Gene Lewis Perry

If life were like fairy tales, I'd have been devoured by trolls already.

humility and the Presidents

Posted on | February 8, 2009 | 1 Comment

A lot has been made recently about connections between Obama and Lincoln, with no little encouragement from Obama himself.  While plenty of these comparisons were overwrought (the media’s perennial obsession with “Team of Rivals” being the worst example), one resemblance does stand out:

The most important quality may be humility, which both Obama and Lincoln repeatedly refer to as an essential virtue. Humility in this case is not to be confused with meekness or passivity. Rather, it comes from confidence. A Lincolnesque leader is confident enough to be humble—to not feel the need to bluster or dominate, but to be sufficiently sure of one’s own judgment and self-worth to really listen and not be threatened by contrary advice.

That intellectual self-confidence and stability is a marked contrast with not only our most recent past-President, but also Clinton, whose brilliance was marred by a lack of personal and professional discipline.

Obama, on the other hand, seems remarkably grounded.  It takes a certain kind of monster to run for, much less win the Presidency, but Obama has apparently done it while remaining psychologically whole.  And he shows signs of trying to govern in a way that recognizes his role in a larger system, avoiding the narcissism that can lead a President to overreach.

What really interests me is that this contrasts not only Bush and Clinton, but also Lincoln.  While Lincoln does share the brilliance and humility of Obama, his humility seems derived more from brokenness — a wisdom born of suffering.

I started thinking about this after seeing these photos:

The first was taken in the early 1840s; the second in 1848, when Lincoln was 39 years old.  The difference is striking:

Numerous accounts have revealed that Lincoln underwent a noticeable change in his physical appearance beginning in January 1841 as a result of a grave emotional crisis. This coincides with his reported failure to go through with his scheduled marriage to Mary Todd, leaving her literally waiting for him at the altar. (They were married the following year.) This emotional crisis, just one of a series of such episodes to plague him throughout his life, was the cause of Lincoln losing a considerable amount of weight.

This emotional crisis was not a one time occurence.  From another article:

Such spells were just one thread in a curious fabric of behavior and thought that his friends called his “melancholy.” He often wept in public and recited maudlin poetry. He told jokes and stories at odd times—he needed the laughs, he said, for his survival. As a young man he talked more than once of suicide, and as he grew older he said he saw the world as hard and grim, full of misery, made that way by fate and the forces of God. “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” His law partner William Herndon said, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”

Several explanations have been offered for Lincoln’s depression, from a hereditary medical condition to homosexuality.  But whatever the reason, Lincoln is made more tragic, and I would say more admirable, by what he had to overcome.  In this way he is very different from Obama, though I suspect Lincoln would never be elected in today’s world, with our optimism fetish and the requirements of television.

Compared to Lincoln, Obama has led a charmed life.  Even as he represents the fulfillment of so many dreams, that achievement is a culmination of much greater courage and hardship than Obama ever had to experience personally.  He seems to recognize this, and perhaps that is the source of his humility.  I hope he can hold on to that lesson while in the bubble of the Presidency.

Ultimately this does not have that much relevance to politics.  The situations and time periods are too different to make any direct comparison.  But it’s worth looking at as examples of what it means to be human.

We can only be like Obama with a lot of luck.  For the rest of us, Lincoln is a more valuable role model.  Our frailty shows us what we cannot control.  The best of us do not overcome that, but live well in spite of it.


One Response to “humility and the Presidents”

  1. Beth
    February 10th, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    Glad to see you finally made it back and actually wrote something thought provoking and insightful. Keep it up. You have much to offer. I was tired of all the links to other sites.

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