Bush, Lincoln, and Johnson: Presidents In Wartime

Posted: Dec 21, 2006 10:04 AM
Bush, Lincoln, and Johnson: Presidents In Wartime

Four books are on the indispensable list as Christmas nears. Three deal with the war in all of its many complicated dimensions: Robert Kaplan's Imperial Grunts; Mark Steyn’s America Alone, and Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.

The fourth is an extended review of presidential leadership in a time of terrible suffering and mortal threat: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln barely won the Republican nomination in 1860, barely won the presidency, suffered a near total defeat in the elections of 1862, and presided over a Civil War that claimed the lives of 600,000 men out of a population of approximately 40 million, while leaving another 2 million wounded and large swathes of the country devastated. Copperheads openly demanded peace, and as the war dragged on, millions in the north began to wonder whether the country was worth the cost in carnage. General after general disappointed him, some turned against him publicly, and one –McClellan—ran against him in 1864.

Lincoln was attacked by press and political foe with a fury that had no precedent and which has had no sequel.

Yet Lincoln persevered, and today books like Kearns-Goodwin’s chart his genius and his character, and fly off the shelves by the millions.

Two modern presidents have faced fury in the press because of stalled wars. Truman, of course, looks pretty good fifty years after leaving office, but the country never generally advocated quitting in Korea: The voters wanted to win.

LBJ was broken because the country did indeed want out of Vietnam. Unlike Korea, we had not been attacked. Unlike today, it was difficult to perceive a threat to the United States worth the cost of so many young lives.

In yesterday’s press conference, a reporter rather stupidly asked the president if he felt the pain of the loss of American lives:

Reporter: Mr. President, Lyndon Johnson famously didn’t sleep during the Vietnam War, questioning his own decisions. You have always seemed very confident of your decisions. But I can’t help but wonder if this has been a time of painful realization for you, as you yourself have acknowledged that some of the policies you hoped would succeed have not. And I wonder if you can talk to us about that. Has it been a painful time?

GWB: Yeah, thanks. Most painful aspect of my presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat. I read about it every night. And my heart breaks for a mother or father or husband or wife or son or daughter. It just does. And so when you ask about pain, that’s pain. I reach out to a lot of the families. I spend time with them. I am always inspired by their spirit. Most people have asked me to do one thing, and that is to make sure that their child didn’t die in vain, and I agree with that.

Lincoln, too, suffered as men under his command died, as did every president who leads in a time of war. What sustains them –if they are sustained—is the understanding that sacrifice of that most awful sort defends the country and all of its people.

I interviewed Doris Kearns Goodwin yesterday, and asked about parallels between Bush and Lincoln. (The transcript is here.) This superb historian resisted some comparisons, but acknowledged others:

HH: But how ought the President today respond to retired generals who are arguing with him now…pulling a McClellan in retirement, arguing that the war is mismanaged?

DKG: It’s really an unusual situation that these generals are doing this. I mean, it hasn’t happened all that much in our history. I mean, mainly, probably because the access to media today is so much greater for these retired generals than there would have been before. It might have been a letter that somebody might have written to a newspaper before…

HH: Right.

DKG: But now, they’re appearing on cable television, they’re remarks are much more widely distributed around the country. And I think the only thing that President Bush can do is to just not deal with it. I don’t think it helps him to get into a debate with them. He has to just say, and I think that’s what he’s doing. I mean, whether one agrees with him or not, President Bush is going to come out, it seems to me, in these next couple of weeks with his plan. He will have listened to the Baker plan, he will have listened to these retired generals. He’ll be talking to his commanders in the field, and seeing what they’re saying over there, and he’s going to say what he wants to say. I mean, that, I’m sure of with him. He doesn’t seem to be swaying with all these opinions that are going on.

HH: Does that parallel how Lincoln in the worst days of the war, after bloody setbacks, or even bloodier victories, is that how he conducted himself?

DKG: I suspect it does. You know, again, whether one agrees with the content of what President Bush is doing, during the worst days of the war in 1864, when a lot of people were telling Lincoln you’re not going to be able to win this war, the only chance is a compromise peace, and you’re going to have to give up emancipation, because there’s no way the south will come to a compromised peace if you force them to emancipation. And there were a lot of people in the north who were saying to him this war’s gone on too long, it’s never going to be won. And at that point, he said “I have made my pledge to the black Americans for emancipation. I cannot go back on that.”

Bush has made pledges too, most importantly that he will do everything he can to prevent another 9/11.

How will all of this play out over the long decades ahead? I asked Kearns-Goodwin that question as well:

HH: Can you conceive of a Doris Kearns Goodwin a hundred and fifty years hence writing a book as respectful of Lincoln…of Bush as you have written of Lincoln?

DKG: I think…you know, what may happen a hundred fifty years from now is that somebody may be able to argue that what President Bush wanted to do in Iraq was the right thing. What doesn’t seem similar so far is that the responsibility of a president in a time of war is to keep the country on his side, and in order to make sure that he’s got enough mobilization of resources so that the fight can be fought as far as he…to me, this is where Lyndon Johnson failed in the end, by not keeping the country on his side. He thought he was right in Vietnam, but eventually, because he never got the country on his side long enough and hard enough, because he had told them it was going to be over quicker than it ever was, I think that’s going to be the problem for President Bush as well.

Here I have to disagree with my professor from decades ago. Lincoln did not “keep the country on his side,” he kept the interests of the country always fixed before his eyes. In the press conference yesterday he repeatedly referred to the “calling of our times,” and whether one agrees or disagrees with his course, only the absurd dismiss the idea of the dangers of the era in which we live. The particulars of his course can be debated –I thought the dismissal of Rumsfeld an error, others think the troops in Iraq are too few—but what Team of Rivals presents in complete detail and persuasiveness is that the presidency in war requires absolute conviction and resolute purpose from its occupant.

As we begin the process of assessing the would-be successors to Bush, his example in this aspect of presidential leadership, and Lincoln’s, should be the first measuring stick. The burdens of the office can and have crushed many men. If they do so in a time of war, much more than a presidency will be lost.

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