A Lincoln Portrait

Something said in a senate committee meeting the other day led a reporter covering the meeting to think of Abraham Lincoln for some reason. More specifically, the thoughts jumped to some of Lincoln’s words used in an inspirational piece of symphonic music.

Please pardon us for a personal beginning to this observation.

This correspondent was born in a town where Abraham Lincoln and his family lived briefly when they moved from Indiana to Illinois.  He grew up in a couple of nearby small towns that were part of the judicial circuit that Lincoln rode as a young lawyer.  One of the towns still has the courthouse where he argued some of his cases, although the town is no longer a county seat.

A child growing up in Illinois when I did could not escape Lincoln’s shadow.  Not until I crossed the Mississippi River to attend the University of Missouri were my eyes opened to the excitement of the western frontier despite family roots in Kansas that date to a time when Indians were still raiding settlers’ cabins.

In a little more than a month, this Illinois native, this inheritor of the legacy of Lincoln, will join the Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra in its performance of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.”   The performance will be on April 21 in the auditorium at Lincoln University. There have been a great many thrilling moments in this not-yet-long-enough life.  To be part of this emotional and uplifting composition will rank high among them.

Jefferson City is fortunate to have a talented and dedicated volunteer symphony that gives many area people opportunities to continue their musical careers well past high school and college bands.  The organization also includes several highly-talented high school musicians  whose participation in a symphony at such a young age should be pretty impressive on college resumes.

All of this is prelude to the observation that is the basis for this entry.

Almost forty years of covering the Missouri House and the Missouri Senate make part of the narration of “Lincoln Portrait” convincingly contemporary.  It is the narrative segments drawn by Copland from Lincoln’s annual message to Congress delivered on December 1, 1862.

I do not know why that part of the narration came to mind recently when Senator Ryan Silvey, in a Senate committee meeting, questioned another senator about his position on a bill, describing the situation as “political philosophy meets practical reality.”

Lincoln told Congress, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country.”

The situations with which our lawmakers must deal today are certainly nothing compared to the situation Lincoln and the nation were facing when he spoke to Congress more than 150 years ago.  But there is much in that brief segment that might be helpful to today’s lawmakers at the state and federal levels who are struggling with the major issues of our times, for all of them are challenged to think beyond “the dogmas of the quiet past” so that they might be open to new thinking and actions that serve all.

We have seen many times in our legislature those moments when our lawmakers become consumed by their perceived importance and the importance they are told is attached to their work and become bound by dogma, either their own or that dogma that has been part of their upbringing and their contemporary lives.

“We must disenthrall ourselves,” says Lincoln through the narrator of “Lincoln Portrait.”

We found ourself observing that committee meeting the other day and wondering if the resolution of the “political philosophy/practical reality” conundrum that so frequently collide  in our legislative halls is found in the words Copland used in his symphonic portrait of Lincoln.  Sometimes, we have noticed through the years, it is only when political combatants become less enthralled by their own importance and the seeming critical nature of an issue that they are free to think anew and to act anew.

Reporters never know what mental road they’ll wind up going down when they cover an event where political philosophy and practical reality collide.

Reporters, Authors

We have had the pleasure through several decades as a member of the Capitol Press Corps of working with two or three (at least) generations of outstanding reporters.  And that tradition continues with a corps of dedicated professionals who often spend more hours at the Capitol than our elected representatives in the House and Senate do (somebody has to stick around after they go home and write the stories that tell you what they did with, for, and to us).

It is often said that reporters record the first draft of history.  And it’s true.  We don’t often ponder that  issue because the daily reporting of news becomes so consuming that there is little time to think of the value of our writings ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now.  But that’s as it should be.  We write of contemporary issues and actions for contemporary consumers.  The aggregate of what we write constitutes a historical narrative of our times, a record to which future scholars can apply context that is often not visible as events unfold.

Sometimes members of the press corps write later drafts of history.  Lew Larkin, who had reported for several years for the Kansas City Star when I came to the Capitol, wrote several books. Jerena East Giffen, who became the press corps’ first woman bureau chief when she headed the UPI bureau in the 50s, has written about First Ladies of Missouri and Jefferson City schools.  Terry Ganey, who headed the AP bureau before a long career as bureau chief for the the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has written of Anheuser-Busch and of a well-known murder case.  The PD’s Tim O’Neil has written of St.Louis mobs and crimes since leaving the Capitol press corps.  Daryl Levings, who was a Capitol reporter before he became an editor at the Star, brought out a Civil War novel a year or so ago. Former Missourinet reporter James Morris has penned several books including a ground-breaking biography of Joseph Pulitzer (once a Missouri state representative as he was becoming a controversial newspaper owner in St. Louis). Now, Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune is about to bring out his first book.

A century and a half ago journalists were writing about the Civil War, a terrible time for the badly divided state of Missouri.  We were an occupied state run by an interim government that had seized control when the Confederate-leaning elected Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and several other officers and legislators fled Jefferson City before the oncoming Union troops could capture them as they captured the Capital City.

Rudi has been mining the microfilmed newspapers at the State Historical Society of Missouri for the first-hand accounts compiled by our ancestor-reporters as well as personal accounts left behind in books, diaries, letters, and other records at the society, the Missouri State Archives, and other sources, to write daily columns for the Tribune about the intrusion of the war into the lives of people in mid-Missouri.  He’s digging out the human stories of people caught in that conflict, some of which he shares with me as we sit together at the Senate press table.

One of the joys of researching and writing history is the discovery of these forgotten accounts, these first drafts, and bringing them to new generations who will gain greater understanding of the humanity of the past and the way those times remain part of our culture.  The passage of time sucks real life out of historical periods and leaves us only with cold accounts of movements  and trends, presidents and conflicts.

But Rudi’s book, “Life During Wartime: 1861: The War Comes to Missouri,” pumps real life into the accounts that too often focus on the strategies of that war.  It is a compilation of his articles with additional material there wasn’t space for in the newspaper.  He hopes to have additional volumes for succeeding years.

Although his book will focus on mid-Missouri counties, it will record the fears and anxieties, the hopes and ideals, the triumphs and the sorrows, justices and injustices,  compassion and barbarism that were common to people throughout Missouri.

Jim Spainhower, who was a state Representative and later Missouri Treasurer, wrote a book in the 1970s about how he, a Christian Church (Disciiples of Christ) minister, could reconcile  pulpit and politics.  He once told me when my first book came out that authorship of a book is a form of immortality, a capturing of your words in a form that will exist long after the author departs.  There’s a certain satisfaction for authors in that, I suppose and it is driven home if the author has a chance to go the Library of Congress and give a librarian a call slip for one of your books.  A short time later, an attendant brings it to your desk.  And you sit there and you think to yourself that as long as the Library of Congress exists, you will exist, too.  And then you think of the company you will keep  through all those decades to come, centuries, in fact.

Writing history compounds that distinction because in writing of human beings whose lives have been long buried in the columns of old newspapers, and other records, the author provides some of that same immortality for them.

The ancient Egyptians had a saying, “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.”  The reporter writing the first draft of history captures those names in contemporary times.  The historian in rediscovering their actions, thoughts, and words makes them live again.  We’ve ordered some copies of Rudi’s book (advance orders are being taken through the Tribune).  We look forward to those Civil War Missourians living again, telling of their lives during those terrible times that remain part of who we are.

There’s another lofty reward that comes to those whose published works appear between the covers of books.  Jim Spainhower mentioned it to me almost three decades ago.  And as a minister, he should know.  “You can begin your prayers now,” he said, “by starting out, ‘O Thou who also has written a book…'”

And that’s being in VERY special company.


Suppose you sold a legal product that killed many of its users.  And suppose that product constituted about one-fourth of your business income, if not more.

Suppose some people, convinced they could not make your product illegal, decided to tax it out of existence by making it too expensive for most of its users to use.  You’d fight back, wouldn’t you?  Their efforts could put you out of business.  Sure, you’d fight them.  And you’d win.

But they won’t go away.  They try again and you win again.   Then they try a third time and you win a third time.  But they’re still out there and you’re tired of fighting them AND of spending the money it takes to fend them off.

What do you do?

Suppose you develop a plan.

Suppose you then go to people who can establish tax rates and who are always looking for any ways to make those tax rates lower for their constituents–or, at least, for some of their constituents–and you say, “Look, we can help you get there.  We’ll scratch your back and you can scratch ours.”

Suppose you say, “We’ll agree to a tax increase.  We’ll decide how much it should be.  It should be enough to show that we’re good guys but it shouldn’t be enough to hurt our businesses, especially the business we get from all of the eight states around us that have higher taxes on the product we sell that kills many of its users.  You can take the money those higher taxes raise and lower other taxes, something that will make your constituents love you.  Some of the people who buy our sometimes deadly products might grumble a little bit and a few might quit buying the product but that’s okay.”

“That sounds like a super idea,” say the tax setters.

Suppose you then say, “Here is what we want in return. We want a poison pill inserted in this plan that will keep those pests away who keep circulating petitions to jack up taxes so high that we are the ones who will get killed, economically speaking of course.”

“Keep talking,” say the tax setters.  Nobody says, “What?!!”

“Okay,” you say, “Here’s the deal.  We want you to say that the tax that we decide is just splendid is perfectly fine with you, too, and if anybody wants to increase it, they face the possibility that they might wind up wiping out that splendid tax increase. We’re tired of citizens exercising their free right to petition their government.  They need to risk a penalty if they do that.  In the event an initiative petition is placed on the ballot, at that point in time whatever tax increase we have done legislatively would immediately reset to zero and the initiative petition folks would be starting at the current rate of seventeen cents a pack for their tax increase. That means, of course, that if we beat them again, their effort will have LOWERED the cigarette tax and it will stay at that level indefinitely.”

Now, suppose you tell them, “I’m being quite honest. My ultimate goal is to take legislative control of this issue and hopefully keep the initiative petitions of the future at bay.”

Suppose nobody on the committee raises any kind of question about the U. S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee that “Congress shall make no law respecting…the right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievance,” or the Missouri Constitution’s Bill of Rights  that says “The people have the right…to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances by petition or remonstrance.”

Suppose nobody on the committee suggests that a poison pill penalty for exercising the right of petition appears to fly in the face of the state and federal constitutions. A right that incurs a penalty for its use is not a right.

Suppose nobody on the committee questions the propriety of letting an industry dictate to the state what taxes it will collect.

Don’t suppose any of the scenarios we have described could not happen in the Missouri Capitol.  It did happen–last Thursday morning–although only a couple of pieces of the conversations are direct quotes from the event.   This is a real proposal. It is before a real state senate committee.

Understand that the proponents of this package are doing nothing improper in advocating for their industry. Reporters of government at all levels see this kind of thing happening all the time—and all of us are part of one or more special interest groups that advocate for us.  Nor is there anything improper in the sponsor’s desire to find another way to lower taxes.

Nor might there be anything improper in the filing of a lawsuit challenging this plan if it becomes state law, testing whether the creation of a penalty for exercising a right of citizenship is a limitation on that right, not to speak of being a possible violation of the oath of office to uphold the state and federal constitutions.

The Missourinet will be in the courtroom when that lawsuit is heard—just as it was in Senate Committee Room One at the Capitol last week when Senate Bill 220 was explained to the Senate General Laws Committee.

Want to hear the real thing?   Click below.

AUDIO: Senate Bill 220