PAUL R. DUNN: Obama and Lincoln: Alike But Different
Feb. 12, 2009, is the bicentennial anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth.
We see the appellation "of Illinois" commonly used by historians when referencing to the 16th president. But Illinois produced only one president, and it wasn't old Abe. It was Ronald Reagan. Ulysses S. Grant, often referred to as "the president from Galena, Ill." was actually born in Ohio, and Honest Lincoln began life in hard-scrabble Hardin County (now LaRue County), Ky.
Barack Obama, who has inherited the "of Illinois" label, is in reality a son of Hawaii, which was a far-distant Pacific kingdom in the rail splitter's day. Then Hawaiians were considered foreigners and thus ineligible to be elected president of the United States.
As Obama establishes his place in history, many may compare the two men, seeking to establish Obama as the "New Lincoln," the modern-day "Man of Illinois." What are the similarities and differences? Both are very intelligent men. Lincoln had less than one year of formal education; Obama attended excellent schools in Indonesia, Hawaii, two distinguished American universities, Occidental and Columbia, then Harvard Law School, where he was president of the prestigious Law Review.
Lincoln's natural mother died when he was 9 years old. He was raised by Sara Bush Johnson Lincoln, a caring stepmother who valued learning. His lackluster father viewed Lincoln as cheap labor. Obama's natural father deserted the family, so Obama was raised for a short time by a stepfather and a devoted single Mom and her parents.
Obama's rise in politics was meteoric; Lincoln's journey was slow and filled with disappointments. He briefly served as a captain in the Indian wars, and as a congressman he opposed the Mexican War. Obama has had no military service and opposed America's pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Lincoln was the first Republican to become president, Obama the first African-American elected.
Obama is heir to two wars and a growing recession. Lincoln faced imminent civil war. Obama has placed a prominent political opponent in his Cabinet, (Hillary Clinton). Lincoln's Cabinet was peopled by strong-willed political opponents (Seward, Chase and Bates).
Lincoln was married to a high-strung, jealous woman with serious mental ailments, exacerbated by the deaths of sons Willie and Eddie. Obama's marriage appears solid, with a smart, successful wife and adoring children.
Obama is a Christian churchgoer. Lincoln knew his Bible well and had great reverence for the Almighty, but he had zero interest in organized religion. Obama has great organizational and fund-raising skills; Lincoln relied upon friends for campaign contributions. Lincoln was an incredible orator, often speaking for hours to large audiences, sometimes outdoors, with few if any notes and no microphones. Obama is good on his feet and facile with words, yet may prove to be overly concerned with "image."
Obama honed his political skills on Chicago's hard streets, ward leaders' offices and churches. Lincoln learned his political lessons from Midwestern farmers and townsfolk, traveling the circuit as a successful story-telling lawyer and sometimes judge.
Obama enters office after decades of poisoned relationships between the executive and the legislative branches of government and promises to reduce partisan tensions in Washington. Lincoln sought reconciliation between North and South and urged just reconstruction policies for that time when hostilities would end.
Obama inherits a huge military-industrial complex with professional armed services and U.S. bases and fleets operating around the world. Lincoln commanded an almost nonexistent army, with top leaders deserting to the Southern cause. He was forced to rely upon untrained political appointees to lead troops, many of whom were unwilling conscripts.
Lincoln was a simple man of modest tastes. Obama is a man of sophistication who takes over an imperial presidency. Lincoln had a small staff and wrote his own speeches.
Obama will have a huge staff and an oversized Cabinet and will rely upon speech writers and press secretaries to communicate with the world using mass media, including the Internet. Lincoln depended upon the telegraph and newspapers to deliver his message.
I recommend that Obama read much of Lincoln, particularly his speeches, which are impressive for command of the English language, homespun humor, historic research and logic of argument. In particular, Lincoln's famed Feb. 27, 1860, Cooper Union speech in Manhattan brilliantly argued the case against civil war and for union. ("Let us have faith that Right makes Might, and in that faith, let us, to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.")
To give that talk, it took Lincoln, traveling 20 mph by rail, three days to get from Springfield, Ill., to New York City via Philadel-phia, meeting important politicians along the way. A modern president travels that distance in hours. But can one bring with him the decency, wisdom, experience, determination, common-touch humor and commitment to national unity that Lincoln did?
We'll soon see.
Paul R. Dunn may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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