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Gettysburg Address at 150

The 19th of November is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which begins with the famous words:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Millions of school children across America have memorized those words.  I still remember when I first did in Mrs. Johnson’s sixth grade class in the Cape Elizabeth elementary school.

It is a profoundly moving speech.  I still choke up when I recall it.  The middle lines are a bit muddled in my memory, but who can forget how Lincoln ended that speech.

“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom- and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”

The anniversary of Lincoln’s address has me thinking about what Lincoln would make of the political situation in America today. He surely would be sad that government of the people, by the people, and for the people has come to such a clash of ideology, special interests, and big money.  Lincoln had seen the destruction that narrow ideology can bring.  In his time the issue was slavery.  Today the issue is the size and role of government.

One might think that the issue of size of government has little significance compared to an issue like slavery. Slavery was an issue to incite passion.  Size of government sounds like a bureaucrat’s discussion of shades of gray.

Not so, of course, amplified by the explosion of 24/7 news cycles and single interest commentators, the debate over the size and role of government engenders extraordinary passion and destructive vitriol.

Democracy depends on a shared common interest.  Lately one wonders if America is losing that shared sense of self that has been a big part of making us a great nation.

I have been reading This Town by Mark Leibovich, a New York Times reporter who has covered Washington for several years.  Leibovich writes about the way media, politics, and money have combined in a giant Washington bubble.  He has a gift for skewering the self-proclaimed, self-promoting new Washington elite.

The book opens with the funeral of long-time Meet the Press host, Tim Russert.  By page 2 it is clear that Russert’s funeral has less to do with Tim, though Tim was beloved to all, than with the self-promotion of the “in” crowd who attended.  The book is mostly downhill from there.  The new elite in Washington are the big media names, of whom Russert was the biggest, and a retinue of lawyers and lobbyists, many former members of Congress – all making millions and millions. The focus of the new elite is not what is best for America, but what will allow them to keep promoting their own brand.

This is not the Washington where I lived and worked in the seventies and early eighties.  It is not the Washington of Lincoln’s dreams.  It is not the Washington most of us Americans would desire.

On the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address, it seems that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” has become dangerously self-absorbed.  Who or what will provide the wake-up call?