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Take Five: Historian Sean Wilentz on the political presidencies of Lincoln and Obama

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2009 - Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln," which has been praised as a definitive interpretation of the United States through the Civil War. His other books include "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008," "Chants Democratic" and "The Kingdom of Matthias."

Besides writing articles for publications such as the New York Times, Salon and Rolling Stone, Wilentz is the resident historian for the official Bob Dylan website and is nearing completion of a cultural and historical account of the singer's life and work.

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In a conversation with the Beacon, Wilentz talked about Lincoln's political deftness, his fellow president from Illinois, Barack Obama, and the climates in which they served.

Why do you title your lecture the "political presidency" of Lincoln?

Wilentz: Most Americans, when they hear the word politics, still think dirty politics. And there is a general idea that Abraham Lincoln, who was our greatest president, somehow rose above politics. Lincoln was a very skilled politician as a younger man, but in the presidency he used more of his political skills to enormously good effect.

Part of it had to do with how he juggled his cabinet, which was a team of rivals, a dysfunctional bunch of schemers. There was also the way he handled various crises; certainly the way he handled the secession crisis, where he seemed to be above politics while at the same time turning it back onto the secessionists.

In many ways politics was the centerpiece of his administration. In the election of 1864, in the middle of a war, he managed to become the first president to be elected to a second term since Andrew Jackson. I think the presumption had become that presidents would only serve one term. In the White House, Lincoln was a very, very shrewd political operator.

How did Lincoln handle popular sentiment of his day?

Wilentz: It was not like today, but there was a fair amount of what might be called grassroots agitation. Lincoln was vilified, he was made fun of. There was all kinds of grousing and grumbling, not only in the South but in the North as well. He was certainly a controversial president, but he managed to keep his head about him, despite the terrible situation he found himself in, and he was very clear about what his goals were, what his responsibilities were, what his obligations were and how he was going to pursue them.

He really was quite iron-willed about that, even though he was flexible in his strategy. Today they would call him a clinical depressive because he was prone to bouts of what he called melancholy. But he somehow managed to get through this horrible experience without losing it, where a weaker constitution might have buckled.

You supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, though you eventually backed Obama for president. How has he done so far?

Wilentz: He has done OK. It's too early to say. Since September, with the collapse of the financial system, the economic crisis we're facing changed the campaign around and changed what was required of him. It became a much deeper problem than many had thought he would face.

In his approach to it, there has been one miscalculation, an important one -- he misread the Republican Party. The Republican Party has become a very hard right-wing outfit, even more now than was true in the 1990s, when they went after Bill Clinton. The stuff we've been seeing on this health-care business seems to have caught the administration unawares.

The last time we had this situation, with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress with a clear agenda for large social reforms, was 1964. Lyndon Johnson, with the wind at his back politically, had to deal with a lot of very, very conservative white Southerners; compared to James Eastland, Max Baucus is nothing. He's a liberal. But with all of that, Johnson managed to get through civil rights laws, Medicare, Medicaid and all sorts of legislation that has improved the lives of Americans.

What was different about the climate of that era?

Johnson was able to work with Republicans like Everett Dirksen, Hugh Scott -- a real coterie of powerful moderate Republicans. With the exceptions of the two senators from Maine, those days are gone. The only person able to do that all through the 1980s and the 1990s was Edward Kennedy.

Through very hard work, Kennedy had learned about the Senate and was able to strike compromises with the likes of (Republican senators) Orrin Hatch (of Utah) and Nancy Kassebaum (of Kansas) to get done things that he wanted done.

Besides the surface facts -- senators from Illinois, etc. -- can you compare Obama to Lincoln, as so many others have?

It's too early to tell. I took exception to people comparing them before Obama even took the oath of office. It's crazy. I like the guy. He's an inspiring speaker. Can he become that great? I suppose. But we didn't know that Abraham Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln until he became Abraham Lincoln.

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