Friday, February 12, 2010

Two Men from Illinois: A Study in Contrast

My friend, Keith Ross, has an marvelous and inspiring piece on the moral character of Abraham Lincoln which includes this anecdote from Lincoln's early political life, taken Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals":
Goodwin reports that in February of 1855, after several weeks delay due to severe snow storms, the Illinois Senate was seated to elect the next Senator. After the first ballot, Lincoln led with 45 votes (a majority of 51 was needed), James Shields received 41, and Congressman Lyman Trumbull held 5 votes. Trumbull was aligned with the antislavery party and expected he would eventually have to yield his votes to Lincoln. After nine ballots, Lincoln held a high of 47 votes, but the five voters for Trumbull, led by Norman Judd of Chicago, refused to yield and give Lincoln the victory.
At this point Lincoln realized that the only way for the antislavery coalition to win was to yield his votes to Trumbull and allow Trumbull to be the next Senator from Illinois. According to Goodwin, Lincoln “advised his floor manager, Stephen Logan, to drop him for
Trumbull. Logan refused at first, protesting the injustice of the candidate with the much larger vote giving in to the candidate with the smaller vote.” Lincoln was adamant and said, “You will lose both Trumbull and myself and I think the cause in this case is to be preferred to men.”
Trumbull became the next Senator from Illinois and Lincoln “expressed no hard feelings toward either Trumbull or Judd. He deliberately showed up at Trumbull’s victory party, with a smile on his face and a warm handshake for the victor.” As a young man attempting to forge his career, to step back without resentment and allow a colleague with 5 votes to prevail when he was holding a near decisive total displays a unique ability to put a higher good ahead of personal desires. The point of the vignette is not the outcome, but Lincoln’s bold decision. Yet Goodwin reports a happy ending in that “Neither Trumbull nor Judd would ever forget Lincoln’s generous behavior. Indeed, both men would assist him in
his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1858, and Judd would play a critical role in his run for the presidency in 1860.”
Lincoln's character shines through here and it stands out even more strikingly in comparison with the Illinois politician who has taken such pains to encourage a comparison between himself and Lincoln. But the comparison with the 16th president hardly works in favor of the 44th. For Keith's piece reminded me of some things I read a couple of years ago on the CNN website and some earlier news items related to it. The CNN article is from May of 2008:
In his first race for office, seeking a state Senate seat on Chicago's gritty South Side in 1996, Obama effectively used election rules to eliminate his Democratic competition.

As a community organizer, he had helped register thousands of voters. But when it came time to run for office, he employed Chicago rules to invalidate the voting petition signatures of three of his challengers.

The move denied each of them, including incumbent Alice Palmer, a longtime Chicago activist, a place on the ballot. It cleared the way for Obama to run unopposed on the Democratic ticket in a heavily Democrat district.

"That was Chicago politics," said John Kass, a veteran Chicago Tribune columnist. "Knock out your opposition, challenge their petitions, destroy your enemy, right? It is how Barack Obama destroyed his enemies back in 1996 that conflicts with his message today. He may have gotten his start registering thousands of voters. But in that first race, he made sure voters had just one choice."

Obama's challenge was perfectly legal, said Jay Stewart of the Chicago's Better Government Association. Although records of the challenges are no longer on file for review with the election board, Stewart said Obama is not the only politician to resort to petition challenges to eliminate the competition.

"He came from Chicago politics," Stewart said. "Politics ain't beanbag, as they say in Chicago. You play with your elbows up, and you're pretty tough and ruthless when you have to be. Sen. Obama felt that's what was necessary at the time, that's what he did. Does it fit in with the rhetoric now? Perhaps not."
Then there's this from the Chicago Tribune:
In the Democratic primary, Obama found himself the overwhelming beneficiary when the campaign of former securities trader Blair Hull crashed in the aftermath of Hull’s release of court files from a messy divorce. Though Obama has been a passive beneficiary of Ryan’s latest problems, the Democrat’s campaign worked aggressively behind the scenes to fuel controversy about Hull’s filings.
Finally, a blogger at the time wrote:
…..the Tribune finally admitted that it was Axelrod and the Obama campaign that brought pressure on the press to demand the unsealing of M. Blair Hull divorce records, which had had their contents leaked to media outlets by the Obama campaign even earlier. The Obama campaign also helped orchestrate a demonstration by women’s groups demanding Hull’s withdrawal from the race. Coincidentally, this was the same weekend Obama’s first commercials hit the airwaves. Interestingly (or maybe not), the same exact thing happened to another of his rivals–Jack Ryan.
All of us who follow and revere the work of our friend René Girard are keenly aware of the power of mimetic influence. Let's hope and pray, therefore, that future political leaders choose the right Illinois politician as their model.

No comments: