He swore his oath of office on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. He has asked to give the State of the Union address on Lincoln’s birthday. He rode to Washington in 2009 on a train route similar to Lincoln’s in 1861. He has compared his critics to Lincoln’s critics. He confides to admirers that he likes to read the handwritten Gettysburg address that hangs in the Lincoln bedroom.
Barack Obama is inviting the world to compare him not just to good presidents but to the greatest in American history.
There can be majesty in invoking past presidents and the Founders. But Obama’s quotations and allusions in his inaugural address served only to highlight the flatness of his own prose. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he intoned, repeating the echoing words of the Declaration. What followed was “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. . . . ” Clunk. “Self-executing” is a word best left to legal documents. It has as much poetry as a filing cabinet. As for “never-ending journey,” it’s a phrase that belongs in the juvenile-fiction section — if there.
Obama’s second inaugural poached lines from Lincoln’s second inaugural. The effect was like inserting snatches of Mozart into a Mariah Carey song. Obama said: “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free.” He was paraphrasing two Lincoln quotes, one from the Cooper Union speech, and this passage from the Second Inaugural: “Yet, if God wills that it continue until . . . every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Obama’s speech also seemed to allude to Lincoln’s message to Congress before signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln said: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Obama, able to wring banality from the best material, said: “But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Clunk.
Bounding from bromide to platitude, Obama alighted on his true theme — to excoriate his opponents and to deny that choices must be made between providing lavish welfare-state benefits and ensuring the prosperity of future generations. Deploying well-worn campaign themes, he slashed away at straw men: “We do not believe that, in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.” And, “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” Or, “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”
In the midst of the worst crisis the United States ever faced, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers already dead, thousands more wounded, and the outcome uncertain, Lincoln found it within himself to be charitable and humble. Of the contending sides in the Civil War, he said: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.”
Though he could have been excused for a certain moral superiority — he was fighting the slave power, after all — Lincoln instead proclaimed “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln did not strut. He was too wise. Obama’s attempt to lasso Lincoln’s legacy for his narrow partisan ends reveals that he doesn’t even understand Lincoln’s greatness, far less partake of it.