Abraham Lincoln

Toward a More Perfect Union

Republicans expressed disappointment or distaste for what they took as partisanship in President Barack Obama's second inaugural address. Democrats exulted in what they viewed as his manifesto for a progressive political agenda in his second term.

I heard something quite different. Through allusions to the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the words of Abraham Lincoln, Obama linked the challenges of today to the ongoing project of creating a more perfect union. 

His alliterative reference to Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall linked the contemporary civil rights struggles of African-Americans, women and gays to the longer historical quest in America of proving we really meant our declaration that all men are created equal and have certain inalienable rights.

Obama didn't reveal anything new in his comments. He merely put these struggles into the context of a country that has evolved its understanding of what those words mean, a thoroughly appropriate theme for a presidential inauguration occurring on the same day we commemorated the words and deeds of Martin Luther King, Jr.

As he took one long last look up the Mall, seeing a teeming crowd stretching to the Lincoln Memorial, many thoughts undoubtedly flashed through Obama's mind. Those thoughts perhaps included his attempt to replicate the feat of Lincoln who tied preservation of the Union and, ultimately, abolition of slavery to the founding principles of our Republic.

The Legacy of Losers

Americans like underdogs, but love winners. Losers are relegated to history's dustbin. At least until Portlander Scott Farris turned back the dusty pages and showed presidential losers may have had as much or more impact on the future as the victors.

In Almost President, Farris traces the legacies of losers dating back to Henry Clay, who lost in bitter contests to Andrew Jackson while espousing a nationalist vision of America, and the relatively recent past of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, who suffered humiliating landslide losses, but changed the face and moral compass of the Republican and Democratic parties.

Spurred in part by his own electoral loss as a congressional candidate, Farris became fascinated with what happened to the men who ran the course, but finished second in the presidential sweepstakes. What he discovered is that these losers quietly reshaped the political map of America, often decades past the shame of their defeat.

Farris, who has worked as a reporter, political aide and lobbyist, brings a lively narrative to a well-researched series of profiles about the men who lost in a race for what is now the most powerful elected office in the world.

In a telling first chapter, Farris discusses the concession speech and its role in affirming over time a commitment to republican values and the dream that is America.

"The call for unity is not pablum," Farris writes. "America is still a comparatively young nation. The American experiment still seems fragile, which is why our entire system is designed to marginalize radicalism, forge consensus and prevent sudden shifts that might threaten our unity." Throughout the history of the nation, despite close elections, losers have displayed grace and devotion to constitutional principals, often referring in the moment of deepest despair to their support for "my president," who is the man they campaigned so hard and so long to defeat.

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.