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Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln, from Today's GOP

February 12, 2009

Three months after Barack Obama praised Abraham Lincoln in his victory night speech in Chicago, the first African-American President is celebrating the 200th birthday of the first Republican at several events this week. But across the Republican Party's last remaining bastion in the South, the AP reported on Tuesday, the Lincoln bicentennial is being marked by reactions ranging from indifference to outright disdain. And almost on cue, Missouri Republican Bryan Stevenson that same day deemed Lincoln's salvation of the Union, "the war of Northern aggression."
Abraham Lincoln may have been of and by the Republican Party, but today it's hard to imagine he would be for it. After two consecutive drubbings at the ballot box, the GOP has been reduced to its southern rump. Now an endangered species in New England and in retreat in the West, Republicans generally find safe haven only in the states of the old Confederacy (and in the cases of Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, not even there.) As an eye-popping New York Times map revealed, in 2008 Republican support for its presidential candidate John McCain increased over George W. Bush primarily in counties in those states where the good times there are not forgotten.
As the AP detailed, those memories are long indeed. As most of the nation honors Lincoln's memory, in the states of the old South, not so much:

The national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission encouraged states to create panels to design commemorative Lincoln events surrounding Thursday's anniversary. Twenty-three states did so. But of the 11 states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861, only Louisiana and Alabama did so, according to David Early, with the federal commission.
...In Virginia, for example, where Richmond was the confederacy's second capital, after Montgomery, Ala., state lawmakers voted down creation of a bicentennial commission. Among the arguments presented, lawyer Robert Lamb of Richmond, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, argued the state shouldn't celebrate a president who "sent armies into Virginia to lay waste to our land."

And to be sure, there is no love lost for the 16th president in those quarters. Republican nostalgia for the ante bellum South produces the quadrennial paeans to the Confederate flag in South Carolina and elsewhere. Before former Virginia Senator George Allen gained "Macaca" fame, he displayed the Stars and Bars and a noose at his home. Influential Mississippi Republicans Trent Lott and Haley Barbour each appeared at events of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens, the none-too-thinly veiled successor to the White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days:

Lott was a speaker in 1992 at an event of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor to the White Citizens' Councils of Jim Crow days. Among its offerings in seething racial hatred is a "Wanted" poster of Abraham Lincoln. Lott's also offered his rebel yell in the virulently neo-Confederate Southern Partisan, where in 1984 he called the Civil War "the war of aggression."

Which puts Missouri Representative Bryan Stevenson in good company in today's Republican Party. Speaking to a stunned House chamber, Stevenson compared President Obama's support for the Free Choice Act, which would codify the Roe v. Wade protections of Americans' reproductive rights, to the Confederacy's defeat in 1865:

"What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression."

While many of the leading lights of the GOP at times seem unable to hold back a rebel yell, the political machinery of the Republican Party remains adept at playing the race card. In 2004 and 2006, the GOP's strategy of divide, suppress and conquer baited the party's conservative base while driving down the turnout of Democratic leaning minority voters through unprecedented redistricting, draconian registration laws, bogus voter fraud charges and election day fraud. The Bush U.S. attorneys scandal was just one element of that assault. And to be sure, the challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act now before the U.S. Supreme Court is another.
In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln just one month before his assassination pleaded for national reconciliation in the looming aftermath of the Civil War:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

For his part, Barack Obama, a Democratic president whose very presence in the White House is a living testament to Lincoln's impact on American history, echoed the 16th president's words. "Let us remember that we are doing so as servants to the same flag," Obama said, "as representatives of the same people, and as stakeholders in a common future."
But in today's Republican Party, many of Lincoln's heirs refuse to hear his message. And while they won't say it, across a grateful nation millions of Americans will.
Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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