Sunday, July 04, 2004

The State of Our Union
On this Independence Day, we naturally think back on our history, and to our Founding Fathers. Among those, we need to include Abe Lincoln, even though he was born nearly 100 years late to be part of the generation of Washington, Franklin, Adams, and the rest. As much as anyone in our history, it's Lincoln who's responsible for our self-concept as a nation--before him, people (North and South) more commonly spoke of the United States as "the union," with that word's connotation of parts being joined into a whole. "Nation," on the other hand--as in "one nation indivisible"--connotes a deeper unity than mere "union," with a strong acknowledgement of a common history and dedication to a common future.

I often find myself asking what some of our Founders would say about their country if they came back today--especially Jefferson and Madison, who drafted the documents whose meaning is so much up for grabs today. (I am guessing what they might think would be unprintable--by 21st century standards, let alone the 18th.) And Lincoln, too--the greatest politician the country has ever produced, who steered it through the greatest threat to its continued survival--and what he might have to say as the country faces its current trials. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo has wondered about that, too, and has a new book about it, Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever. In an interview with Salon, Cuomo speculates on what Lincoln might think about preemptive war (unwise), religious interpretations of political issues (one should not use something one takes on faith as the starting point of reason), and more.

Cuomo addresses the issue of whether Abe could have made it as a politician today. He didn't speak in soundbites--as a man of his time, he preferred extended argument and oratory. And he wasn't handsome, either--in fact, he was downright funny-looking. So the Cuomo interview ends with a nice, topical exchange on John Kerry's reputed lack of charisma. Cuomo says Kerry has it if you get to know him, which was also true of Lincoln.

But there was a time, only four years ago, when John Kerry had charisma to burn, and people suggested that he might make a good running mate for Al Gore to counter his own woodenness. Last week, Liz Cox Barrett of CJR's Campaign Desk charted the demise of Kerry's charisma, at least in the view of the reporters covering the campaign. The reason is something that political scientists observing the media have noted for years--reporters get bored covering the same guy for so long, and it comes through in the way they frame their stories. It's why Gore was perceived as dull four years ago after his long career in public life, while Bush was the interesting new guy. Kerry's been around the Washington scene for 20 years, and he's not nearly so interesting to reporters as, say, John Edwards.

Edwards is still at the top of many running-mate lists for Kerry, where, according to Barnett, his freshness will either sink his prospects or clinch the nomination. If you need a little more vice-presidential speculation in advance of the rumored announcement this week, The American Prospect is happy to oblige. What, no Clark?

Recommended Reading: In lieu of a July 4th Address to the Nation this year, I'd like to recommend you read The Nation, specifically the work of the magazine's blogger, Tom Engelhardt. Engelhardt suggests you read the Declaration of Independence side-by-side (or side-by-each, as we sometimes say in Wisconsin) with the resolution that permitted Bush to go to war in Iraq, and then take a quiz on the Declaration by political science professor Stephen R. Shalom (which is a good name for a poli sci professor in this day and age).

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