presidential fetish

The recently released Iraq Study Group Report should provide 160 pages of fascinating reading on the 14 hour plane ride. The name “study group” makes it sound like some after-school activity to keep kids off the streets. Despite increasing disapproval from the American people, George Bush still won a second term for the simple reason that no wartime president has ever lost an election. Ever. And plus he has a Mandate from Heaven.

The Republicans often make a big deal about being the Party of Lincoln, who helped found it. During the increasing unrest before the Civil War, Democrats (both North and South) viewed him as a simple backwoods hick who was unequal to the task of resolving slavery, a war-mongerer for not letting the Confederacy secede peacefully, and some kind of demagogue after he won a second election during wartime. Sound familiar? And yet Lincoln is fetishized more than any crowned head in Europe and is second only to Washington in this country. I’ve never seen the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., but pictures are frightening: a 19-foot statue, enthroned like Zeus, with Roman fasces and other Greco-Roman power symbols. When Tolstoy visited an aboriginal tribe in the Caucasus Mountains (whence the word “Caucasian” presumably), the story they most wanted to hear from the outside world was how Lincoln freed the slaves and forgave his enemies. In an NBC interview, Lee Hamilton and James Baker even used the very tired Gettysburg Address quote, “whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

My interest in Lincoln is mostly psychological. He suffered from depression for most of his adult life, and several of his family members had violent mental illnesses. Twice as a young man he was suicidal and had to be watched by friends. His famous sense of humor was an emotional cover, and to close friends he admitted only living to accomplish some great work before he died. This has been covered up by most modern historians, because no one wants to hear that the Great Emancipator was gloomy, anti-social, and tried to off himself. And yet despite his depression he lived a fuller life than many people we would call normal or sane. There is a theory that depression is caused by a frustrated desire, but no one knows what it was in Lincoln’s case.

I feel a personal connection because we were both 25 years old when depression first materialized out of our minds, the classic textbook age. It gives me hope that Lincoln’s great accomplishments took place later in his life, when he was 51 years old. The interested reader is referred to the excellent, recent book Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

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~ by Paul Pham on 7 December 2006.

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