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by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor

Let's See if We Can Figure This One OutMarilyn Monroe holds a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (photo: Milton Greene, via Michael Donovan/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

This spring I'm finally reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's masterful work, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It's been instructive to read her historical account in the midst of this season of political folly — from Newt Gingrich's rapid freefall to Rep. Weiner's embarrassing Twitter pics to John Edwards' alleged criminal cover-up. But of course when is politics not a display of the follies of men? And I mean “men” here: rare is the female politician caught with her pants down, lawyering up to combat sleaze or scandal.

Published in 2006, Goodwin's book chronicles the lives of Lincoln and three of his famed political adversaries — accomplished men who later became trusted members of his cabinet and fiercely loyal friends. (The film rights were secured by Steven Spielberg years before the book was finished; Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title role next year).

In America's popular and poorly exercised historical imagination, Abraham Lincoln is mostly a cardboard caricature, but in Goodwin's narrative he emerges as a compelling, complex figure. Not really a surprise, I know, but the person and his politics — Lincoln's private ambition and public comportment, his personal burdens and professional brilliance — are irresistibly rendered.

So it's never helpful (or truthful) to characterize earlier eras like Lincoln's as more respectable or dignified than our own, top hats and high collars notwithstanding. The historical record is clear that politics has always been cutthroat and politicians have always been capable of the worst of human behavior. Nor should we assume that Victorian prudishness about sex curtailed the exploitation of women as disposable objects for the amusement of powerful men. Prostitution abounded in Lincoln's America.

But there is something about the inherent contradictions regarding sex in our own age that seems to contribute to a perpetually adolescent outlook on human relationships. Americans are famously puritanical in our views about sex yet perversely voyeuristic about the sex lives of the famous.

We complain when CNN spends hours of air-time covering Anthony Wiener's underpants problem, but seasoned media researchers know that such stories are the bread-and-butter of higher ratings and revenues. We gripe, but we can't turn away.

There is also the correlation between the cultivation of celebrity and a lack of intellectual rigor, which makes sex (or at least sexiness) a preoccupation in American politics. Candidates for public office rarely speak in anything but clichés and soundbites; carefully controlled image is everything.

The three- to four-hour political speeches of Lincoln's day — dense with ideas and historical and literary references — are unfathomable in our own. In a fast-paced visual culture, we want airbrushed good looks not lengthy, complex oratory. Before you know it, people like John Edwards think their sexual attractiveness makes them invincible.

In the end, though, the downfall of men like Wiener and Edwards — whether short-lived or for the long haul — may be less about sexual preoccupations (theirs and ours) and more about small lives (also theirs and ours). One of the ironies of our increasingly globalized world is that we are more solipsistic than ever, living our lives through the mediation of smaller and smaller screens, surrounded by people but starving for real human connection.

In 19th-century prairie towns like Springfield, Illinois where the isolation was real, it was somehow possible to “live large,” to practice the virtue of magnanimity: a generosity of spirit and intellect that is the opposite of our modern smallness, that seeks contentment not in self-gratification or the attainment of celebrity but in giving oneself fully to a transcendent purpose. Not that Lincoln and some of his rival-friends, especially, weren't bundles of neuroses, capable, at times, of self-serving pettiness — but at least they exhibited, when it mattered most, something of genuine human selflessness in service to the greater good.

In our time, unfortunately, the self is most often the greater good. And politicians whose very survival as politicians — getting elected or staying elected — consumes their every waking moment, seem inexplicably tempted toward small, selfish, secret acts of betrayal and self-sabotage. Acts that are intended to prop up the insecure ego but which ultimately humiliate and destroy, laying low not just the powerful men themselves but the women and children, family and friends, who love them.


Debra Dean MurphyDebra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

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10 Comments

Brilliantly written. 
Thank you.

Thanks for that great photo!  I don't agree, however, that the American imagination holds Lincoln as a cardboard caricature but rather exactly as a "compelling, complex figure",  This is why he is still so loved...

Outstanding.

Great article---I'm really curious about the context/backstory of Marilyn Monroe's posing with the Lincoln photo, obviously in California (one of these three just doesn't belong . . . )
Statesmanship aside, 19th century politics also included brawls and duels, often in chamber.  Imagine Pres. Obama dueling with the congressman who blurted out "you lie!" from the floor. Andrew Jackson had no qualms about "defending his honor."  Pres. Obama needs to have more "beer summits" in the Rose Garden.
Both as a man and as one who grew up with the notion of politics being the summit of patriotic civil duty---being cumulatively jaded ever since Watergate---I am saddened by the scandals and by the exploitative journalism.  Not letting the male pols off the hook, but I am also disgusted with the equally poor behavior of predatory (or at least willing and available) females who apparently follow politicians as if they were professional athletes.

Framing our own modern technological zeitgeist against the framework of such a bombastic figure is slander at best. You illustrate, rightly, earlier in the essay about being careful to compare eras with, "So it’s never helpful (or truthful) to characterize earlier eras like Lincoln’s as more respectable or dignified than our own, top hats and high collars notwithstanding. The historical record is clear that politics has always been cutthroat and politicians have always been capable of the worst of human behavior." Then proceed to completely tear down that original assessment by arguing that the world Lincoln lived in was somehow better for intellectual profundity than our own with this, "In 19th-century prairie towns like Springfield, Illinois where the isolation was real, it was somehow possible to “live large,” to practice the virtue of magnanimity: a generosity of spirit and intellect that is the opposite of our modern smallness, that seeks contentment not in self-gratification or the attainment of celebrity but in giving oneself fully to a transcendent purpose." And while it may be obvious that I disagree vehemently with that assertion, I have to ask: Do you honestly believe that a world with less information readily available to the general public was more intellectually rigorous? It seems silly to make such an assertion considering the fact of a more democratic, free flow of information of all kinds to all people. To consider that only in isolation that one could possibly "live large" or that "the virtue of magnanimity" does not stretch to our modern "smallness" is a plague, factually improbable and more importantly tragically misguided. It is a symptom of generationism I think that makes normally measured, brilliant people speak about modernity as if it were some sort of disease. How ironic. 

Andre - I'm not sure how you find what I write here "slanderous" and I think you (rather uncharitably) mischaracterize some of my observations. I AM trying to point out an irony, though not the one you end with. I simply observe that in our "large" and ever-connected world (globalization, social media, et. al) we are curiously tempted toward "small" lives: focusing inward on our own gratification, stimulation, etc. It's not universally true, of course, but it's an identifiable and troubling trend. I'm careful not to romanticize or over-simplify Lincoln and his time but I think it's also identifiably true that the stand-out politicians of that era (for all their flaws) did exhibit a kind of largess that is missing from our current politicial landscape.

Context is always the most important part of such comparisons...I think...for we cannot know, had our technology been available then, how differently the politics of that day would have played out...how taking Lincoln out of his era...might compare with placing a Gingrich or a Clinton in the same circumstances...would Lincoln have been Lincoln?...What made Lincoln who he was?...would Lincoln have "cottoned" to the tools at his disposal...after all he would have been like many 50 somethings who disdain technology...or he might have been very taken with them and used them to his advantage...In Lincoln's era, after all there was certainly public discourse about the role of technology...much of it fearful of just what we find distressing today...I kind of agree that such comparisons are not all that useful...

Compelling article! 
First, I would agree that politics and the media that controls it, largely over-consumed with sex such as you emphasize in the Weiner example. It does seem as though throughout history there has been some preoccupation with sex, the body,and perhaps as a greater expression of "self image". However, with our present day "smallness" of independent thought characterized by the "greatness" of our media giving us daily doses of "whos hot" and "what to care about", perhaps this obsession has gone further than ever before. 
I think this contrast that you touch on of smallness and magnanimity, is one of many layers. 
In a past very "rustic" living situation in the heart of Costa Rica, I had the experience of being/feeling/knowing something so much greater than I'd felt before and since. I believe this greatness of connection came from living smaller (ie. less stimulus to compare myself). And while in the back of my mind I knew there were people living in million dollar mansions comparative to my one bedroom shack, it didnt mattter, i didnt witness it, i was happy. 
It seems that as globalization gets bigger, our recognition of our internal witness gets smaller, perhaps just quieter, out-noised by the bombardment of "who (mostly people we've never met and will never meet) is doing what and where". Perhaps our focus has become so panoramic that it is time to refocus on something small again, as individuals, and a global culture.
It does seem that most of the antics of politics is steeped in this belief that we exist only in the view of others (ie. looking good). With less of this pull to "look" any certain way to anyone and acknowledgement and reverence for our "own inner voice", it is perhaps possible, even in politics, to make similar choices to those that our forefathers made, a selfish choice of selflessness. 

I enjoyed reading this essay.  I have also thought about the average American's commitment to politics in the time of the Lincoln and Douglas debates compared to the 21st century.  Not only did the Lincoln/Douglas debate crowds remain attentive for hours, but the debates were held without amplification of their voices - no sound systems!   In addition, audiences put up with summer heat and humidity - no air conditioning!   

if our bellies are filled...then our greatest need is to be understood be our lives small or otherwise...I think...will we ever get the possible exponentiality in attempting to understand another...that this will alleviate that terrible gnawing...