Today, just when I found myself musing that we can turn to Abraham Lincoln's exemplary life and leadership to guide us through any dicey situation, I spotted a story headlined "Naked Airline Passenger 'Remembers Nothing'."
We all have our limits. Lincoln's limit is that he left behind no wise counsel for the man who finds himself garmentless at 30,000 feet. The fact that there were no airplanes in the 1860s is a flimsy excuse, especially when you consider that Lincoln gives us the best model I know of for dealing with e-mail and Twitter, which were both invented some time after 1870.
We needed Lincoln last week. We needed Lincoln to be sitting there with best-selling novelist Alice Hoffman as she prepared to submit the first of several venomous Twitter posts in response to a critical review in her hometown paper. We needed Lincoln, if nothing else, to talk Hoffman out of taking the lamentable step of posting the critic's e-mail address and phone number, and urging fans to "tell her what u think of snarky critics."
So why do I say we needed Lincoln? Let's turn to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian and author who tends to get treated as the Lincoln administration's de facto press secretary. Here is Goodwin discussing Lincoln's Twitter use -- sort of -- during an interview with NPR's Fresh Air: "When he was upset with somebody, he would write what he called a 'hot letter,' where he would write it all down. He would put it aside until his emotions cooled down and then write 'never sent, never signed.'"
Goodwin's superb Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals, gives a specific example of this practice. Lincoln had just learned that seemingly trapped Confederate forces had escaped from Gen. George Meade. Team of Rivals chronicles what happened next:
"Later that afternoon, Lincoln wrote a frank letter to General Meade ... (stating) that he was 'distressed immeasurably' by 'the magnitude of the misfortune involved in (Gen. Robert E.) Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.' Before sending the letter, which he knew would leave Meade disconsolate, Lincoln held back as he often did when he was upset or angry, waiting for his emotions to settle. In the end, he placed the letter in an envelope inscribed: 'To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.'"
Again, this was over whether the Civil War would end or go on slaughtering people indefinitely. People will have their own opinions about whether the stakes facing Lincoln were higher or lower than what Hoffman faced when she read that semi-negative review of her new novel.
I wouldn't be writing this if I imagined only Alice Hoffman is capable of doing what Alice Hoffman did. Most of us will never get a book review -- bad or good. But we all have things that set us off.
The next time something sets you off -- please don't fire up your e-mail; don't go on Twitter. Think of Lincoln. Take at least a few seconds to judge whether the thing that has you so angry is more awful than a missed chance to end the bloodbath of the Civil War. If it's worse, Twitter away, by all means. But if it isn't as bad, try to summon Lincoln's paradoxical restraint -- this restraint that frees you from the need to exercise any restraint at all. Grab some paper and write the nastiest message you can think of. Let it all out. Don't mess around with the 140-character maximum on Twitter. Let it all out.
What you do with the letter once you cool down is up to you. Lincoln notwithstanding, I'd shred the letter. Otherwise, it's liable to end up in the book Doris Kearns Goodwin writes about you. Or more likely, a breeze will come along, wafting the letter down the street and out of your life until one day you go online and see your letter -- in all its vicious glory -- posted here.
At that point, you might as well have posted it on Twitter.