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William C. Altreuter
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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

My friend Karima Amin refers to February as "African American Artists Full Employment Month", and for retailers it's all about red and pink hearts, but when I was in Grade School the cork strip above the blackboard was decorated with silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln, the father and the savior of the country respectively. This morning-- Washington's birthday-- I had a cherry danish in commemoration. My mom used to make a cherry pie for desert, an event with deep significance since the ability to bake a cherry pie is one of the hallmarks of womanly virtue in the song "Billy Boy". I don't have a particular food memory associated with Lincoln-- the Rail splitter was from Kentucky, of course, and Illinois, but somehow both barbecue and deep dish pizza seem as inappropriate as the mattress advertisements that are now the totem of what has become President's Day.

Coming back from Albany yesterday my law partner introduced me to the audio book of Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals : The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", and I am completely loving it. Read by Richard Thomas, Goodwin's somewhat overworking prose acquires a soothing eloquence which suits a narrative about the man Sarah Vowell has said is her favorite American writer. Even better, the familiar Lincoln story is told by describing his rivals for the Republican nomination-- William H. Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates. All of them were national figures, and Lincoln tapped all three for cabinet slots.

I wish I had a deeper knowledge of history-- but reading about it is frustrating. I am constantly distracted by digressive thoughts, and texts present a series of footnote rabbit holes to disappear down. What is the connection, if any, between Steward's guru, Thurlow Weed, and Weedsport, New York? Why was Horace Greeley so opposed to Steward, and why did he have a beard growing out of his neck?

For a long time I took the view that the Republican Party was the reform party in Erie County, but all it took was the election of Dennis Vacco (and later Joel Giambra) to disabuse me of that notion. When I think of the thugs, thieves, and outright villains that are running our national government today, it sickens me, so it is a jarring thing to find myself listening to this book and rooting for the Republicans. It is an exercise in cognitive dissonance that seems worthwhile: the United States can claim to be the first nation that was formed from a set of ideals, and Lincoln was and is important because he cared about and thought about those ideas. If he stands for anything, he stands for the importance of thinking about what we stand for.

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