It's easy to forget that today is Abraham Lincoln's birthday. In Maryland, some people will be surprised to find that the banks are closed, but for the most part things will go on as usual there, and in the District and Virginia as well. The country is supposed to think about Lincoln -- and Washington, too -- next Monday, which is called President's Day and is another of those ersatz holidays devoted to giving us a three-day weekend, during which time a great deal more thought will be given to getting a bargain on a VCR than to Lincoln.
But maybe February is too grim a month for thoughts of Mr. Lincoln anyway. Better a bit of cheer, on the order of last week's State of the Union address: "The American dream is a song of hope that rings through night winter air, vivid, tender music that warms our hearts when the least among us aspire to the greatest things . . . "
By contrast, Lincoln was able to offer only this grim imperative in his annual address to Congress in 1863: "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. . . . The fiery trial though which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation." That's not exactly like asking Tip O'Neill for a little help with the deficit.
Like Lincoln, Mr. Reagan has faith in the Union and a vision of its future. But unlike him, he has the good fortune -- so far, anyway -- to serve in times when neither is being quite so severely tested as in 1863. Lincoln took office knowing his election probably meant war. He realized in time that the war would be a long and bloody one, and he turned to generals who had the stomach for that sort of carnage. He was not insensitive to the suffering or to his responsibility in it, and there were plenty of people willing to remind him of both.
Lincoln had to have a sense of some world-saving mission for the Union to get him through that; it was stated at Gettysburg: "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." A century of memorization has dimmed that message for Americans, but it seems still to have meaning in places such as the Philippines, where people risk their lives to protect ballot boxes.
Aaron Copland's orchestral work, "A Lincoln Portrait" ends with those words from the Gettysburg Address being spoken by the narrator. Mr. Copland tells of conducting the piece many years ago in a small Latin American country ruled by an unpopular dictator, who happened to be seated in the amphitheater's presidential box for that performance. The narrator was an actress, an opponent of the ruler, and when she came to the final lines, she put her all into them, declaiming "government of the people, by the people, for the people" (in Spanish) in the general direction of the country's maximum leader, while the crowd first applauded and then roared its approval until the music was drowned out and the dictator thoroughly discomfited. As Mr. Copland recalled it, the man was thrown out of office a few months later. Even if he wasn't, it's a good story; Lincoln would have liked hearing it.