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What are the parallels between Lincoln and Reagan?

Several examples come to mind. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, there were pundits in the press who regarded him only as a gun-slinging, former actor from the Wild West, as many of them regarded California. Well, if you go back 120 years to Lincoln’s election as President and look at the way he was viewed, such as is described in the words of Donald Phillips, who wrote the book, Lincoln and Leadership, those were the ways in which the Eastern Establishment regarded Lincoln.

Phillips said, “the first Republican President, elected by a minority of the popular vote, was a Washington outsider, who was viewed widely as a second rate, country lawyer and completely ill-equipped and unable to handle the Presidency.” Well, I suspect that both presidents benefited greatly by being underestimated by their adversaries, as well as by the establishment of their respective times.

Another similarity is found in a description of Lincoln by the New York Herald in 1864. There could have been a similar description of Ronald Reagan — it would have had to be done, not by a New York paper, but by the Washington Times. They said that, “plain, common sense, a kindly disposition, a straightforward purpose, and a shrewd perception of the ins and outs of poor, weak, human nature have enabled him to master difficulties which would have snapped any other man.”

Further, both Lincoln and Reagan shared one other characteristic, as illustrated in these words describing Lincoln: “He tended to be strikingly flexible while, at the same time, a model of consistency.”

We can see other parallels in applying Lincoln’s advice to situations with which we are all familiar today. Clarence Thomas has told of how he overcame the malicious and the unfair criticism simply by not reading the newspapers or watching television. Compare that with Lincoln’s statement in his last public speech, which he gave in April of 1865, when he said, “As a general rule, I abstain from reading the reports of attacks upon myself, wishing not to be provoked by that to which I cannot properly offer an answer.” Donald Phillips said, “He had the courage to carry with him to the White House his main strategy of simply ignoring slander and vilification.”

We could also take comfort and inspiration from Lincoln’s words in his Cooper Institute address in February of 1860: “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us…. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Lincoln also understood the test of true leadership and the key to how a leader provides the necessary inspiration to his followers. James MacGregor Burns described it this way:

A leader is one who induces followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations, the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations of both the leaders and the followers. And the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see and act on their own, as well as on their followers’, values and motivations.

In this sense, Lincoln has advice that could, perhaps, well be used by the Republican leadership in Congress today. As he said in his first Lincoln-Douglas debate in August of 1858, “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

It is very important that we resist the politicians and the political forces that engage in class warfare by appealing to the lowest and most base emotion of people, emotions such as greed and envy, and thereby attempt to divide Americans on the basis of their social status or their economic condition.

Just as Lincoln preserved the union by leadership and bold action, we must preserve the unity of our nation by our commitment and dedication to this cause. Ronald Reagan used to talk about a “shining city on a hill.” Lincoln, a century earlier, said it this way: “My dream is of a place and time where America will once again be seen as the last, best hope on earth.”

Tomorrow, Lincoln’s birthday, our task, as we work together, is to commemorate this great President by building a nation good enough for Lincoln.

Edwin Meese III is Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy and Chairman of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This post contains excerpts from remarks that were originally delivered at The Claremont Institute’s Lincoln Day Symposium of February 12, 1998.

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