Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The gulf between then and now

Cleaning out my files, I ran across something I wrote 1998-ish that illustrates the gulf between the truly awful candidates for President we have today and those that once were. The story itself doesn't say much philosophically about the man, but simply offers insight into his character.

It came from a small book about Abraham Lincoln that I picked up for cheap while traveling through the airport in St. Louis... and I can't find the damn thing now to be sure the name, but I think it was "Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln". (The entire book was quite entertaining -- Lincoln was indeed a wit, and uncommonly wise, too.)

----------- original message from 1998 -----------

I don't fully understand the context of the negative quotes I have heard regarding Lincoln [ie, in 1998, criticism that he undermined the Constitution with various war acts], but after reading what little I have, I can unequivocally say: He was truly a great man, whatever his flaws. He reminds me of a character in a Hugo novel [ie, in particular, "Ninety Three" was on my mind -- because of Lincoln's utter devotion to saving the Union]. I offer you the following extended excerpt which reminded me of a certain scene in Atlas Shrugged. [Ie, the scene when Rearden tries to save the Wet Nurse (the young man sent to regulate Rearden's operations and who then betrayed the government to try to save Rearden) as he dies of a bullet wound, while a mob ransacks the plant of Rearden Steel.]

On a narrow cot, in the military hospital at City Point, Major Charles H. Houghton was dying. He had been in command of Fort Haskell, a strategic point in the rear of Grant's lines, being directed in an effort to break the Union lines. Against Major Houghton, a mere boy of twenty years, were pitted the science and strategic knowledge of Gen. John B. Gordon, of Georgia.

Help came at last. The long-haired gray men were beaten back, and Lee's desperate move was checked. Houghton's leg was amputated and he was taken to the hospital at City Point, so that he could die in comparative peace, on a clean white cot. But for days he lingered on the borderland of life.

Sometimes in the long stretches of the night, when life and resistance are at low ebb, it seemed to those who watched that he must be zigzagging back and forth across and across that mysterious line. Yet always in the morning, when friends inquired for news of him, the surgeons could say: "He is alive.
That's all."

At nine o'clock one morning, the door at the end of the ward was opened and Dr. MacDonald, chief surgeon, called:

"Attention! The President of the United States."

There, outside the door, the sunlight streaming into the room over square, gaunt shoulders, stood Abraham Lincoln. Into the room he stalked, bending his awkward form ungracefully -- for the doorway was low. At cot after cot he paused to speak some word of cheer, some message of comfort to a wounded soldier.

At Houghton's cot the two men paused. "This is the man," whispered MacDonald.

"So young!" questioned the President."This the man that held Fort Haskell?"

MacDonald nodded.

With a large, uncouth hand the President motioned for a chair. Silently a nurse placed one at the cot's head. Houghton did not know; he could not. As though he were afraid it would clatter and hurt the sufferer, Lincoln softly placed his stove-pipe hat of exaggerated fashion on the floor. Dust covered his clothes, which were not pressed. As he leaned over the cot a tawdry necktie, much awry, dangled near Houghton's head. Gently as a woman he took the wasted colorless hand in his own sinewy one of iron strength. Just the suspicion of a pressure was there, but Houghton opened his eyes.

A smile which had forgotten suffering answered the great President's sad smile. In tones soft, almost musical it seemed, the President spoke to the boy on the cot, told him how he had heard of his great deeds, how he was proud of his fellow

A few feeble words Houghton spoke in reply. At the poor, toneless voice the President winced. The doctor had told him that Houghton would die. Then happened a strange thing. The President asked to see the wound which was taking so noble a life.

Surgeons and nurses tried to dissuade him, but Lincoln insisted. The horrors of war were for him to bear as well as others, he told them, and to him the wound was a thing holy.

Bandages long and stained were removed, and the President saw.

Straightening on his feet, he flung his long, lank arms upward. A groan such as Houghton had not given voice to escaped the lips of the President.

"Oh, this war! This awful, awful war!" he sobbed.

Down the deep-lined furrows of the homely, kindly face hot tears burned their way. Slowly, tenderly, the President leaned over the pillow. The dust of travel had not been washed from his face. Now the tears, of which he was not ashamed, cut furrows in the grime and stained the white sheets on which they fell.

While nurses and surgeons and men watched there in the little hospital, Abraham Lincoln took the pallid face of Houghton between his hands and kissed it just below the damp, tangled hair.

"My boy," he said, brokenly, swallowing, "you must live. You must live!"

The first gleam of real, warm, throbbing life came into the dull eyes. Houghton stiffened with a conscious, elastic tension on the cot. With a little wan smile he managed to drag a hand to his forehead. It was the nearest he could come to a salute. The awkward form of the President bent lower and lower to catch the faint, faint words.

"I intend to, sir," was what Houghton said.

And he did.

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