Honest Abe's politics made strange bedfellows

April 04, 1997|By Theo Lippman Jr.

WHAT KIND of sleazy pol would stoop to using the Lincoln Bedroom for crass political purposes? Dishonor the White House for the sake of getting re-elected?

Well, Abraham Lincoln, for one.

In 1864, fearing defeat at the polls in November, Lincoln met with some advisors to discuss campaign strategy. They often got together in what is now called the Lincoln Bedroom, but which, as Neil Grauer has pointed out on this page, was Lincoln's office in the 1860s.

Social outcast

Lincoln had been the target of the most outrageous criticism in New York City's leading newspaper, the New York Herald. New York was an important electoral prize, and the Herald's influence was great in state and out. The editor was James Gordon Bennett. He was a social outcast who longed for respectability.

When Lincoln intermediaries had asked Bennett if he would support the president, the editor replied, "Will I be a welcome visitor at the White House if I support Mr. Lincoln?" A Lincoln confidante said that it was asking too much to expect the president to associate with the scandalous and hyper-critical Bennett.

But the president took a different view and informed Bennett that all those who aided him in his re-election bid "will be appreciated and remembered."

But Bennett -- and Mrs. Bennett -- thought that his paper's support was worth more than a cup of tea in the White House.

They wanted the editor named U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to France.

Lincoln had to think about that one. But after a few weeks of pondering, he allowed a friend to inform Bennett that Lincoln had told him face to face (again, probably, in the "Lincoln Bedroom"), "I expect to do it [appoint Bennett to the French Mission in Paris] as certainly as I do to be re-elected myself."

That confirmation occurred on election day eve. Lincoln had withheld agreeing to the deal till he knew he gotten Bennett's quid for his quo. He had.

During the campaign Bennett had stopped short of endorsing Lincoln, but he also stopped criticizing him -- and was more critical of the Democratic nominee for president, George McClellan. As he explained to Lincoln, his passive stance probably would help Lincoln more than his actual support.

Lincoln also bribed another critical New York editor. That was Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune. He had declined an invitation to the White House.

So the president sent an emissary to Greeley to tell him that had he come, he would have told him himself that the job of postmaster-general, which he was known to covet, was his. "I shall not fail, if God spares my life, to keep this solemn promise," was the message conveyed.

Greeley said he thought his old enemy Lincoln was lying, but the next day the Tribune said it would "henceforth fly the Lincoln banner."

Lincoln was, of course, re-elected. He carried New York state (but not New York City).

Bennett was offered the diplomatic plum but turned it down. Lincoln died without having given Greeley the postmaster-generalship plum.

Lincoln justified such distasteful campaigning on the grounds that the stakes of the election were so great. He thought a Democratic president would end the war on Confederate terms.

That's why he tried to influence other newspaper editors with federal contracts. And why he suppressed about 300 papers. It's also why he approved of his War Department's arranging to let Republicans but not Democrats circulate campaign literature to soldiers -- and to let Union soldiers, among whom he was very strong, leave their camps to go home to vote.

And it's also why he looked the other way when his campaign managers had collectors stand outside Navy Yards and extort funds from government employees. Other federal employees were also made to cough up.

And federal employment soared during the Civil War. Party men, including those at the highest level of government, were tapped for as much as $500 each.

That wasn't peanuts. Lincoln's total campaign expenditures in 1864 totaled only $125,000. That $500 would be the equivalent of well over a million today, relative to 1996's overall spending and fund raising for the presidential race.

The money was spent for the usual campaign activities, including specifically a staple of those days, pamphlets containing vile and often false criticism of one's opponent.

Corrupt elections

By the standards of today's Common Cause-type critics of electioneering in all its elements, the 1864 election was far more "corrupt" than the 1996 election.

So am I saying that Bill Clinton is "another Lincoln"? No, I'm saying that Abe Lincoln was another Lincoln. He was not the demi-god being invoked today in decrying and demeaning modern day politics.

When a lot is at stake -- as it is in most presidential elections -- even a saint is willing to get his hands a little dirty.

Theo Lippman Jr. often takes a different slant on American political history.

Pub Date: 4/04/97

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