The Virtue Of The Desk Drawer

Flat-out angry and boiling mad. That was Abraham Lincoln as he sat behind his desk. He wielded the pen in his hand like a knife, writing words and sentences that sliced into the person meant to receive this harshly-drawn letter.

It was mid-July, 1863. Lincoln was furious at US General George Meade. Lincoln believed Meade had allowed the enemy of the United States, the rebel army led by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, to slip away from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania without fighting a decisive follow-up battle after three days of combat earlier in the month. Lincoln thought the war could have been ended then and there—with tens of thousands of lives saved—but Meade had held back from attacking Lee’s retreating army. Lincoln was pouring his frustrations with Meade onto the letter atop his White House desk. He would send it to the US general the next day.

But as Lincoln finished the letter, a small voice called in his head. No one else heard it, only the president.

“Reach for the drawer.”

“Reach for the drawer.”

“Reach for the drawer.”

Lincoln stared at the paper. The next thing he did was to reach down, pull open the drawer at the side of his desk, and place the document inside. He then gave a gentle push, closing the drawer.

And there the letter sat. Never sent. The paper with the angry words wasn’t mailed to Meade.

I thought of this true story a few days ago. As you may have heard, the Christian evangelical minister Billy Graham died at age 99 after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease. Many media outlets reported Graham’s death and many media outlets published various articles in recognition of the event. Graham was a globally known figure.

I read one of those articles with particular interest. I chose to read it. The author was George Will, a conservative commentator, a prolific writer of all things political for more than forty years. Will is learned, sophisticated, immersed in history, and as I recall learning in a long-ago column, the loving father of Jonathan Will. So, as I hinted above, I was eager to read his article on Billy Graham.

Disappointed. Pained. Unhappy. Those are my reactions to Will’s article on Graham. Barely hours after announcement of the man’s death, Will was caustic toward Graham, dismissive to the point of sneering. The nationally syndicated columnist tapped poison into his keyboard–his version of Lincoln’s angry pen–and left no doubt that the newly-deceased Graham didn’t measure up to Will’s view of a proper pastor of civic renown. I think I felt greater sorrow at the content of the article than I did at the expected passing of the elderly preacher.

The virtue of the desk drawer.

Not all words and sentences thought should be spoken or written and, if they are, maybe they should be placed in a version of Lincoln’s desk drawer. Let some time pass. Let the rawness of the thing lose a bit of its roughest edges. And for heaven’s sake let the ink dry on the plans for someone’s funeral before you go to blasting them for all the errors and flaws you think they possessed. Show dignity, show forbearance, show your mastery over temptations to exhibit your self-defined superiority. That’s my expectation of what Lincoln would have said to Will. That’s also my expectation of what you, as the reader, are free to remind me of in the future.

Time and place, time and place, everything has a time and place.

Practice the virtue of the “delete” button. Hold off on hitting the “send” button. Open your desk drawer and slide the letter inside, like Lincoln did.

Thanks for reading. All the best, Dan