“Well you have seen me and according to general experience you have seen less than you expected.” Lincoln at Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania.
Hanover Junction was a train stop on the way to Gettysburg. Lincoln was traveling there to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery. The address was delivered 160 years ago on November 19, 1863. Unity was the theme; 271 words was the length.
Today the image is the show and introductions often take more than 271 words. And the audience, for whatever politician, is frequently fed poll tested talking points to reinforce their prejudices. Performative politics pairs image with emotion and aims at division. The politician’s calculus is that “against” is more powerful than “for”. The problem: when sharp division wins the country loses.
At Gettysburg Lincoln called “for the living to dedicate their lives to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Is it even possible to conclude that today’s government is of, by and for the people? Is it, to use the most glaring failure, possible to accumulate almost 34 Trillion dollars of debt to be passed on to the next generation and conclude that today is about the future?
Much time is spent arguing about free speech. Today’s argument often surrounds what elite universities suppress. And that certainly is an important subject. But what about our nation’s finances; a subject that goes well beyond the episodic hyper-emotional subjects of the day.
I would argue that few, if any, of our media stand-ins are even able to intelligently probe beyond verbal shadowboxing. It is much easier to grill politicians and their stand-ins on the emotional issue of the day. In the recent off-year elections abortion policy was said to be the determinant.
At the risk of going well beyond 271 words let me close with these final thoughts.
Of, by and for the people—the refrain from both the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lingers, but only faintly. Politicians, aided by an incurious or ill-prepared press, have shifted the battleground, as facts are drowned out by opinions often wrapped in rhetorical excess.
“You have seen less than you expected”. Abraham Lincoln, who led the Union in war and then began to lead the nation in peace before being assassinated, was singular. The times will not allow another. But as we, the people, exercise our rights we should keep in mind TS Eliot’s poetic lines: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them.”
Our national debt and its inescapable trajectory are a disgrace. Not just harmful, but a disgrace.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.