August 17, 2007

Honest Abe vs. Tricky Dick: Ambition and the American Presidency

Posted in Philosophy, Politics at 12:40 am by Caleb Winn

As alike as they are different

Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon had a lot in common. Both were Commanders-In-Chief during bitter and divisive wars, and both left an indelible mark on the nature of American government. Both Presidents dramatically increased the power of the Executive Branch during their tenure in office. And yet these two men represent the best and the worst of the American Presidency. Abraham Lincoln is as revered as Richard Nixon is reviled. The former fought for lasting justice, freedom, and equality for America, while the latter resigned his office in disgrace.

This is most perplexing in light of the overwhelming personal similarities between the two characters. They possessed many very similar personality traits, and were driven by many of the same motivations. Most relevantly, both men were motivated by deep struggles with depression to pursue a life of ambition.

Bound together by the common thread of melancholy

As Joshua William Shenk argues in his book: Lincoln’s Melancholy, Lincoln was a well-known depressive during his life. He suffered at least two major depressive episodes. Especially as a young man, these bouts of depression were very acute, causing him to say things like, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” He also wrote melodramatic poetry about suicide, and his friends took his discussion of suicide seriously enough that for a time they kept him on “suicide watch” and refused to let him be alone.

But even after his two chronicled Major Depressive Episodes, Lincoln continued to struggle with feelings of chronic depression. (Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, argues that Lincoln was simply “melancholy,” rather than clinically depressed, but for our purposes, the distinction is relatively unimportant.) Throughout Presidency, Lincoln would often seem to buckle under the stress and strain of life. As he faced dwindling support for the War from Congress, even among his own party, Lincoln remarked darkly, “They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half-disposed to gratify them.”

This sort of statement might have been transcribed straight from the White House tapes of President Nixon, if only it had included a few choice expletives. In fact, it sounds a great deal like Nixon’s proclamation after his failed 1962 gubernatorial bid, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Like Lincoln, Nixon was a deeply unhappy, insecure man. Even his most loyal staff members, such as Chief of Staff Haldeman, and senior advisor man Henry Kissinger, often referred to him as child-like, and described nights in which the President would call numerous times to seek reassurance that a speech had gone well, and that he had support of the American people. In at least one point during his Presidency, Nixon grew depressed and physically exhausted to the point that senior staff members considered it an issue of grave concern. Robert Dallek’s biography Nixon and Kissinger describes Nixon as “an introspective man whose inner demons both lifted him up and brought him down.”

One particular story illustrates this idea very well, and is worth developing at length, because it really highlights the deep insecurities that drove Nixon to pursue political power. On May 9th, 1970 — a mere 4 days after the Kent State University incident in which four student protesters were killed by National Guard troops– Nixon spontaneously visited the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 in the morning. There, he met with a group of college students and tried to engage them in conversation about foreign policy. When they would not come around to his viewpoint, he instead began to talk with them about sports. One of the students described the President’s speech and conduct as “absurd.” And, according to Nixon and Kissinger, “as he [Nixon] left, he implored the students not to hate him.” There has, perhaps, never been a greater example of the pathetic hunger for approval that sometimes drives the ambitions of men.

A shared response: ambition as an anti-depressant

It is important to understand this hunger for approval and meaning if we are to truly understand the nature of political ambition. For both Nixon and Lincoln, the melancholy temperament that depressed their spirits also drove them to pursue their political ambitions. As is so often the case, it was their dissatisfaction that drove them to pursue greatness. Becoming President of the United States was their way of giving direction, purpose, and meaning to their lives. In many ways, personal, political ambition was their cure for depression.

Nixon sought to compensate for his insecurity through attaining personal power and prestige, in order to appear tough and in control. He personalized major policy issues, making important decisions based on whether or not his actions would show that “the man in the White House is tough.” He spent his first four years preoccupied with securing his own re-election. He was hungry for a reputation as a foreign policy expert, often using less qualified subordinates so that they would not out-stage him or steal any of his limelight. And years after he left office, Nixon continued to crave the respect and approval of his successors. For Nixon, ambition was a way of earning the happiness and love that he could not find for himself.

Lincoln similarly responded to his depression by pursuing greatness. During a particularly intense period of depression, a close friend named Joshua Speed told Lincoln that he must either improve, or die. Lincoln responded by saying that he could kill himself, but he wanted to leave a mark on his generation, and “so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow men,” and that this was that he “desired to live for.” His thirst for power was a direct answer to his deep melancholy.

A dangerous path to walk

How could two men so similarly ambitious pursue that ambition in two deeply divergent ways? And what is it about the nature of human ambition that causes some men to be destroyed by it while enabling others to transform the world for generations? At first glance, ambition seems like an intrinsically dangerous character quality. While it may not always be dangerous to the self, it poses great threat to social stability and political order. Lincoln himself argued in 1838 that the greatest threat to the American experiment was surely the ambition of great men, for they will place personal gain over political principle, and do anything necessary to achieve notoriety. He writes:

 Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.   

 Why Lincoln succeeds where Nixon fails

This last sentence highlights the difference between the destructive ambition of “Tricky Dick” Nixon and the noble ambition of “Honest Abe.” Ambition is dangerous when it exists for its own sake only, and is not restrained by principle or nobility of character. But while personal ambition can be a seductive foe, Lincoln escaped its clutches. I believe that he did this in three ways: 

1) Lincoln transformed personal ambition into transcendent purpose.

There was a reason for his Presidency beyond his own re-election. Lincoln writes, “Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature – opposition to it is his love of Justice.” Shenk concludes, “He looked at imperfection, and sought redemption.” 

This was not always the case. When he first began to pursue political ambition as a young man, he did so for his own sake. When he expressed his desire for greatness to his friend Joshua Speed, he said that he wanted to “link his name with something.” This is a personal, non-specific ambition. Lincoln’s initial motivation, at least, was not to “preserve the union” or “free the slaves.” He wanted to do “something.” great. These important cause were the means of fulfilling his ambition, but he was not ambitious because of them. 

But although he was initially motivated by a desire for personal greatness, Lincoln found that the magnitutde of the cause in which he was engaged eclipsed his own personal ego. He began selfishly – perhaps all great men do – but he ended nobly. Through depersonalizing him ambition, Lincoln was able to hold power with humility, and accomplish far more than Nixon ever could. By maintaining an external focus, by pursuing a goal higher than himself, Lincoln largely escaped the seductions of ambition.

2) Lincoln was willing to sacrifice personal success for the success of his transcendent purpose.

In many ways the controversial and unpopular policies that he pursued were detrimental to his own ambition. But he did them anyway, because his personal popularity was less important than the preservation of the Union, and eventually the abolition of slavery.

Having studied the abolitionist movement in England, Lincoln realized that he may well have undertaken a task which would be impossible to complete in a single lifetime. Upon this realization, Lincoln remarked, “I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this  contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life.” This did not discourage him, however, nor did it cause him to give up the fight. Since  his purpose was external to himself, because he gave himself to the service of a cause, instead of selecting and discarding causes to serve himself, he was content to see failure in his lifetime in the hope that Justice would be done in the end. 

3) He did this by understanding his calling in the context of divine sovereignty.

Many historians, Joshua William Shenk included believe that Lincoln was a fatalist, who expressed belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” – all things which will happen, will happen, and must happen. This was a view that he developed in his youth, and appears to have never abandoned.

But as he progressed in years, and especially into his Presidency, this “Doctrine of Necessity” took on new meaning for Lincoln in light of his growing belief in a personal God. Lincoln’s friends and visitors during his last few years reported that they often found him in prayer, or studying scriptures. He seemed to be especially fond of the book of Job, which shows that temporal hardship and suffering can have a deeper, spiritual significance that we cannot understand. His 2nd Inaugural Address really highlights this point – for Lincoln, human life could only be understood in the context of a transcendent divine will, though that will is often difficult for men to understand.

His own words and writings really attest to his belief that his life and work were a part of God’s sovereign plan. He was known to say that he was merely an “instrument” playing a part in “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” He really did seem to disregard his life for the sake of his life’s work. When his friends expressed fear that he might be assassinated, he responded, “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”

This resignation and self-sacrifice would not have been possible if he did not believe that he was in God’s hands, working His will. It was this belief in the transcendent will of God that enabled Lincoln to de-personalize his ambitions and give himself to a cause that transcends personal success. His increasingly firm belief in the providence of a benevolent God enabled him to combine his fatalism with a sense of hopefulness, and gave him the strength to press on. Within this context, his personal responsibility was understood as part of a whole that was greater than his own successes and failures. Instead of hungering for personal glory, Lincoln now said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty. . .” 

As different as they are alike

Both Lincoln and Nixon sought to leave a mark on the world, but Nixon did so for his own sake, and Lincoln did so for the sake of the world. Nixon’s ambition was conceived in his own ego, while Lincoln’s was conceived in liberty. Nixon was dedicated to his own success; Lincoln was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And long after Nixon’s greatest achievements have been forgotten, people around the world will continue to celebrate the legacy of Lincoln: a nation by the people, of the people, and for the people, that shall not perish from the earth.

That is what separates great Presidents from terrible ones, and turns ambition from a fatal flaw to a noble blessing. 


1 Comment »

  1. Phillip Winn said,

    Fantastic piece of work, Cabius. I’ll re-read it several times, I’m sure, and forward it to several people. Nice job!

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