David Herbert Donald: Comparing Bush and Lincoln

Roundup: Historians' Take

Mike Pride interviews David Herbert Donald, in the Concord Monitor (Oct. 17, 2004):

...I wonder if you would compare the way your historical Lincoln sought to lead with the way President Bush has led.

I find it difficult to understand George Bush. But my feeling is that he and a small group of advisers have made up their minds that these things ought to be done, and we will set the flag out there, and by golly people have got to follow us.

The Lincolnian way would have been we're going to rally a consensus - by that I don't mean you go to the U.N. and get everyone to agree - a consensus of public opinion, a consensus of working with leaders of the other party - to say that these are things that are desperately needed, we have to agree on them, and let's take these steps one at a time.

There seems to be a kind of arbitrariness about the Bush position that I think was not the case with Lincoln, even though he was accused of arbitrary arrests and all of that.

Lincoln faced re-election in the middle of a war, and Bush is facing re-election in the middle of a war. History would seem to tell us that such a president seldom loses a re-election bid. Do you see echoes of past re-election battles for war presidents in the 2004 election?

Yes. Being a lifelong liberal Democrat, I fear the outcome. I fear an October surprise, which, of course, Lincoln was able to produce with Sherman's help.

In August, Lincoln was sure he was going to be defeated. I would guess that as of a few weeks ago, Bush was pretty sure he was going to be defeated unless he could pull a rabbit out of a hat.

But there can be rabbits, there can be legitimate rabbits out of a hat. If Osama bin Laden is captured, for example, this would be a tremendous boost. If they actually found some weapons of mass destruction, that would be a boost.

All sorts of things can happen between now and the election, as happened in 1864.

There are other parallels when you look at the Lincoln re-election. People like to think of Lincoln as an enormously popular president - he wasn't. He was greatly criticized even within his own party. But he had a very effective political machine. His aides started work early in states like New Hampshire, for example, Ohio. They worked quietly behind the scenes so that by the time the nomination and the selection of delegates came about, he had it all sewed up. Bush's people have worked exactly the same way. The Karl Rove machine is a miracle of efficiency - stainless-steel efficiency.

Then of course there's the other side of it. Lincoln's opponents in effect committed suicide. Put a general (George McClellan) on your ticket and a peace platform. It's almost like Kerry saying I voted for it before I voted against it. ...

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