The Blog

Lincoln, Obama, and Bush

In a time of war, eloquence matters, but so does prudence.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2008 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Long before the recent election, Barack Obama often liked to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln. An adoring press followed suit. Googling "Obama and Lincoln," results in over 14 million hits. Now many are of these are redundant and many have nothing to do with either Obama or Lincoln. But it is obvious that the idea of Obama as the reincarnation of Lincoln resonates with a great many folks, especially in the mainstream media. Consider just this small sample: Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe, "Obama's Lincoln," Newsweek, November 24, 2008, posted online November 15; The Associated Press, "Parallels between Obama, Lincoln," November 10, 2008; Carolyn Kellogg, "Obama is Inspired by Lincoln's Writings," Los Angeles Times Online, November 07, 2008; Howard Fineman, "Obama and the Echoes of Lincoln," Newsweek, October 6, 2008. The alleged Lincoln-Obama link has become so pervasive that even those of a liberal bent are beginning to protest.

The superficiality of much of the comparison is evident in the Newsweek piece by Thomas and Wolffe:

It is the season to compare Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln. Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches, or at least drafts the really important ones--by hand, on yellow legal paper--such as his remarkably honest speech on race during the Reverend Wright imbroglio last spring.

But there is also a lot in the media that reflects a dreadful ignorance about Lincoln's enterprise. Consider this passage from Thomas and Wolffe.

More than familiar with Lincoln's rhetoric, [Obama's speech writer] decided to pass on the most overquoted passage of all, invoking "the better angels of our nature," and to quote the words that came before: "We are not enemies, but friends Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."

To a public thoroughly sick of partisan bickering, these words rang with hope as Obama spoke them on election night before a vast crowd in Chicago's Grant Park. If there was any one message that defined the Obama campaign from the beginning, it was his promise to rise above the petty politics of division and unite the country.

Of course, Lincoln did not "unite the country." Indeed, he was concerned that the country would unite over the issue of the moral rightness of slavery.

As Lincoln famously said on June 16, 1858 before the Illinois Republican Convention in Springfield:

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved. I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South.

Thus far from uniting the country, Lincoln made a divided country choose sides, one of which he believed to be right and one of which he believed was wrong.