Honest Words Matter

One office holder who believed honest words mattered – Abraham LincolnHonest political discourse seems a faded memory after endless attack ads have sucked the life out of the public spirit this election season.

In "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer," Fred Kaplan asserts Abraham Lincoln was committed to using political language "honestly and consistently," traits, he adds that "have largely disappeared from our political discourse."

The self-taught 16th President, whose readings spanned Shakespeare, Robert Burns, John Locke, the Bible and Walt Whitman, devoted his life to the belief that words matter. So does the integrity behind words.

His lifelong habit of reading and continuous education schooled him in the power of language, for both honorable and less-than-honorable purposes. He dedicated himself to articulate principles, not dissemble; to clarify, not confuse; to unite, not divide. And he had a sense of humor to boot.

In retrospect, Lincoln seemed predestined for the role as war-time president striving to preserve the union, which he viewed as the embodiment of a great experiment in government of, for and by the people, all of whom were created equal. How he became president, managed to hold together a precarious coalition during the Civil War and signal before his death a path of reconciliation owes in great part to his linguistic skill as a writer.

He was more than Honest Abe. "He became what his language made him," Kaplan says. He emerged as a genius of words or, in Kaplan's phrase, the "Mark Twain of politics." In his quest for the presidency of the infant Republican Party, Lincoln knew he couldn't create a majority. He had to find it and give it coherence in words.

And when the war he was forced to wage neared its completion, he gave America a political creed for all time in his Second Inaugural: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Over the din of TV ads and the buzz of the Internet, it would have been comforting to hear words like that – words that speak to our humanity and our common purpose – not to mention our reason for having government.