Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Abraham Lincoln

When I was a boy I wanted to be president for no better reason than that I was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln. Looking back now I understand that what I saw in his life story was a blueprint -- smart, book wormy boy from poor family makes a place for himself in the world. He was what would now be called my role model. In the encyclopedia that my grandparents had purchased from a door-to-door salesmen, Lincoln's life was illustrated by drawings, including one that showed him sprawled on the floor in front of a fire reading a book. I similarly could often be found sprawled on the floor reading a book. I also venerated Lincoln because he was a great writer, eloquent and concise. By the time I was eight I had memorized the Gettysburg Address, which, to my mother's consternation, I would recite at family gatherings from the branches of an apple tree. I puzzled my family and felt misunderstood by them which tended to drive me even more deeply into books and daydreams.

So, Lincoln's life. Rail splitter, lawyer, legislator, president. That was his trajectory and, except for the rail splitting, I expected it would be mine, too. Eventually, the blueprint was abandoned, except for the lawyer part. But Lincoln remained a living influence in my professional life, long after my childish worship of him had given way to a greater appreciation of his human complexities. He was, like all lawyers, caught between the law's highest aspirations and its mundane day-to-day applications. Justice is a grind, the sifting through of facts until the relevant ones are found, which are then examined in the light of statute and precedent to reach a conclusion about their legal significance.

The law isn't difficult just because of its high level of abstraction -- words that refer to words that refer to nothing ever beheld by any of the five senses -- or because it is so often the product of sloppy thinking and bad writing. It is also difficult because it treads the gray zone between morality and necessity -- between what is right and what the situation requires. I think that is terrain that Lincoln came to know tragically well. And for that, he remains a hero to me.

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