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The 2016 presidential primaries: Any Lincolns on the near horizon?

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Sam Waltz

Sam Waltz
Founding Publisher

“This is like putting 10 gallons in a five-gallon bucket” was a common phrase on the Illinois farm where I grew up, and a frustrated utterance when one of us felt overmatched by the job at hand.

That’s something like I felt in the historic blizzard that hit the mid-Atlantic on Jan. 22-23, when my new snow-thrower that’s good as advertised on four-inch snowfalls went catatonic on the 24-28 inches we got at my house.

“Overmatched,” too, likely is the concern many of us felt as we watched the presidential candidates go into the first nominating events this month, in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries.

Not “overmatched” by each other – although some certainly were – but perhaps overmatched by the tasks at hand, the seemingly enormous challenges of taming the chaos of America, of leading, if not managing, this great land.

The disparity between America’s giants of the past and the current crop seems striking, as we go into Presidents’ Day weekend. Is there another Abraham Lincoln in this batch? Another George Washington?

On this day of publication, Feb. 2, I’m reminded of one of my favorite films, the 1993 Bill Murray classic, “Groundhog Day.” Beyond the sheer entertainment value, it’s really a “Zen film,” treating the topic of how does one improve in her or his life.

One nerd on the website IMDB.com estimates Murray’s weatherman character took eight years and eight months days repeating Groundhog Day, growing some each day to turn around his life, while another estimates it took just under 34 years for the character to arrive at a Zen-like state.

To bring together these themes, though, like many, I feel the challenges for our country are greater than ever before, and frighteningly greater than the candidates who have presented themselves to us.

Rather, we’re overmatched, because, instead of growing giant leaders who can rise to the challenge as did our 16th president, Mr. Lincoln – our candidates to lead us too often seem like diminished miniatures of the real thing, lacking the substance to inspire any great confidence.

We have one candidate whose “deal-maker values” seem to jettison any real sense of personal values, even any sense of leadership, opting instead for the “command and control” approach of the 500-pound gorilla. Another, in the other party, preaches the confiscation and redistribution values of socialism that, when they were inculcated in the push for global state communism in the 1950s-’80s, this country devoted billions of dollars and thousands of lives to fight.

Political observers will remember that it was the tumultuous year of 1968 that gave us the electoral nominating chaos we see today. A rebellion against the party bosses who allowed the Democrat Nominating Convention to turn the streets of Chicago into free-range violence led to the populism that delivered Sen. George McGovern at the top of the 1972 ticket and almost delivered Sen. Gary Hart in the 1976 nominating process.

Republicans, being Republicans, always were a bit more orderly than the messiness of the process that provided fertile ground for such populist appeals to the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) of the masses, but this year has proven to be for the Rs what the last few decades have been for the Ds.

Solace comes only in remembering that it was not until after his election in 1860 as our 16th President that Abraham Lincoln grew to be the man who became America’s greatest president. Before that, through the 1830s and 1840s, he was a provincial, if not ordinary, politician. The building blocks of his greatness were in place – the “big idea” thinking, his way with people, his modesty, his honesty, his intuitive story-telling – but it was the cauldron of the times that helped make him our greatest president.

With no more enthusiasm for our choices now than people had in 1860 when Lincoln was elected with a plurality, but not a majority, of the vote, we can only hope that America should be so lucky again.  

Publisher’s Note: Want to learn more from Sam Waltz about “Lincoln the Man” and what made him America’s Greatest President? RSVP to the University & Whist Club for a short program, “Lincoln and Knob Creek Bourbon,” 5:30 p.m. Feb. 5. Tickets are $30 per person, $50 per couple. E-mail JSzper@UniversityWhist.com. Enjoy some bourbon, appetizers, and, if you want, stay for dinner.

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