Following in Lincoln's footsteps

Wed, Jan 21, 2009, 00:00

THE LEGACY:Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama’s spiritual father, is the president whom he most reads and admires, writes Lara Marlowe

BEFORE HE TOOK office, America’s new president wanted to share with his family the place he often went to for moral sustenance. On a freezing January night, Barack Obama took his wife Michelle and their daughters Sasha and Malia to the Lincoln Memorial.

The Obama family climbed the steps to the 20-ft statue of the president who abolished slavery and stopped to read Lincoln’s speeches engraved on the walls.

At the end of his political autobiography, The Audacity of Hope, Obama recounts how when he felt discouraged as a senator, he would jog to the memorial in the evening. “Standing between marble columns, I read the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address,” he wrote. “I look out over the reflecting pool, imagining the crowd stilled by Dr King’s mighty cadence [in August 1963], and then beyond that, to the floodlit obelisk and shining Capitol dome. And in that place, I think about America and those who built it.”

Lincoln is the president whom Obama most reads, quotes and admires. The two tall thin men are the only US presidents from Illinois. Obama announced his candidacy in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield.

Neither Lincoln’s log cabin nor Obama’s childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia predisposed them to careers in politics. Lincoln opposed the 1847-48 Mexican war which annexed Texas, Obama the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Both were relatively inexperienced and considered long shots for the highest public office. Like Lincoln, Obama is extremely pragmatic and has an immense capacity for mastering detail. And like Lincoln, he is learned without appearing pedantic or intellectual.

The bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth falls on February 12th, so Obama’s inauguration was bound to be steeped in Lincoln allegory. It almost seemed as if the new president wanted to indulge in a last binge of Lincoln mania before setting out to govern the country. The festivities were entitled “A New Birth of Freedom”, a phrase from the Gettysburg Address. Sunday night’s concert was held at the Lincoln Memorial. Like Lincoln, Obama took the train to Washington and he took the oath of office over the Bible last used by Lincoln in 1861. The menu at the inaugural banquet was based on Lincoln’s favourite dishes.

Why Lincoln? “Because the 1860s were a period of great importance, not only to African-Americans, but to all Americans,” says Scott Lucas, professor of American studies at the University of Birmingham and creator of the website.

Some 620,000 Americans were killed in the 1861-65 Civil War, more than in either world war or Vietnam. Lincoln refused to punish the confederates, demanding only that they return to the union. From this history, “Obama has distilled the notion that from conflict can come unity – that’s why you reach back to Lincoln,” Lucas explains.

Obama wants to be a great unifier, even if it involves a certain sleight of hand. “In his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, Garry Wills says that Lincoln intellectually pickpocketed the Americans in the Gettysburg address,” notes David Ryan, senior lecturer in US foreign relations at University College Cork.

The short, 272-word speech, doubtless the best known in America, does not mention division between unionists and confederates, but portrays all 50,000 men who died at Gettysburg as heroes. “Lincoln did what Obama is trying to do,” says Ryan. “To provide Americans with a new past, to reunite the country.”

Obama has been influenced by the best-selling book Team of Rivalsby historian Dorothy Kearns Goodwin. It recounts how Lincoln appointed New York senator William Seward, whom he had challenged for the Republican presidential nomination, as secretary of state.

Taking a cue from Lincoln, Obama made his defeated rival, New York senator Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state.

LINCOLN MAY BE Obama’s spiritual father, but the circumstances in which Obama comes to office are more reminiscent of those faced by Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama praised Lincoln’s and FDR’s economic policies. “We can be guided by Lincoln’s simple maxim,” Obama wrote. “We will do collectively, through our government, only those things that we cannot do as well or at all individually or privately.”

Obama said he hoped “to modernise and rebuild the social contract that FDR first stitched together in the middle of the last century”. The current US recession is not as severe as the Great Depression. Up to a third of the US workforce was jobless then, compared to 7.2 per cent at present. Millions of Americans became homeless and hungry, on a scale unimaginable today.

In his inaugural address, FDR told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Like Obama, FDR took office with a well-defined plan and a “brain trust” of expert advisers. In 100 days, he pushed through 15 pieces of New Deal legislation. FDR based his second New Deal, in 1935, on British economist John Maynard Keynes’s principle of using budget deficits to relaunch the economy. Barack Obama has asked to be judged on his first 1,000 days – not 100, like FDR.

John F Kennedy is the standard against which young politicians have been measured for nearly half a century. Until Obama, though, no one matched Kennedy’s charisma and promise of generational renewal, hope and change. Never before did the Kennedy clan anoint a would-be successor.

As early as 2006, Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s speechwriter, said Obama reminded him of JFK. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline published an enthusiastic endorsement of Obama in the New York Times, entitled “A President Like My Father”. Like Kennedy, Obama has changed the way America sees itself and the way it is seen by the rest of the world.

With his attractive wife and young daughters, Obama is recreating Camelot. JFK and Obama share a certain rock star quality, but these similarities seem superficial compared to Obama’s deeper attachment to the ideas of Lincoln and Roosevelt.

Barack Obama has tapped into the US collective memory of its great presidents. Black America though has a different collective memory, cautions Peniel Joseph, associate professor at Brandeis University and a leading scholar of African-American history.

Although Lincoln abhorred slavery, he long regarded it as a matter of personal conscience and was a reluctant abolitionist.

“There’s a feeling among African-American historians that we have to stop this hagiography of Lincoln,” says Joseph. “Obama buys into the hagiographic vision. It’s one of the things that made him palatable as a presidential candidate . . . The people revered by African-Americans, the way white folks revere the founding fathers, are Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And certainly Obama is going into the pantheon. There will be a hagiography about him as well.”

Historians are ambivalent towards Thomas Jefferson, a president who did not practise the democratic ideals he preached. Yet Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ” was quoted by Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 and by Martin Luther King in his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial 100 years later.

In 1968, on the eve of his assassination, King added: “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper’.” With Barack Obama’s inauguration, the presidential legacy has swung full circle, from the second president who wrote those revolutionary words, to the 44th president who embodies them. Martin Luther King’s prophecy has been fulfilled. America, at last, has proved “true to what it said on paper”.