From Lincoln’s Brilliance to the “Stable Genius”: A Comparison to Presidents of Yesteryear
I fully understand that one article is insufficient to cover the rollercoaster/nightmare/constitutional crisis (insert chosen word here) of the Trump administration over the past three years. These last couple months alone have left the politically attuned reeling from the amount of startling information revealed each day. Even remembering what happened all the way back in 2017 is nearly impossible (except covfefe, because who could forget that?); so is keeping up on Twitter without quitting your day job.
Trump’s time in office has seems like a cruel test of how far we can push the limits of incompetence, impetuosity, and decency and still have a (semi) functioning country — and it has left my ever-rational brain in a constant state of “what the fuck?” However, today I want to focus on one particular aspect of Trump’s being; one that daily offends the presidential biography-loving, history nerd in me.
During 2018, I endeavored to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” After taking perhaps more of 2018 than I’d care to admit to absorb the 750 brilliant pages, I have more random facts about Lincoln in my arsenal than most (and yes, I will jump at any opportunity to use them). More importantly, I realized that Lincoln’s genius out-measured even his already esteemed place in the history books. But during my many bathtub reading sessions, I was also left with a profound sense of despondency at how far we have strayed from some of the brilliant presidents of yesteryear, in particular two of my faves — Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
Lincoln v. Trump: A Painful Comparison
More than once Trump has invoked Lincoln’s name in a comparison, and each time I die a little inside. In almost every way Lincoln provides a perfect counterpoint to our current Oval Office resident. Lincoln drew strength from his magnanimity and ability to make former rivals assets rather than enemies. Well, we’ve all seen Trump sling insults at his political enemies, threaten to jail them, and even ask foreign nations to investigate them.
Comparing their ability to address the public and give impactful, enduring speeches would be like comparing apples to, well, a slug. Lincoln, who carefully penned his own speeches, was a renowned orator who captured the audience with, “fire & energy & force,” according to one contemporary. His speeches were infused with logic and a strong sense of justice. I think we all know what happens when Trump tries to ad lib, and how much the English language has suffered at his lips. Let me tell you, “Crazy Nancy. Think of that. That crazy Nancy. She is crazy. And shifty Schiff. How about this guy? He makes up my conversation, which was perfect,” a quote from one of Trump’s rallies, doesn’t quite match up to the enduring wisdom of the Gettysburg Address.
I could really point out their differences until the cows come home: one lean, one decidedly not; one athletic and a great wrestler, the others not so much; one a theater enthusiast, the other a reality television star. I’ll leave you to guess which is which. But nowhere is the disparity between them more noticeable than in their relationship with the pursuit of knowledge.
From Self-Educated to Barely Educated
Trump has found it necessary more than once to remind the American public that he is a “stable genius.” Never was his genius on better display than when he tried to explain what island is, saying that Puerto Rico is “an island, surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” While the comedy pretty much writes itself, it is genuinely concerning that Trump thinks he knows more about basically everything than anybody else: drones, renewables, trade, tax reform, and debt (actually I believe that last one).
In a moment of clarity, Rex Tillerson, one of many “formers’ in the Trump administration, revealed what we all suspected about Trump’s style of governing, describing him as a man “who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘this is what I believe.”
To my continued consternation, learning, facts, and expertise have proven anathema to his gut-driven, tempestuous style of leadership.
170 years and a world away, we have Lincoln, a man who believed education is “the most important subject which we as people can be engaged in.” (Oh how the mighty have fallen.) Lincoln wasn’t afforded the same educational opportunities that Trump had (and clearly took for granted) — with a combined one year of formal schooling. Instead he fought for his education, avidly consuming books in his youth, despite being taunted by peers in his laboring community. Determined to make up for the holes in his formal education he spent nights teaching himself everything from mathematics to law. I don’t know about you but any man with the attention span to read all of Euclid’s Elements, 13 ancient volumes on mathematics, has my vote.
Perhaps most importantly, Lincoln’s continuing quest for knowledge followed him into the White House. Lincoln liked to be eminently prepare when faced with great challenges that his position demanded of him. He would read tirelessly on a subject, consult experts, and make sure he understood every aspect of an issue before arriving at a decision.
This might be less significant, but I’m always delighted at the thought of Lincoln, an avid Shakespeare fan, reciting verses to his co-workers and friends to unwind from a long day. Between historical and legal texts, he indulged in poetry and used the theater as a way to escape even during his presidency.
The Ultimate Scholar President
While Lincoln had a vast array of self-taught knowledge, Teddy Roosevelt, might have been the ultimate Renaissance man president. He read even more voraciously than Lincoln, whose indulgence in novels dropped off during the presidency. Even in his time in office, Teddy always had a book and found any spare moments to read. ”No man ever came to Harvard more serious in his purpose to secure first of all an education,” explained one of his classmates as note in The Bully Pulpit. “He was forever at it, and probably no man of his time read more extensively or deeply, especially in directions that did not count on the honor-list or marking-sheet.”
His vast depth of knowledge on a number of subjects allowed him to author 40 books and hundreds of magazine articles, ranging from natural history, historical biographies, to bird sketches. He even wrote a 500 page military history volume called, “The Naval War of 1812.” I’m not convinced that Trump has read 500 pages in his entire lifetime.
As Goodwin explain, “he learned early on the rewards attendant upon painstaking research and meticulous deployment of facts,” and he would employ that to achieve his progressive agenda. Teddy was able to take his wide-ranging interests — nature, history, politics, poetry, philosophy, just to name a few — as well as his capacity for learning and apply it to his political career. In his first position as a New York state assembly man he threw himself into the job, learning every aspect of state politics, and devouring newspapers daily.
There is something comforting in having the leader of the free world with the focus, determination, and ability to not only verse themselves in complex subjects, but with incredible powers of recall. And something adorable about picturing Teddy Roosevelt admiring his collection of animal specimens and eagerly documenting them in his own works.
Pre-requisites for Presidents
I’m not saying you have to be as brilliant as Lincoln or Teddy, or any of the other impressive scholar presidents that have graced the White House. If you can’t recite Shakespeare by heart or haven’t published dozens of scholarly articles, I won’t automatically dismiss your candidacy. Nor am I saying that these presidents were perfect human beings or that intellgence always translates to being a successful president — which undoubtedly requires a one-in-a-million skill set.
However, shouldn’t we be at bare minimum be demanding that our command-in-chief has a trove of knowledge to draw from on the most important subjects for presidenting — such as economics, history, geopolitics, civics, and law? And not only that but shouldn’t our POTUS be a person who continually strives to expand their base of knowledge and whose understanding of the world evolves with new information?
We’ve also recently learned the value of having leaders with deep knowledge of our nation’s founding, history, and constitutional framework. Whether or not you believe, as some do, that Lincoln overstepped his powers afforded by the Constitution, you cannot argue that did not have a strong grasp of the principles upon which our government — which he so succinctly described as “of the people, by the people, and for the people” — was created. He looked to the intentions of our framers when faced with the big issues like emancipation. And above all else he understood the significance of preserving our relatively new and experimental Representative democracy to show the rest of the world it could be done.
Unfortunately, we’ve all been living through a lesson of what it’s like to have a president who doesn’t understand (and frankly don’t give a flying fuck) what it takes to preserve the American version of democracy as laid out by our forefathers and Constitution.
In a very recent official letter that Trump sent to Pelosi, in his attempt to protest the impending (and now official) impeachment, he referenced the founding fathers amidst incoherent and conspiracy-laced ramblings. “You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme — yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build,” his letter read. This coming from the guy (clearly with someone’s assistance given the use of ten-dollar-words) who once stated that the British took over the airports during the Revolutionary War and whose ignorance of history is on display regularly.
Perhaps the man who hasn’t figured out either when we freed ourselves from the British, or when planes were invented maybe shouldn’t be invoking the founding fathers in his false indignation. Perhaps the man who asked why there are two Koreas and two Chinas should not be in charge of negotiations with Kim Jong Un. And perhaps what we have learned is that we need to subject all presidents to a test on history, civics, and law. It might have saved us from this whole mess in the first place.