History

Who Am I?

Lincoln's hat

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I am Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat. This September 11, many political leaders will be wearing me, in spirit if not in the flesh. The most appalling instance will be the duel in New York between Republican Gov. George Pataki and Democratic gubernatorial hopeless Andrew Cuomo. Pataki plans to mumble his way through the words of Lincoln's mercifully brief Gettysburg Address during a September 11 ceremony at the World Trade Center site. Not to be outdone, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and scion of the Cuomo dynasty will attempt to shake off a 16-point primary campaign deficit with his own stirring reading of the address on September 10—a rhetorical flourish that will no doubt recall the panache of "Vote for Cuomo, not the homo," the fabled slogan that appeared during his father's failed 1977 bid for mayor of New York.

The recrudescence of Abraham Lincoln as a 9/11 anniversary sop raises some interesting questions. Will the candidates go with the "Hay" version of the fabled speech, the "Nicolay" version, or the most popular "Bliss" version, which contains the words "under God"—a phrase whose use in the Pledge of Allegiance caused a legal dustup back in July? Will other candidates be helping themselves to other morsels of Lincolniana—perhaps a new reading of the Emancipation Proclamation that, like the original, outlaws slavery in enemy territory but not among our allies?

But the real question is why so many politicians are in a hurry to wrap themselves in Honest Abe's clothes. It can't just be nostalgia for such Civil War-era faves as mass conscription and the suspension of habeas corpus; after all, those are fast becoming realities with no help from history.

No, the incongruous reading of Lincoln's speech is useful to give the 9/11 commemoration an air of ongoing national crisis. Every smart politician knows that horrible times work wonders for historical reputations. Receiving anthrax-tainted mail so boosted the national profile of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) that it wouldn't be surprising to find he mailed the letter to himself. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) invites comparisons to Churchill for a little tough talk about Saddam Hussein. Our most highly rated presidents have consistently been those who enjoyed great national crises—preferably involving the deaths or impoverishment of innumerable obscure citizens. Sure, holding office during a time of peace and plenty looks good on paper, but who wants to be Warren G. Harding?

Thus, the solemnity of the September 11 anniversary won't just be about honoring thousands of murdered office workers. It will be an attempt to extend the lease on our National Coming Together for another year. Already, there's evidence that the bonds are starting to fray. President Bush's plan to overthrow the government of Iraq is being greeted by a collective belch of skepticism. Washington's war on corporate fraud has evoked nothing but yawns from the polity. Disapproval ratings for both Congress and the president are inching back to their regular levels. And after we get through the excitement of the first 9/11 anniversary, the public's willingness to accept "counter-terrorism" as a justification for every harebrained government scheme will continue to dwindle. The very fact that a trifling controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance was good for a few days' consternation last month is a strong sign that, even with a real crisis at hand, it's getting harder to hold the public's attention. Which explains the increasingly pathetic antics elected and appointed leaders are performing to keep us interested.

That bodes well for me, the iconic old stovepipe hat, and the bogus authority I confer on all who don me. It's also a good sign for anybody who believes the state exists to service the individual, and not vice versa—or for that matter, anybody who just resents the iron grip politicians have kept on the national attention span since last September.