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Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever

Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever

by Mario M. Cuomo, Harold Holzer (Consultant)

Abraham Lincoln, long the most resonant voice of American political values, was a founding member of the Republican Party. In today's charged political climate, he would be hard-pressed to recognize the issues in the contemporary GOP, argues Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and a gifted political philosopher.

Challenged by slavery, secession, and war,


Abraham Lincoln, long the most resonant voice of American political values, was a founding member of the Republican Party. In today's charged political climate, he would be hard-pressed to recognize the issues in the contemporary GOP, argues Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York and a gifted political philosopher.

Challenged by slavery, secession, and war, Lincoln was able to forcefully articulate the values and ideals that have sustained our country since its inception. His speeches, writings, and actions melded the Constitution, the Bible, and his own experience into an American scripture that inspires faith in the future

Mario Cuomo shows how the big issues - equality, the role of government, war and peace, the responsibilities of the fortunate few - resonate in today's political climate as he brings to life the contemporary relevance of Lincoln's message for today's hot-button issues. Today's political discourse often lacks depth and wisdom, but Mario Cuomo's analysis of Abraham Lincoln will inspire readers to believe that government can still be a force for greater good in American society.

Editorial Reviews

Walter Cronkite

"Cuomo draws a devastating comparison between Lincoln's vision of the American democracy and that of the George W. Bush administration."
ST. Petersburg Times

"All Americans who intend to vote in the November election should read Why Lincoln Matters."
From the Publisher


"Cuomo's book is a reminder that there are leaders of strength, wisdom, and compassion."--Chicago Sun-Times

Alan Dershowitz

"A brilliant and nuanced tour de force."
Jr. Arthur M. Schlesinger

"A thoughtful and challenging meditation on what Lincoln's wisdom tells us we Americans should be doing today and tomorrow."
Frank J. Williams

"This is a stand-up book written by one of America's great leaders."
Robert B. Reich

"Cuomo, one of the most eloquent statesmen of our time, gives Abraham Lincoln renewed eloquence and meaning for our time."
Publishers Weekly
In this heartfelt moral tract about the state of the nation and the challenges confronting it, former New York governor and sometime presidential aspirant Cuomo argues that the nation needs "an overarching grand concept" and "a vision worthy of the world's greatest nation." Cuomo finds them in the words and endeavors of our 16th president. The Rail Splitter's life and moral strength are, he believes, especially relevant today, when, says the author, we've wandered from our truest paths and no longer follow the best angels of our nature. Cuomo would have us adopt public policies, both domestic and international, that are "more compassionate," "more generous" and "more inclusive." If this seems like a Democrat's agenda, it is but a centrist Democrat who, while candidly acknowledging that he hopes people will consider what he says in preparation for the 2004 election, is not sharply critical of the Republicans. Cuomo even offers an imagined address that Lincoln, if alive, would deliver to Congress this year. The problem is that while Cuomo clearly admires Lincoln, it's not self-evident why Lincoln's wisdom, laid out here effectively if tendentiously, is any more apposite to today's issues than, say, Washington's leadership, Jefferson's ideals or FDR's efforts to create international order. One could just as well take as a life motto Lincoln's celebrated admonition that "we must disenthrall ourselves" and that each generation must follow its own way and not one laid down in the past. So one comes away from this book modestly educated about Lincoln, nicely uplifted by Cuomo's intentions, but confused about why, precisely, Lincoln should be our guide. Agent, Elaine Markson Literary Agency. (June) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Cuomo, a three-term governor of New York, shares here his lifelong admiration of Abraham Lincoln by relating Lincoln's discourse and political vision to 2004. Although they claim the same Republican Party label, President Lincoln has little in common with President Bush, says the author. Lincoln would fault Bush for his preemptive Iraqi War; instead, Lincoln would have remained in Afghanistan until Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were rooted out. He would also challenge Bush's economic policies, which have resulted in fewer jobs, higher deficits, and huge tax cuts for the rich, and his foreign policies, which show little respect for countries that do not support American actions. Lincoln is faulted for suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War, and Bush is criticized for the severity of the USA Patriot Act. Conjecture about how Lincoln would manage the challenges confronting Bush and the inclusion of Cuomo's views mixed with Lincoln's make for an unfocused book. Public libraries should wait for requests before buying. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/04.]-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A former New York governor employs a sort of what-would-Jesus-do approach to viewing contemporary political issues through the eyes of Abraham Lincoln. Cuomo (The New York Idea: An Experiment in Democracy, 1994, etc.) enlists the help of Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer (Lincoln at Cooper Union, p. 257) to construct this entertaining but tendentious survey of how Lincoln would view, or handle, contemporary issues. Cuomo declares that he has long been attracted to Lincoln for his "lucidity, the sureness of his logic, the cogency of his analysis, and the apparent reasonableness of his conclusions." Unsurprisingly, Cuomo has no use for George Bush (pere or fils)-or, for that matter, for many other contemporary Republicans. Feeling Cuomo's lash here are Ronald Reagan (whom the author chides for attributing to Lincoln a series of things the Great Emancipator never wrote or said), Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Strom Thurmond, et al. He blasts the current administration for numerous failures and misfeasances: for tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, for the assault on entitlements, for the war on Iraq (he says Lincoln would not have gone there), and-most seriously-for the failure to articulate a comprehensive vision of the future, a vision based on equality of opportunity for all. Acknowledging that all politicians want to claim Lincoln as their own (just as people on all sides of social issues cite biblical passages to support their causes), Cuomo takes us through a series of topics and then finds quotations from Lincoln to indicate how he might have responded-e.g., war, civil liberties, the size of the federal government, equal opportunity, globalism, religion, the courts, and race. Near the end, Cuomofashions a state-of-the-union address for 2004 using Lincoln's ideas and words. It recommends deferring tax cuts, reducing the deficit, investing in education and health care, and helping the states. Sounds remarkably like a platform Cuomo would like to see the Democrats adopt this summer. Lively, Lefty, and-at times-laughable.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Lincoln as Political Scripture

the year was 1992. The scene was the Republican National Convention in Houston, Texas. Republicans were about to renominate President George Bush for a second term and then return home to try convincing American voters that the nation's economic recession had little to do with the Republican Party, its philosophy, or its standard-bearer. The task must have seemed daunting. In the end it proved impossible, but for one brief moment the goal seemed within their grasp. That was when the much-loved former president, Ronald Reagan, arrived at the speaker's rostrum to rouse the faithful to a renewed dedication to modern Republican ideals.

He did so by invoking the name of Lincoln. Exhuming a credo that President Reagan told us had been "so eloquently stated" by Lincoln generations earlier, the fortieth president quoted what he described as four of Lincoln's most appealing maxims. Here was a hallowed set of principles, Reagan declared, that had stood the test of time and deserved to be recalled and repeated again and again to fortify America against a resurgent liberalism. To some people listening to Reagan that night, the phrases must have seemed crafted to rebut with uncanny specificity the rise of Governor William Jefferson Clinton of Arkansas. As the newly anointed Democratic challenger to twelve consecutive years of Republican White House rule and leading in all the public-opinion polls, Clinton posed a formidable threat to Reagan's conservative revolution. Now Reagan summoned all of his rhetorical gifts to remind the hundreds of delegates packing the convention hall and the tens of millions more watching on television that another Republican, Abraham Lincoln, had once wisely offered the following timeless truths:

You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.

You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.

You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.

You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

The convention floor erupted in waves of applause. TV cameras captured the faces of emotional delegates whose nods of assent evidenced the deep understanding and gratitude one feels upon hearing a revered pastor deliver a grand sermon. Reagan had resurrected a tablet of political commandments more prescient and eloquent than any arid Republican Party platform or windy acceptance speech. No one had ever said it better than the Great Emancipator as revivified by the Great Communicator. It was a magical combination. As politics and performance, even liberal Democrats admitted that it was good.

As it turned out, it was indeed too good to be true.6 In fact, Lincoln had never uttered a word of it. The lines turned out to be the work of an obscure German-born, Brooklyn-ordained minister named William John Henry Boetcker, and they dated back to only 1916-fifty-one years after Lincoln's death. That year, Boetcker published a tract entitled Lincoln on Private Property. The pamphlet featured a unique format: the true words of Lincoln on one page followed by interpretive quotations from Boetcker on the next. The ideas quickly found an appreciative audience among conservatives. Republican clubs clamored for copies, and the booklet went into new editions in 1917, 1938, and 1945. Unfortunately, in each subsequent incarnation Boetcker progressively receded into the background until Lincoln was receiving sole and undeserved credit for aphorisms he had never uttered. One later edition boasted that the words were Lincoln's exclusively and were published at the "inspiration of William J. H. Boetcker." By the time Ronald Reagan got around to quoting these lines, the true source of the inspiration had faded into the shadows. When the truth finally surfaced, a Reagan spokesman, scrambling for an explanation, said that the former president had done all his own research. As the sole author of the speech he had found the "Lincoln" quotations in a book called The Toastmaster's Treasure Chest by one Herbert V. Prochnow. It was passed off as an understandable mistake, but it is an indelible one.7

Few of the millions who heard Reagan that summer night ever read the explanations or the corrections published in newspapers during the days following his remarks. Nor did they learn that with a brilliant editorial stroke, Reagan had craftily omitted two of those spurious Boetcker-authored quotes-two that did not seem to fit his call for fealty to Republican principles 1992-style. After all, how could the chief executive who had presided over the accumulation of the most massive federal deficit and debt in the nation's entire history possibly say:

You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.

You cannot establish security on borrowed money.

Ronald Reagan deleted those phrases from his recitation. But he had said enough to lay powerful, if spurious, claim to Lincoln's political blessings. Three full years after scholars had discredited Reagan's Houston Lincoln reference, one of the most widely read newspaper columnists in the nation blithely published the Boetcker quotes once again. To Ann Landers, the words Reagan had quoted still seemed irresistibly Lincolnian.8

Claiming the mantle of Lincoln started long before President Reagan's faux pas. It has been part of the fabric of political discourse practically from the moment Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, 1865-barely a week after restoring peace to a country torn by the long, blood-soaked Civil War. In eulogies delivered at churches throughout the north that Easter Sunday, Lincoln was confirmed as a secular saint. That was a nearly miraculous elevation for one who was among the most severely criticized of all of our presidents: Lincoln had been mocked, scorned, and ridiculed by much of the nation until he was lifted above the clamor by his martyrdom. Gone was the hateful derision. To many, he had suddenly become a second Moses, proclaiming liberty throughout the country but perishing before he could enjoy the promised land; to others, he was an American savior dying for the sins of his bitterly divided people.9

Before long, politicians took up where preachers had left off. In the furious debate over postwar Reconstruction, conservatives and so-called radicals both claimed they were pursuing the path to reconciliation that Lincoln himself had charted. Then at the dawn of the twentieth century, Democrats like William Jennings Bryan began suggesting that they, too, might be entitled to claim a portion of Lincoln's legacy. An angry New York Times article replied that "every word of that noble man ought to be a rebuke" to such Democratic presumption, but the indignation of the Times did nothing to inhibit the Democrats.10 Lincoln's reputation, buoyed by the centennial observances of his birth, remained high; and competition to claim Lincoln for political inspiration and advantage came to embrace all political faiths. A golden age of Lincoln literature was just getting underway, and politicians were eager to lay claim to its riches. It would have been unnatural for politicians not to clamber aboard the bandwagon.

Theodore Roosevelt, who as a child had viewed Lincoln's funeral procession in New York City, proudly confided to White House correspondents that he kept a portrait of Lincoln behind his presidential desk. "When I am confronted with a great problem," he explained. "I look up to that picture, and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done." Roosevelt felt comfortable pursuing what he called a "Jackson-Lincoln theory of the presidency," meaning that he would be an active executive prepared to do even what Congress was reluctant to approve. Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt claimed, had practiced "tempered radicalism," and so would he. By then the competition to claim Lincoln had come to embrace all political faiths. By the time the 1912 election rolled around, Democrat Woodrow Wilson felt compelled to establish an association of his own with the great Lincoln. Explaining that he was in search of the unique inspiration Lincoln could provide, the Democratic nominee even made a pilgrimage to the sacred and hitherto exclusively Republican mecca of Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's hometown.

Copyright © 2004 by Mario M. Cuomo

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

Mario M. Cuomo served three terms as governor of the state of New York. A New York City native, he attended St. John's University for his B.A. and his LL.B. The author of several books, he is now partner at the law firm Willkie, Farr & Gallagher. He lives in New York.

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