Like most people, I try not to think of world history in terms of a timeline of heroes: Pericles, Jesus, Caesar, Elizabeth I, Washington, Napoleon, Lincoln, Lenin, Churchill, etc.
The Great Man Theory of History is not only foolish (history is more complicated than that); it is also insidious. If you believe that change results when a given "change agent" (Bill's term for Hillary the other day) delivers it to the people, as Prometheus did with fire, then you are likely to take a wait-and-see approach to your own responsibilities.
History is about what we collectively make it. It is an algorithm so complex, a code with so many inputs, that no one individual -- whatever his or her particular eloquence, character, or even genius -- can hope to dictate (or predict) where it is going next. (This may be news to Wolfowitz, Perle and others in the neoconservative cabal that led us into the Iraq War with a plan to reshape the Middle East.)
Having said that, I will confess: I have a hero. I even have a bust of him in my house.
His name is Abraham Lincoln.
Bear with me. I'm getting to my endorsement. This is my endorsement. Read on, and you will see why.
Lincoln has been my hero since about the winter of 1995, when I finished the first of the many biographies, monographs, articles, studies, and picture books about him that I have accumulated on my bookshelves since then.
He is not my hero because he "saved the Union" (though for that we should be eternally grateful, to be sure). He is not my hero because he "freed the slaves," since that victory was achieved by countless people, both enslaved and not, and could never be attributed to one man (and anyway, Frederick Douglass and many historians since have some mixed things to say about how long it took for Lincoln to make his important contribution to that effort).
Lincoln is my hero because of the way he thinks.
Unlike any other person I have encountered in person or in words (with the possible exception of Hamlet!), Lincoln had a gift for sharing the process by which he arrived at a decision. In his legal briefs when he was a country lawyer (as he made the rounds of the Illinois circuit courts on his horse, "Old Ben," and slept in taverns sometimes three to a bed with other litigators), in his speeches and letters as a rising politician, and of course in his major addresses, again and again Lincoln reveals the route by which his mind traveled to its resting place. He brings us along on a journey.
Take two examples: the "House Divided" speech and his First Inaugural Address. Okay, I can't help myself, two more: the "Cooper Union Address" or his Farewell Address to his neighbors in Springfield, delivered in a shaky voice from the back platform of the "presidential train" headed to Washington D.C.
This is the language of democracy. In all of these examples, and in almost everything he wrote or ever said, Lincoln translated his private concerns, his anguish, his fervent hopes, his efforts to find light where there was little, even his defeats, into terms which other people could understand.
He did not just come up with snappy ways of saying things. Many people -- including his opponents, like Stephen Douglas or George McClellan -- could do that. He brought people along, increased their capacity to think, and thereby increased their capacity to feel.
Lincoln knew a secret of human nature that is so often forgotten: our emotions, our passions, are driven by our thoughts (and vice versa, of course, as the philosopher, David Hume, pointed out); they cannot be disentangled. Where some would try to work on our passions to redirect our reason, Lincoln worked on people's reason to redirect their passions.
Today we have a candidate running for President of the United States who reminds me of my hero Abraham Lincoln.
148 years after Lincoln ran for the same office, Barack Obama, also from Illinois, comports himself in a similar manner.
Like Lincoln, he is tough and shrewd about what is required to win elections. But he speaks to voters in a transparent way about what he is thinking and why he is thinking it.
All through the summer and fall, in debates and public appearances, Obama answered questions by explaining his process. He avoids soundbites -- well, except to retaliate against an attack some kind or a gambit by an opponent.
He avoids snap judgments. When he makes up his mind -- like Lincoln -- he is resolute (as Lincoln famously wrote General Ulysses Grant in a telegram: "Hang on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible"). But he is not afraid to show that getting to this point of resolution takes a willingness to ponder, reflect, even hold contradictory ideas in the mind at the same time -- F. Scott Fitzgerald's test of a first-rate mind.
Listen to Obama, and you will hear the language of democracy. It is the language of someone who considers you an equal and trusts that you will follow his argument even if you do not agree with it.
As I say, the Great Man Theory of History is bunk. But sometimes a great person comes along, exactly at the right time, to nudge history, just a little, in a positive direction.
I believe that person is Barack Obama.
For my other posts on the 2008 Presidential election, including not a few on Obama, please click here.