‘Honest’ Abe’s Anguish

Ilana Mercer, June 20, 2008

If only Honest Abe had lived to come clean

What changed my mind about Scott McClellan was his contrition. McClellan has apologized publicly—and profusely—for his role, as a former Bush press secretary, in selling Americans on an unjust and unnecessary war.

With that “I am sorry,” McClellan became something of a role model and certainly a study in contrasts. For the war against Iraq was not only Bush’s, Blair’s and Podhoretz’s; but Brit Hume’s, David Gregory’s and Judith Miller’s, none of whom have repented, or are likely to repent.

When McClellan went up against the administration’s aids in the media, he had hindsight rather than insight on his side. What he was imparting was neither new nor even newsworthy. The only thing Scotty-come-lately didn’t lack for was compunction and the courage of his convictions.

After watching McClellan, earnest and unafraid, confront the raging Bill O’Reilly and prevail, I knew that he had searched his soul and was sorry for his complicity in the carnage that is Iraq. McClellan has also promised a portion of the profits from “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

McClellan has also asked Richard Clarke for his forgiveness. The former counterterrorism adviser to Bush had exposed The Boss back in 2004, when it might have done some good. And well before it became an inconsequential national pastime. For his efforts, Clarke was trashed by McClellan.

Alas, while small-time functionaries like Scott McClellan can be big enough to express remorse, self-reproach is rare in the leaders they serve. A breast-beating Bush: now that would provide a truly teachable moment.

Although never belabored, it is believed that Abraham Lincoln may have suffered misgivings for his role in “the butchering business”—J. R. Pole’s turn-of-phrase. Pole is Rhodes Professor Emeritus of American History and Institutions at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.

Before Pole, a number of prominent historians had floated the idea that Lincoln might have wrestled with remorse for shedding the blood of brothers in great quantities. They are Don E. Fehrenbacher, in “Lincoln and the Weight of Responsibility” (1987), George B. Forgie, in “Patricide in the House Divided” (1979), and Charles B. Strozier, in “Lincoln’s Quest for Union” (1982).

The clues to Lincoln’s possible contrition have come from the president’s reading list; Lincoln loved great literature. As Fred Kaplan points out in London’s June 6 Times Literary Supplement, Lincoln was particularly fascinated with guilt-ridden Shakespearean monologues. Above all, the president valued King Claudius’ monologue in Hamlet. Lincoln thought that Claudius’ soliloquy surpassed the philosophically profound, and infinitely more famous, “To be, or not to be.”

Revealing is the reason Lincoln gave for his preference:

“To be, or not to be,” he wrote to an interlocutor, “‘was merely a philosophical reflection on the question of life and death, without actual reference to future judgment’; whereas Claudius’s speech showed ‘force and grandeur’ in its ‘moral tone’ as a ‘solemn acknowledgment of inevitable punishment for the infraction of divine law.'”

The Shakespearean soliloquy in question commences: “O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven,” and is the monologue “in which Claudius despairs of there being enough rain in the heavens to clean his hands of a ‘brother’s blood'”:

What if this cursed hand

Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,

Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens

To wash it white as snow?

The monologue Lincoln most admired, observes J. R. Pole, “is the King’s attempt to absolve himself of his crime through prayer while keeping the objects for which the crime was committed—’My crown, my own ambition and my queen.'”

Concludes Professor Pole: “It does not seem fanciful to suppose that [Lincoln] felt some barely acknowledged responsibility for the fearful consequences of his determination.”

Real repentance—the kind that follows soul-searching and painful, public expiation—can be hugely redemptive for individual and community alike.

That modern-day minor figure McClellan apologized for his role in the Iraq depravity.

If only Honest Abe had lived to come clean.



    June 20, 2008


* Screen pic image credit

CATEGORIES: Abraham Lincoln, History, Iraq, Secession, States' Rights, The South