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World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card July 25, 2004

Mud-Covered Presidents

During his first presidential campaign, he was vilified and ridiculed, not for his ideas, but for his unpolished appearance and his folksy accent and his lack of education. They called him stupid, an ape, a country bumpkin, and made fun of the way he pronounced his words.

His enemies declared that his election would be the end of everything good in the world. They threatened to leave the United States if he won -- this despite the fact that he was certainly the most moderate Republican who could have won his party's nomination.

He won on a fluke. If his main opponent's vote had not been diluted by third-party candidates, he most likely would have lost. As it was, he received far less than the majority of the vote.

He did not ask for the war that came on his watch, but he was grimly determined to see it through to victory. The trouble was, nobody thought he was doing it right.

The radicals in his own party demanded that he prosecute it one way; but he had to take into account the political reality that the country was divided and he could only wage war in a way that the people would support.

Even though his own party held a majority in both houses, he constantly had Congress looking over his shoulder. His cabinet contained some powerful personalities who thought they were better suited to make decisions than the ignorant man who had accidentally become president. And in the country at large, he was savaged in the press and second-guessed by everyone.

He made mistakes. He trusted the wrong man in some cases; he insisted on some military principles that made the war more difficult to win.

The war was still raging -- and with discouraging results, too many casualties, few visible signs of victory -- as the election approached. The candidate the Democrats ran against him was regarded by many as a war hero who everyone expected would find some compromise that would allow the United States to declare victory and bring the troops home without wasting any more soldiers' lives in a lost cause.

But the soldiers themselves knew better, and many political observers believed that in the election their absentee ballots might provide the margin of victory for the President they trusted. Of course these soldiers feared death and mourned the loss of brave friends who had already died or been crippled by war.

The soldiers preferred, however, to stay with the President they trusted to see the war through to victory. Why? Because if he won, then those deaths would mean something. And if the other fellow became President, then all those lost lives would have been spent for nothing at all.

In the long run, it was this President's courage and wisdom, his constant juggling of other people's priorities and his constant soothing of ambitious or angry or jealous or arrogant men that led to complete victory.

And a week after his second inaugural, he was shot to death by an actor who hated him and everything he stood for.

George W. Bush is no Abraham Lincoln. Which is good, because what we need right now is a living President, not an icon.

The Lincoln that buildings are named for and whose image is stamped on pennies and five-dollar bills never existed.

Instead there was a man that few people thought capable of dealing with the Presidency at the single worse moment in our history.

Only a few presidents have had to face such times. An attack on American soil; an enemy with enormous power to disrupt our lives, and whom we could only with great difficulty attack, and then not directly, not for years.

It happened in the War of 1812 -- a dangerous (and some think needless) war against an arrogant world power. In that one, an enemy was able to damage symbolic government buildings for the last time in our history ... until 9/11.

We fought it in part because our enemy -- Britain -- had a habit of stopping our ships at sea and seizing our sailors. And because they also had a penchant for arming the Indian tribes that committed terror attacks against American settlers beyond the Appalachians.

That war was the challenge of President James Madison. One of the founding fathers -- but no soldier. Still, we won against a world power, through a combination of military victories and negotiations.

It happened also in 1941, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had seen for years that war was inevitable and who had manipulated and finagled and finessed to get Congress to provide Britain with the war materiel to continue its lone fight against Germany. For if Britain had fallen, then our ability to wage war with Germany would have been drastically diminished.

But the American people didn't want to join that war. If the Japanese had not bombed American soil, we would have stayed happily within our own borders and let the rest of the world tear itself apart.

Roosevelt, like Lincoln, had a large contingent of Americans -- this time Republicans -- who thought he was the devil. They thought of him as being a closet Communist; they hated him for running for a third term in 1940; they hated him for trying to pack the Supreme Court and for ramming social change down the throat of Americans even though the Constitution clearly forbade many of the things he tried to do.

Roosevelt managed to hold our war effort together, choosing commanders sometimes for political reasons, but in the crunch, putting the main responsibility in the hands of the men who knew what they were doing.

And Roosevelt won his war -- and his reelection to a fourth term in 1944. He died before victory, but when the end was clearly in view.

Then there was Mr. Lincoln's war -- the Civil War, which was ostensibly fought over the issue of union vs. states' rights -- though the only issue over which anyone was interested in seceding in 1860 was slavery, its perpetuation and expansion.

Lincoln was no soldier, either; one hesitates to count his brief stint in the militia during one of the Indian campaigns. Rather like National Guard service.

Everybody agreed that Lincoln ought not to meddle in the war -- leave it to the professionals who know what they're doing.

But Lincoln did meddle. He forced the Army to adopt breech-loading rifles which, when they finally came into service in numbers great enough to make a difference, effectively multiplied the firepower of the Union Army by ten. It may have made the difference between defeat and victory.

Right up to the end, though, his enemies practically frothed at the mouth when they spoke of him. When they weren't enraged, they had nothing but contempt for him.

These comparisons between George W. Bush and Abraham Lincoln are not specious. It is precisely when America is divided, when a President is vilified by large and powerful segments of society, that our enemies feel safest in engaging us in war.

Who would have thought that a President elected by a minority and treated with contempt by the power elite, a President that many claimed was a mere puppet of the strong men in his cabinet, could nevertheless lead the military -- and the country -- through a dangerous war despite a never-ending struggle with harsh, outspoken critics of the war and of his conduct of it?

There are many things that contributed to the Union victory in the Civil War, and many things that contributed to the many failures along the way. President Lincoln was responsible for items of both kinds; and he took the blame for all the failures, even the ones that happened despite his best efforts or contrary to his direct orders.

In the end, though, the citizens of the United States, by a decent majority, but not that wide a one, stood with Abraham Lincoln and finished the war with him at the helm. Which meant that when the war ended, the union was made permanent, and there was to be no more slavery anywhere in America.

*

I just read a book by Geoffrey Perret, called Lincoln's War: The Untold Story of America's Greatest President as Commander in Chief. It's a powerful and insightful work, and I kept being struck by the parallels (and, of course, the differences) between what Lincoln faced and what Bush faces today.

All through the war, Lincoln was badgered by groups of governors or congressmen who insisted that he send an army here or there, or change this or that policy. He would listen sympathetically, express his concern, and promise nothing.

One time, though, he spoke plainly: Suppose, he said to them, all you owned was in the form of gold coins, and you had put your treasure in the hands of the famous tightrope walker Blondin to carry across Niagara Falls.

"Would you shake the cable," Lincoln asked, "or keep shouting out to him, 'Blondin, stand up a little straighter! Blondin, stoop a little more! Go a little faster! Lean a little more to the north. Lean a little more to the south!'

"No! You would hold your breath as well as your tongue, and keep your hands off until he was safe over." In other words, we're doing the best we can, in the government right now, to get our treasure across the falls without falling (p. 132).

Lincoln was plagued by a Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. Led by Benjamin Wade, the committee second-guessed Lincoln at every step. They disparaged Lincoln at every turn and demanded reports and information -- which they promptly published.

After the war, "Lee claimed that what he learned about the Union Army from reading the reports of the committee was worth two divisions of Confederate troops" (p. 333).

George W. Bush is far luckier than Abraham Lincoln was. Lincoln inherited a military that had been stripped of many of its best leaders because they went over to the South. George W. Bush, on the other hand, has a military that has done a superb job of changing fundamental doctrines and putting command in the hands of bold and competent leaders at every level.

But the political problems are similar. Faced with enemies who are hard to find, being few in number and able to blend into the population, he cannot produce the quick victory that many hoped for. And as the campaigns go on and on, the public wearies of them. People start wishing the war would just go away. It's so tempting to vote for the man who says he can make it happen.

These days President Bush must sometimes feel like Lincoln did, in August of 1864, as he tried to run a war and the country while seeking reelection.

"When Lincoln's old friend Leonard Swett stopped by, he asked point-blank: 'Do you expect to be reelected?'

"Lincoln replied, 'Well, I don't think I ever heard of any man being elected to an office unless someone was for him'" (p. 391).

Before the election, Lincoln wrote a note to himself, signed it, sealed it, and then had the cabinet sign the back of the sealed memo. Here's what it said:

"This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be reelected. Then it will probably be my duty to so cooperate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have probably secured the election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards" (p. 392).

He calculated that at best he would have "no more than a six-vote lead in the electoral college" (p. 392).

In the end, he had 55 percent of the popular vote and a 212-to-21 margin in the electoral college. Most historians believe the votes of the soldiers were crucial in that victory. Certainly Lincoln did.

But if there hadn't also been millions of civilian voters who, despite all the clamorous criticism of the President, nevertheless voted for him, the soldiers' votes would not have carried the day.

We delegate our defense to the military. But our vote cannot be delegated to them -- we are all on the front lines in that struggle.

I don't know if President Bush is in any significant way the equal of President Lincoln. Lincoln, however, is not on the ballot. What matters is whether Bush's opponents are in any significant way his equal in their willingness to fight an implacable enemy whose goal is to murder Americans of every age and in any place.

I sat in a room recently with some very bright men and women who have thought about issues pertaining to this war with piercing intelligence and a lot better information than ordinary people like me are likely to have. I learned a lot from them.

But there was one appalling moment, sitting at that table, when it seemed a kind of consensus was emerging that our goal in this war was not to end terrorism or even defeat all the terrorists. It was simply to reach a point where terrorism in the United States reached "tolerable levels."

The comparison was made between the number of deaths by terrorists and the number of deaths by auto accident each year. "We live with the auto deaths," the consensus seemed to be. "We can learn to live with a certain level of terrorism, too. After all, Europe already has." (Europe's acceptance of a certain level of terrorist acts may explain a lot about the recent behavior of our reputed allies.)

What my fellow participants had forgotten, in this equation, was the fact that there's an enormous difference between accidental death and murder. After all, everybody dies. One hundred percent. Nobody has yet figured out a way to put a stop to this carnage. And we all live our lives in the shadow of death.

But when somebody is deliberately murdered, we regard it as the most serious of crimes.

And when a group of people make it their policy to wage murderous war against the United States, attacking civilians as they go about their ordinary trusting lives, then any government that does not take drastic steps to put a stop to those enemies does not deserve to be in power. Including invading the nations that give support and shelter and weapons to terrorists of any kind.

Unless, of course, we show by our vote that we prefer a government that will consider an average of a dozen or a hundred American deaths by terrorism each year to be tolerable.

The issues in this election are very clear -- except to those who wish to pretend that they are not.

When November rolls around, we will choose for ourselves exactly the president we deserve.

In 1864, the American people decided they didn't deserve dithering, pro-negotiation, anti-abolition ex-general George McClellan. They chose Lincoln instead, and as a result chose union and victory and freedom for slaves.

I hope with all my heart that in 2004 the American people don't deserve John Kerry as their president.

And if, as I hope, President Bush is reelected, I strongly urge him not to get within pistol range of any insane anti-war actors. There are so many these days.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.


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