This year’s celebration of the Fourth of July has been amplified by the sesquicentennial of the Union victory at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The holiday no doubt served up the requisite dose of patriotic feeling, sentimentality and togetherness to convince us that we have exercised some civic virtue. But the vacation time spent with family and friends will mostly serve to remind us that we are exhausted.
Exhaustion is the national refrain. When everyone from a basketball coach to a Cabinet member retires from view, we are told how exhausted each is and discover a public echo of our own private feeling.
One of the most recent confessions of this kind came from Hillary Clinton, who told The New York Times, “I would like to see whether I can get untired.”
I have no doubt that Clinton – fabled for her work ethic and ambition to enact change – is tired. How could she not be? But Clinton’s claim that she craves the “ordinary” after two decades of the extraordinary emphasizes something beyond the energy required to live a public life today.
The routines of public figures at the loftiest ranks are, in no uncertain terms, unordinary: They are moved from one event to the next by schedulers, aides and personal security detachments. Yet they always appear to be running late and to have no time. At appropriate moments someone whispers in their ear that the car is waiting or knocks on the door to inform them the meeting must end.
This is simply the insulation that comes with the job. But what are we saving our public figures for?
There was far less insulation in 1863, which opened with President Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. During the next several months, he oversaw two campaigns: Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign in the West and the fitful, largely ineffectual movements of first Ambrose Burnside and then Joseph Hooker in the East. By July 4, Vicksburg had fallen and Gettysburg had been won. In November, Lincoln would deliver the Gettysburg Address, which the historian Garry Wills has called “the words that remade America.”
The toll the presidency took on Lincoln, vividly measured in contemporary photographs, is such a commonplace I need not dwell on it here. What is worth examining is the proximity of the man not only to the extraordinary demands of the country’s highest public office but also to the defiantly ordinary stuff of life – from the citizens lining the corridors of the White House, a phenomenon Steven Spielberg’s film documents quite effectively, to the correspondence streaming in.
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