people.
In my home state of Rhode Island we had a great senator named John Chaffee, who I used to vote for. I also lived in Massachusetts, and you will all remember Elliot Richardson, the hero of the Watergate era who ran for senator, and the very first vote I ever cast was for Elliot Richardson. I remembered often in the writing of this book that I had Republican grandparents who were liberal New England Republicans, and I wish more people like that were around. Dissenters are good in both parties. We have them in the Democratic Party, but there are none in the Republican Party.
Yes, I was thinking about the current moment, but I also made a decision early on that I wasn't going to talk about 2020. I wanted readers to draw their own conclusions, for a lot of reasons. I hope a diverse community of readers will read the book. Also, I was so focused on my moment that I just didn't want to get off-topic. I wanted to stay on 1861, and then there is a brief epilogue about 1865.
But I think Lincoln himself would say that a Republican Party without any memory of American history or any set of ethical principles that it believes in—except the right to make money, despoil the environment, to always be thinking about short-term gain over long-term benefits, and always be thinking about individual gain over community benefits—is not an ethical party, and it's not a party that has anything to do with the Republican Party that Abraham Lincoln helped to create.
JOHN C. STRATAKIS: We seem to be in another one of those "freedom versus security" moments throughout U.S. history from Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts, Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Wilson's Espionage Act of 1917, Roosevelt's Japanese internment, and Bush's Patriot Act. Our leaders have often reacted to crisis by suspending individual rights. How does the "ethical" leader strike the right balance if he believes the risks to the nation justifies a "temporary" suspension of rights?"
TED WIDMER: Great question. These are all so good.
We are in such a moment. We Democrats—I'm now a Democrat, and basically I have been my entire life except for a couple of those votes for New England Republicans—have to be careful that whatever we think now in the current moment we hold true to if a Democrat is elected president. An important principle for all Americans is to stand up for the same ethical standards no matter who is president.
To give President Trump the benefit of the doubt, these are really hard questions. How to save people right now means removing certain protections, and one way we might be safer is if we let Google and Apple follow everywhere we go on our phones all day long. I understand why they would want to do it—so they could track anyone who has the disease—but it's obviously troubling for anyone who cares about civil liberties.
It's not just that we need to keep an eye on the federal government. We need very much to keep an eye on the private sector and on foreign actors who mean us great harm and are very skillful at working in the digital environment. We have to be careful of all of the above.
One way I think we could do a better job—and here I think we really are falling down on the job—is if our president asked these questions in a reasonable way and then helped us to answer them in a reasonable way, and instead we get this crazy pattern of on-again, off-again attacks, recriminations, bizarre self-justifications, and rewriting of history. One minute the governors have to do everything, and the next minute the president is "in charge" of all the governors, and they have no right to do anything. It's really confusing.
That actually is an interesting question, and Lincoln wrestled with it too: What do the governors do? What does the president do? And that was one of the many ways Lincoln worked out how the executive could function more efficiently. It turned out governors were not very good at raising armies, so the executive needed to step up to fight a war. It was an emergency. So he did.
To give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt, that is a reasonable question to ask, but he doesn't then answer in a reasonable way. He's all over the map, saying, "I have no responsibility" and "I have total responsibility," and it's confusing.
There are ways to answer it better, and I would love to see a presidential commission appointed with former Republican and Democratic presidents, America's best minds from the health sector, university presidents, CEOs, and a head of a labor union—the best of America. We know we have those strengths, and instead it's always these depressing lobbyists and former dog breeders who are given very exalted titles in the Trump White House, and then when we barely know their names they're removed from the White House, maybe because they were doing their jobs well. It's just all so confusing.
DOROTHY HURLEY: Do you have any thoughts on what role Lincoln would have played in a post-presidency?
And given the seriousness of our current situation, should our ex-presidents be speaking out more?
TED WIDMER: Those are great questions.
The first one, part of it is easy. I don't think he would have messed up as badly as Andrew Johnson, his vice president, did, who quickly got into trouble with a very powerful Congress and didn't like the pace at which Reconstruction was happening and tried to slow it down and then was impeached but not removed. It was a big mess.
I think Lincoln would have handled Reconstruction much more skillfully. He might not have been as fast-paced as I was saying a few minutes ago, but he would have made sure it happened in a way with more consensus than it had at the time. I also think he would have brought in the South in a much gentler, more careful way. So he would have handled the relationship with Congress and the way the South came back into the country more skillfully than Andrew Johnson did.
[For the second question about ex-presidents speaking out] I have to say yes. I think they should be. I understand their great respect for the office, but I think we're a little lost as a country right now, and we need their expertise.
And there is a precedent. Presidents Hoover and Truman as I recall now and then gave remarks critical of Democratic presidents. I think former Democratic presidents have done the same, so there are ways they can do it in a thoughtful manner.
I just saw this morning, I think, that Barack Obama is going to give an online address to thousands of graduating high school seniors. That will be something. But it has felt a little bit one-sided that Barack Obama is a kind of punching bag every day for Donald Trump, and he never answers, and it would be nice to hear him answer back.
JOE FEUER: Can you say a word about how leadership was displayed by President Wilson and others during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–1919?"
TED WIDMER: Let me just say for a second that I'm happy to take questions by email if you didn't get your question in. My email is email@example.com, and I'm happy to answer emails this afternoon if that helps.
Wilson is a complicated guy. We at the Carnegie Council did a series of podcasts last year that was really fun, talking about all the events of 1919, sort of the wrapping up of World War I, which ends in late 1918, and then the expected and a lot of unexpected ways in which the world adjusted to peace, and Wilson isn't that strong on the pandemic, and America isn't that strong on the pandemic. It's really a missing story from that time.
The big story in the history books—and I have to admit in our series last year—is the attempt to rebuild the world order, the Treaty of Versailles. There were some things that were good about it; a lot of ideas then go into the United Nations a generation later. Some things were bad about it; it failed to get through the U.S. Senate, it allowed a lot of European bad behavior in colonized parts of the world, it really set unattainable rates of reparations for the Germans and doomed the world to another war a generation later.
We alluded in a few moments to the pandemic and didn't really take it head-on. That's a little bit because the pandemic peaked in the fall of 1918, and our series was about 1919. But also, the history books—and I am guilty of the same thing—have generally just told the story of international foreign policy without telling the story of the pandemic. I think we all needed to do a better job.
The American history textbooks I have looked at barely mention the pandemic. A lot of people died, 50 million, so that was itself a form of foreign policy and domestic policy, but largely my sense is that governors then, as now, were trying to establish quarantines, to get camps available for people to go stay at if they had the disease, and to put up public information, but it was not a federal activity in 1919.
Wilson, by the way, is beginning to suffer from his physical impairment that will really hit badly in the fall of 1919, and he is so distracted by Versailles and the work of diplomacy that he isn't available for pandemic work, but I think that was a historic failing of his, and we need to maybe rewrite what we think of as foreign policy because health policy should be a part of that.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: We're coming to the top of the hour, so I have to wrap things up. Thank you very much.
Just a couple of points to wrap things up. One thing we didn't get to but is such a wonderful frame for the book are the Homeric aspects of it, the idea that it's a journey, not only the 13 days but also the broader journey. What I really took away from the book was the journey of not only Lincoln but democracy itself and that we are all part of it.
Another thing that I have taken away from my conversations with you is that it has always been a struggle. I think we can sometimes feel bad about our polarization or the political difficulties that we may have, and it may seem like a dark hour, but one of the things that I have appreciated from all of your work in American history is your portraying that realism and that genuine struggle of people overcoming things but also maintaining some sense of optimism, an optimism based on a set of principles, and that those principles really do matter.
I was just thinking too about Lincoln, how this leader could wage a war, and such a bloody and difficult war, and then end it in a way that was hopeful for a magnanimous peace, the idea of "charity to all and malice toward none," that he was able to hold those in his mind together. There is still so much inspiration. I hope we can revisit some of these themes in a different way as we move forward, but thank you for all of this.
I just want to wrap things up by letting people know that we have recorded this—you can have access to it; you can share it with friends—on the Carnegie Council YouTube site and also on our own website. We will reconvene next Wednesday at noon, and we're going to have another conversation about leadership in times of crisis with Colonel Jeff McCausland, who is another Carnegie Council Fellow and former dean of the U.S. Army War College.
Ted, do you want to say a word before we wrap it up?
TED WIDMER: I just want to thank you and the Council and all the people who support the Council for keeping the idealistic part of this message in close focus, including what we do wrong—we do things wrong a lot—because that part often gets forgotten in Washington, DC and I'm just grateful to the Council for standing up for ethics. They're so important.
I was a little embarrassed by the Homeric quotations. I thought they might be too pretentious, but I also thought they said something, and I'm glad you liked them. It was about "going home" in two senses: one is going home to our best ideas as a people. By getting to Washington he gets home in a sense; he allows the American idea to stay intact.
And then, at the end of the book he is no longer alive, but he is brought home for burial in Springfield but still very alive as a martyr and as the best exemplar of our ideas in our history.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thanks so much. Thank you to everyone who watched. Have a great week.