A friend notes that March 4, 2005, the day on which this is written, is exactly 72 years to the day later than the day on which Franklin Roosevelt took office as president and assured Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Exactly 72 years before that, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office and appealed to "the mystic chords of memory." Seventy-two years before that, George Washington took the oath of office as the new nation's first president.
Lincoln began his address at Gettysburg with the words, "Four score and seven years ago" -- a reminder that the span of time between the great battle and the Declaration of Independence was not much more than the biblical lifespan of "three score and ten." We stand today one lifetime away from Franklin Roosevelt, two lifetimes from Abraham Lincoln, only three lifetimes away from George Washington.
1933, 1861 and 1789 were all turning points, moments when men mattered. Men of piercing intelligence and farsighted men of extraordinary and unusual character. Washington was a leader who knew he was setting precedents for a republic that he believed would some day be continental in extent; he purposively kept himself remote from his contemporaries and strove to control his raging temper. He unleashed the talents of the young Alexander Hamilton, whose Federalist papers had done so much to secure the ratification of the Constitution, to shape a strong and fiscally reliable federal government. But he alone had the prestige to hold the new republic together when it was split by partisans on either side of what was then a world war between monarchist Britain and revolutionary France.
Lincoln came to office facing the dissolution of the nation Washington had welded together a lifetime before. Little known to his fellow citizens, condescended to by his Cabinet, he pursued a zigzag course through military failure to success, from a promise to honor the laws that upheld slavery to the proclamation that slavery was no more, from savage battle to "malice toward none and charity to all."
Another president might have left the Confederacy go -- Lincoln's predecessor thought he couldn't do anything else -- or might have compromised and readmitted the Southern states with slavery intact. Lincoln ensured that the promises made in the Declaration a lifetime before would be kept, if not fully in his lifespan then some day in a reunited United States.
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