Honest Abe and today’s pols

The Tom Daschle episode has this peculiar capacity: it manages to shock us, but not to surprise us. The shock is only momentary. How could a seasoned public official or his accountant — surely Daschle doesn’t do his own taxes — overlook owed taxes in an amount that represents several years’ pay for most of us?

But none of us is particularly surprised by this. We probably suspect that well known and well paid public figures — politicians, celebrities, athletes — regularly cut corners on their taxes and other social obligations in ways that we wouldn’t tolerate among ordinary people.

Sometimes we don’t tolerate it among the rich and famous, either. Ask Wesley Snipes. But while we’re fond of saying "No man is above the law," I suspect that many of us have the feeling that once we reach a particular level of wealth and fame, we can get away with a good deal more than the average man on the street.

Which is not to say that Daschle was intentionally dishonest. But active scrupulous attention to his ethical obligations — and paying one’s legal share of taxes is an ethical obligation — was in short supply.

This is particularly disappointing in the early days of the Obama administration. During the campaign Barack Obama cultivated the prospect of a new era of integrity and upright honesty, the kind that doesn’t have to get caught before it does the right thing.

Abraham Lincoln — "Honest Abe" — was the campaign’s role model. Obama reprised a version of Lincoln’s train trip to Washington in 1861 and swore his oath of office on the Lincoln Bible. Obama reads Lincoln, and Lincoln’s rhetoric echoes in his speeches.

In one of the first stories that children used to learn in public schools, Honest Abe is an Illinois storeowner of modest circumstances who discovers one day that he inadvertently overcharged a customer. He might have waited until the customer returned to correct the error — in the early 19th century, stores were few and far between in rural Illinois and the customer was bound to be back. Instead, at the end of his long workday Lincoln makes a trek of several miles into the country by foot to return the money.

I’m not sure if this story is actually true, but it’s consistent with a good deal of what we know about Lincoln’s meticulous commitment to integrity, as well as with a rigorous principle of honesty that can be traced from the painstaking morality of colonial days through Ben Franklin to the American West, where, as they said, a man’s word was his bond.

Often this principle was merely an ideal, honored more than practiced. But I’ll speculate that some American generations have taken it more seriously than others. My father, a child during the Great Depression, a sailor during World War II, steeped in the frugal farm life of rural south Texas and rigorous old-time religion, would never have considered cheating on his taxes or his wife or even breaking the speed limit. And like Lincoln he more than once went out of his way to return a trifling sum of money that had improperly come his way, just because it was the right thing to do.

It’s a pretty lofty standard. No doubt, even Honest Abraham Lincoln didn’t reach it all the time. However, Obama ran for office holding such a standard before us, and even after several missteps it’s not too late to reassert a standard that’s principled rather than pragmatic, Lincolnian rather than Nixonian.

The level of idealism is intimidating, but selling it to a jaded American public that often itself behaves more like Daschle than Lincoln is the presidential feat guaranteed to distinguish Obama from his predecessor.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)