By: Greg Mitchell
You?d think that after embarrassing himself and his newspaper by basing a column on a fabricated quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln — then hearing it cited in a key congressional debate on the Iraq war — Frank J. Gaffney Jr. would just apologize and turn the page. Instead, in his new column today for The Washington Times, he draws on Lincoln again with the same goal: to lock up or otherwise punish critics of the Bush ?surge? in Iraq, with Gaffney again charging them with ?unacceptable treachery, if not actual treason? and giving ?aid and comfort to the enemy.?
Last week, E&P and others quickly pointed out the fake Lincoln quote following Gaffney?s gaffe in his previous column. Yet it took the author and/or the newspaper more than two days to delete or correct the column, finally wiping it from the site on Friday and later carrying a correction. That quote, long hailed by conservatives in cyberspace, had Lincoln saying (at the very top of Gaffney?s column), ?Congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested, exiled, or hanged.? It had been debunked last summer by FactCheck.org.
Now Gaffney is back, claiming that while the quote was not real, it was a ?paraphrase? of Lincoln?s actual views on dissent in wartime. Then he offers a new, and this time accurate, Lincoln quote, this one from a letter he wrote in June 1863 ?as Robert E. Lee’s army was on the march north to the fateful battle of Gettysburg.?
Lincoln wrote this letter to Erastus Corning and others after the arrest of a leading Confederate sympathizer, U.S. Rep. Clement L. Vallandigham (D-Ohio). Gaffney relates, ?It forcefully explains the commander-in-chief’s thinking about the latitude the Constitution affords to ?silence? anti-war ?agitators? whose conduct ?damages the Army? and threatens to leave the nation without the military means to ?suppress? its enemies.?
The Lincoln passage, via Gaffney, opens with: ?”Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier-boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?? Lincoln wrote that the Vallandigham ?arrest was made because he was laboring, with some effect, to prevent the raising of troops; to encourage desertions from the Army; and to leave the rebellion without an adequate military force to suppress it.?
Gaffney then comments on Lincoln: ?His views are all the more salient as congressional ?agitators? once again justify their vehement opposition to the incumbent president’s war efforts.?
Putting aside the actual Lincoln quotes -? and the highly selective reading of the 16th president?s overall views on these matters — consider Gaffney?s likening a civil war within our own country (with Lee marching north, no less), to a civil war 8,000 miles from our shores. It is, of course, the difference between our own nation torn asunder and another land experiencing that catastrophe.
A closer look at the full text of that 1863 Lincoln letter shows that the president himself knew what the difference might be. He repeatedly referred to the danger his country faced as a homegrown “uprising” or “insurrection.” He wrote, “I concede that the class of arrests complained of can be constitutional only when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require them.”
To make clear that he was referring only to a “rebellion or invasion,” Lincoln wrote later in the letter: “If I be wrong on this question of constitutional power, my error lies in believing that certain proceedings are constitutional when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety requires them, which would not be constitutional when, in absence of rebellion or invasion, the public safety does not require them.”
Yet Gaffney writes that the critics in Congress, ?Now, as then ? threaten the adequacy of the military force needed to ?suppress? a violent insurgency,? without noting where the new “insurgency” is taking place.
Gaffney concludes: ?Abraham Lincoln understood the difference between constructive dissent and treacherous agitation.? Yet Lincoln, it?s safe to say — unlike Gaffney — would have recognized the difference between ?a great civil war? at home and a potential threat far from our shores.
In an interview with Arthur Schlesigner Jr. for American Heritage magazine several years ago, William Safire cited Gaffney’s new prize Lincoln quote, “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier-boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?? Safire commented: “That?s good cornball demagoguery, but it?s wrong.”
The same could be said of Gaffney’s latest columns.
My own favorite Lincoln quote from that same 1863 letter follows:
“In this time of national peril I would have preferred to meet you upon a level one step higher than any party platform, because I am sure that from such more elevated position we could do better battle for the
country we all love than we possibly can from those lower ones where,
from the force of habit, the prejudices of the past, and selfish hopes of the future, we are sure to expend much of our ingenuity and strength in finding fault with and aiming blows at each other.”