LEXINGTON, Ky. – If your attention is diverted for the briefest of moments as you walk along North Mill Street’s red-brick sidewalk, you easily could miss the former law office of Henry Clay.
Barely 20 feet wide and closed to the public, the office is notable only for a historical marker hidden to its left, pointing out the modest headquarters of a young frontier lawyer who went on to become a revered statesmen known as “The Great Compromiser.”
Clay earned that title in the 1820s when he temporarily pacified the U.S. government’s conflict with South Carolina, which was on the brink of nullifying federal laws that it didn't accept.
He worked at his desk here from 1803 to 1810, when he was elected to two successive terms in Kentucky’s legislature.
As was the custom then, he took his desk with him when he became a member of the U.S. House, then the Senate, and when he became secretary of state. (He also ran for the presidency five times, losing by a slim margin in 1844.)
Clay’s deft handling of Missouri’s admission to statehood – which threatened to push the young, volatile country to the precipice of division – is how he earned his compromiser’s stripes.
He did not point fingers at his own party members, who balked at compromises and threatened to secede from the union, too.
New Hampshire congressman William Plumer Jr. wrote at the time: “(Clay) uses no threats or abuse – but is mild, humble, and persuasive – he begs, instructs, adjures, and beseeches us to have mercy on the people of Missouri."
Abraham Lincoln, another Kentuckian born 83 miles southeast of here, was so impressed with Clay’s ability to lead through balance and compromise that, 40 years later, he studied Clay’s 1850 speech on compromise, written when Clay was ill and at the end of his life.
Clay’s thoughts helped shape Lincoln’s first inaugural address.
Barack Obama, who spoke eloquently just after his election as president about what he learned from the 16th president, perhaps needs to similarly channel Henry Clay.
Last week was the best example of the worst political theater in American politics: In announcing his tax-rate deal, Obama was angry, his delivery narcissistic. He lashed out at Democrats, then at Republicans, and then for good measure back at Democrats – all in the name of compromise.
Clay may have “thundered” at those who opposed him privately but outwardly he would never call his opponents “hostage-takers.” Why? Because it would have placed him in a position of weakness – exactly where Obama is right now, oddly portraying himself as a victim.
Last week’s tax-cut deal was no compromise. It was a log-roll, the politician’s practice of trading a vote on one bill that he cares little about in exchange for another legislator's vote on a bill that is much more important to him.
Obama is not the first president to face difficult, complex issues with difficult, complex people, and he won’t be the last. Although some Washington insiders who enjoy the White House’s ear claim this moment will be forgotten in future campaigns, they misjudge the impression the president left on Americans.
It is the moment that Obama lost grace, something Clay never would have done.
Ravaged by tuberculosis at age 72, Clay delivered his final speech in 1850 as Southern states once again stood on the precipice of seceding over California’s admission to the union as a free state, which would place the South in the minority in the U.S. Senate.
Facing what he considered the end of the union, Clay begged for concessions from North and South and urged a difficult “scheme of accommodation.”
Opposed to any separation of the states, he declared: "Here I am within it, and here I mean to stand and die.”
He never used the word “hostage,” even though the issue then was arguably more critical than where the line is drawn in tax cuts.
When the 112th Congress convenes in January, Clay’s desk will be used once again; Kentucky’s newest senator, Rand Paul, will be behind it. It will be interesting to see if Paul is a compromiser like the desk’s first occupant.
Lessons can be learned from behind Henry Clay’s desk, though none of those are easy or swift. The question is, who has the wisdom to learn from them?