Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On Lincoln

I've been reading the highly enjoyable Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an enjoyable biography which sets Lincoln in his historical context. Although I believe the book is likely too slow to criticise (indeed, at times it gushes praise) this historical giant there may be a reasonable claim to be made that Lincoln is a historical figure it is hard to criticise.

The book makes the reader dwell extensively on the concept of leadership, not only the leadership qualities of Lincoln himself, but also his Cabinet and the figures he chose to surround himself with. Part of the power of Lincoln seems to have been a robust desire to ensure that any decision he made was based on rational consideration, rather than emotional response. Although he sometimes gave way to his emotions, most often due to the pressures of the Civil War, on the majority of occasions it seems he took time to consider his actions within the context of the environment he found himself in. Even when provoked, for example by Salmon Chase's attempts to displace him as President, he was able to step back before reacting, choosing a wiser course.

One question this book has roused in me however is what does it change in our leaders when they are separated from the common man. I'd like to steal a device used often by Charles Cameron (of ZenPundit fame) for a moment to compare some images which I want to use to make a rather simple point:

Historical leaders (A. Lincoln)


Modern leaders (D. Cameron, B. Obama)


Modern leaders are enormously isolated and protected from the general population, steel barriers and security mean that even though they might kiss the odd baby their interactions are limited to vanishingly small and meaningless events. They'll smile and nod for a few moments and then move on. By contrast leaders not so removed from us historically were forced to be out in the public eye and deal with "real people" constantly. Lincoln often rode to work on a horse, indeed we are only a couple of generations removed from when the public could walk down Downing Street and there was a direct risk a Prime Minister looking out the window might see someone his policies could impact upon. Downing Street now  is a sterile guarded enclosure, where only a small number of people may tread, most often to have their photo taken outside the closed door of Government.

Return to the first photo and reflect upon the fact that without the indicator it would most likely be impossible to identify the President of the United States in it. A man, in Lincoln's own words, "Clothed in immense power" and appears to be mingling, unprotected, amongst soldiers who he has soon to send into one of the most devastating wars seen in the last 200 years.


There are of course good reasons why the public is kept at arms length from our leaders. The risk of assassination has never been higher (or so we are led to believe), but the risk of a leader being forced to relate to a member of the public has also never been higher. Due to the need to present an "image" of leadership, it is arguable which one is seen to be the bigger threat, being shot or accidentally being revealed to have absolutely no idea how to relate to the average voter.

In an era when our leaders are closer than they have been for many years to the oligarch class, which is a fixed part now of many of the world's developed countries, the artificial isolation imposed on them cannot be a good thing. One might argue that there is no need for them to meet "the public" as they are given enormous access to experts, to vast departments to implement their whim, to reams of data on what "the public" think. I wonder however, how many of our leaders have sat, staring at the wall, as Lincoln is known to have done, after shaking hands with soldiers hours before they entered battle. Perhaps the rush to war might be slowed by such actions, or it's prosecution might be more aggressively maintained, rather than soldiers finding out that they will lose their jobs while serving in a war zone.

It's a strange tragedy that our leaders fail to recognise that their closest bonds should be with the majority of the population, rather than social elites.
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1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed this commentary and it reflects much of my thoughts as I watched the movie "Lincoln" as he was wandering through crowds, meeting the general folk about property problems, etc.

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