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Spring: a time of promise tinged with shadows of the past

History buffs know that Abraham Lincoln died exactly 150 years ago today, his great heart stopping forever at 7:22 in the morning. When I was a child the story of his assassination was as well-known as any story in the Bible.

The president lying across a bed too small for his huge frame, his wife hysterical; the Secretary of War saying, finally, at the end

“Now he belongs to the ages.”

Actually, he said angels, but being a politician, edited his remarks for public consumption. Though he spent most of his life in the Midwest, Michigan never figured prominently in Lincoln’s life. He gave a speech once in Kalamazoo, and years before, was on a boat that got stuck on a sandbar in the Detroit River.

That led to Lincoln’s inventing an inflatable device that ships could use in such cases, though it was never built.

But this week marked another major parallel anniversary that went virtually unnoticed. Seventy years ago Sunday, while sitting for a portrait, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said ,“I have a terrific headache,” lost consciousness, and died, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The similarities are uncanny. Both men saved the nation.

They had successfully led us through the two most horrible and important wars in our history, and died just weeks before they ended.

Both men had known their wars were essentially won, and their minds were on the future. They also died in early spring, a time when the year ahead seems still full of promise. We mostly blew the opportunity we had after Lincoln’s death. Reconstruction was a bitter failure.

We failed to elevate black Americans beyond anything more than second- or third-class citizen status, and things would remain that way for nearly a century. Race hatred and sectional bitterness would endure as well.

But precisely the opposite happened after World War II. America presided over the rebuilding of Europe and Japan. We turned our former enemies into democracies, and allies, and set the stage for our ultimate victory in the Cold War. It may have been our finest hour.

Now we are in another spring after years of economic battle. In some ways, Michigan today reminds me of the way it was when FDR first took office in 1933, after years of crippling depression.

Detroit may be out of bankruptcy, but is desperately poor. Parts of the city look the way Germany did at the end of World War II. Statewide, our roads are a disgrace.

There’s an education crisis, and the industry that defined our economy for a century is no longer the kind of mass employer it used to be, and never will be again.

The Legislature is essentially dysfunctional, and largely avoids dealing with our major issues, preferring to discuss whether people should be allowed to hunt from motorized wheelchairs.

Despite oceans of manufacturing know-how, and some of the best scenery in the nation, we are now a state that is poorer and older than average. We need to find the leadership and the will to turn things around, as we did for the world 70 years ago.

That won’t be easy. But it is again spring, and anything just might be possible.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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