Michael’s “272 Words”

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To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library asked notable Americans—including Presidents Carter, Bush (41), Clinton and Obama, Sandra Day O’Connor, Colin Powell and Steven Spielberg—to submit hand-written, 272 words essays in the spirit of our 16th President.  Here is the text of Michael’s essay:

In this sour season of division and disillusionment, Lincoln’s example matters more than ever. Americans need inspiration from his up-from-the-bottom rise, but must also learn lessons from his means of ascent. Lincoln reached the pinnacle of power through his two great loves: politics and prose.

He spent his entire adult life as a proud, practicing politician. Unlike his common modern counterparts, he didn’t go from a legal career to public office; he only earned his law license five years after his first run for the Illinois legislature (at age 23). To him, the process of vote-seeking and coalition-building counted as ennobling, not demeaning. He also unashamedly embraced partisanship, remaining one of the last of the loyal Whigs until the party he had always cherished suffered complete collapsed in the 1850s.

By that time Lincoln had become a national figure not through achievements or electoral victories (there were few of those) but through the force of his words. His love of language shines through even the earliest letters and transcriptions of stump speeches and debates. Consider his spectacularly wrong prediction in the Gettysburg Address: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” The words resonate with the music of poetry; they count as not only memorable, but easy to memorize.

If our culture could follow Lincoln in exalting, rather than shunning, the grubby business of practical politics; if more of our leaders learned to deploy prose with the precision and dignity of the Emancipator, then we might yet enjoy an American revival and perhaps, even, a new birth of freedom.

(Reprinted with permission of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation)

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Comments (7)

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  1. jvermeer  •  Nov 20, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    First requirement for using words effectively: Don’t lie.

    • jguy  •  Nov 21, 2013 at 7:59 am

      That would be lovely…..but the truth is – some of the most effective wordsmiths lie with
      great ease and comfort. While “honest Abe” did have political challengers and
      adversaries —-he did not have a 24 hour a day news cycle and agressive reporters
      analyzing and twisting every utterance…..It was a different day…probably a better day
      to be in the public eye..

  2. Mary Denise  •  Nov 20, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    I watched the PBS Gettysburg program and I remember when I visited the site it was very
    sad and I thought President Lincoln captured in his speech that this is a sacred place. Thousands died here and as President he had the responsibilty to make the decisions that go with being President no matter how difficult and unbearable.

  3. Luke  •  Nov 22, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    Another wonderful aspect about Lincoln is that though few have had more ambition for personal accomplishment in his chosen profession of politics and finally governing, he seemed perfectly content to stake his reputation on what he could do for his country and what he truly believed to be the right path rather than sacrificing either for the attainment of personal glory. As he pointed out early in his career, no man had the right to the bread earned by the sweat and toil of another, he followed that principle through to the obvious, though then radical, conclusion that, first, in the Lincoln Douglas (a Democrat) debates, slavery should not be extended and later in the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery must be ended in the United States.

  4. Dave Hill  •  Nov 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Once again Michael’s eloquence takes us to a better place, as did – and very much had to – the prose of the 16th president.

  5. David Hunt  •  Nov 22, 2013 at 11:45 pm

    Describing one as “well-spoken” implies “clearly thought-out”. MM is right. coming to agreement is easier if we express ourselves clearly. Another Salem host says “More important than agreement is understanding where we disagree”. Getting there requires effective communication. If both sides are articulate? Faster, more efficient resolution, (or agreement to disagree). If one or both sides are eloquent, who knows who may be persuaded? Wish I could have witnessed the Lincoln-Douglass debates!

  6. yan  •  Nov 26, 2013 at 2:47 am

    I agree with you on this one Michael [as usual.] But why then won’t you agree that Obama’s deal on Iran has a good chance to be a great step forward for peace?

    Full disclosure: I voted for Romney, McCain, GWB twice, Dole, and Bush the elder. I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of Obamacare.

    You said, as do others, that this peace deal is analogous to how we trusted and were deceived by N. Korea. But we never signed any treaty with N. Korea. And we certainly were never permitted to have the IAEA on the ground inspecting the work of N. Korean nuclear scientists. So on that point we are comparing apples and oranges.

    Bolton has pointed out that this deal will make it more difficult for Israel to attack Iran. Entirely correct. But since we have inspectors on the ground who can do the work of making sure that Iran doesn’t enrich uranium in sufficient quantity and quality to create a nuclear bomb, why shouldn’t we prefer such a course to war?

    For those who think that Israel’s existence is at stake and not worth risking the IAEA being deceived, let me explain why I do not think that its existence is at stake and why this deception will not occur.

    If Iran were to secretly enrich uranium and develop a bomb after having signed this treaty, they will have lost all credibility in the world community. But credibility leading to their rejoining the family of nations is what the Iranian people most want. Why would they jeopardize this prospect and make themselves into greater pariahs than they were formerly by violating this treaty and building a bomb? How does that make their future rosier?

    Again, people want to draw an analogy to N. Korea that is false. This analogy assumes that the Iranians really want to be isolated, so long as they have the bomb. But the fact that they are signing this treaty should be enough to show people that this is not what they want. They don’t want to follow in the footsteps of N. Korea. Rather, N. Korea is an object lesson to them: while N. Korea may have the bomb, they have no friends [not even China is a real friend to them] and no future. Frankly, the Iranian people are better than that. And I do not think that they, or their leaders, want that.

    Of course we must trust but verify in this case, as Reagan said. But we must trust far enough that we may be given the opportunity to verify. It makes sense for everyone: all signatories, and ultimately for Israel too, because an attack on Iran by Israel will further harden the rest of the world against Israel.

    Obama has done the real political work which was required–‘the grubby business of practical politics,’ as you put it, in the international arena. It is a delicate peace but he and State deserve applause for this achievement. I urge you not to fall into the Lindsay Graham/Chuck Schumer camp on this issue. ‘It is better to jaw-jaw than to war-war’. Winston Churchill.

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