Thursday, February 8, 2018

What would Lincoln say? Hot tweets not cool -- Feb. 8, 2018 column


If there’s a president Donald Trump admires more than himself, it must be “the late, great Abraham Lincoln.”

“With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office,” Trump told a rally last summer.

“Great president,” Trump said of Lincoln last year at a dinner for House Republicans. “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican. Right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that. We have to build that up a little more.”

For the record, Republicans call themselves the party of Lincoln, and polls show most Americans know Lincoln was a Republican. 

Lincoln’s 209th birthday will be Monday, but you might miss it. It’s not a federal or even a state holiday most places.

Only Illinois, Connecticut, Missouri and New York still observe it in February, according to the National Constitution Center. Indiana, oddly, celebrates Lincoln’s birthday the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Tourists who happen by the Lincoln Memorial at noon Monday will find a free ceremony open to the public with music, speeches and wreaths. At the Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Kentucky, park staff will lay a wreath.

The following Monday, the third Monday in February, is the federal holiday that commemorates George Washington’s birthday. Congress never officially changed the name, though the holiday became known as Presidents Day.  

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY Abraham Lincoln!!!” Trump shouted via Instagram last year with a picture of the Lincoln Memorial and what was supposed to be a quotation from Lincoln: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

But those were not Lincoln’s words. The quotation came from an advertisement for a self-help book on aging in 1947, fact checkers reported.

There is a way Trump can honor the 16th president that has nothing to do with capital letters, exclamation points or fake quotes, however. He can learn from Lincoln the brilliance of the unsent letter.

It’s a lesson any of us can apply in our “Tweet First, Think Later” age. 

When he was angry, Lincoln’s ritual was to write a letter venting his feelings and put the hot letter aside until he cooled off, when he would decide not to send it.

A famous example is his letter to Gen. George Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Although the Union Army was victorious, Meade had let Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his army get away.

“I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would . . . have ended the war,” the president wrote Meade.

“As it is the war will be prolonged indefinitely…Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it,” said the anguished commander in chief.

Lincoln knew the power of his words and chose not to demoralize his general in the field. The letter was found decades later among other Lincoln papers, with a notation that it was never signed or sent.

“Now obviously the opposite of that is when President Trump gets angry with somebody, that tweet goes out immediately,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Jan. 24 in an interview.

“I sometimes think if only he had a hot tweet and a cool tweet, maybe things would be a lot better,” said Goodwin, author of “Team of Rivals” about the political genius of Lincoln in choosing political rivals for his Cabinet.

Lincoln was a master of communication in his time; his Gettysburg Address is recited to this day. Trump is the first president to master social media. But neither Trump nor anyone else could remember the content of his impulsive tweets, as ephemeral as his moods.

On Lincoln’s birthday, we can all be glad Trump admires the president historians consistently rate the best in history.

But if he truly wishes to honor Honest Abe, he – and we -- should stop and think before we fire off that hot tweet.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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