Nov. 19, 2010
The City Fathers and, presumably, Mothers of Gettysburg are already planning their Sesquicentennial observance of the 150th anniversary of Lincolns Gettysburg Address. Although it wont arrive for another three years, the main address of the festive occasion will be delivered, God willing, by President Barack Obama.
Thats interesting. The city elders must be assuming that Mr. Obama will be re-elected in 2012. Or, if he decides not to run or is not re-elected, perhaps theyve concluded they want Barack Obama anyway. Its a college town, so perhaps we should not be too surprised.
President Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, held on this day, November 19th, in 1863. That honor went to Edward Everett, the most famous orator in America. In the midst of an already long and bloody civil war, the committee that chose Everett was sending a message. This former president of Harvard, former Secretary of State, was indeed a distinguished man who could be relied upon to do nothing unseemly on this solemn occasion.
Town residents, after all, had only recently been able to return to their homes. The summer air had been putrid with the smell of decaying flesh and the burning bodies of horses killed by the hundreds in the three days of battle.
Edward Everett had been the vice presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union party in 1860; in effect, he had been an opponent of Mr. Lincoln. To invite him to be the primary speaker was a little like inviting Sarah Palin to share the stage with Mr. Obama.
Lincoln gave no hint of being insulted. There is no record of his having said anything the least critical of the organizing committee or of Mr. Everetts invitationbefore or after the event.
Lincoln was happy to add what he might have called his poor mite. And what a mite it was. The 272 words of Lincolns Gettysburg Address used to be memorized by school children in America. At one time, newspaper columnists would be happy to point out that a candidate for high office had learned Lincolns short speech by heart.
Instead, we have today the thrill that goes up and down commentator Chris Matthews leg when Barack Obama speaks. Or, we have Nicholas Kristof of the once-powerful New York Times gushing about how Mr. Obama can recite, in a perfect Arabic accent, the words of the Muslim call to prayer.
Let me make bold to say that the world will little note nor long remember what Mr. Obama says on that important occasion. Thats because the world is not noting what he says now.
Heres a challenge: Ask a friend, preferably a supporter of the President, to quote a single line from the Inaugural Address of January 20, 2009. Or from his Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech. Or from his 2010 State of the Union Address.
He was elected largely on the basis of his incomparable speaking ability, we are told. But what does he say? No one can tell you.
Heres what Mr. Obama said in Springfield, Illinois, on the 200th Anniversary of Lincolns birth:
It is wonderful to be back in Springfield, the city where I got my start in elected office, where I served for nearly a decade, and where I launched my candidacy for President two years ago, this week - on the steps of the Old State Capitol where Abraham Lincoln served and prepared for the presidency.
It was here, nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, that the man whose life we are celebrating today bid farewell to this city he had come to call his own. On a platform at a train station not far from where we’re gathered, Lincoln turned to the crowd that had come to see him off, and said, “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.” Being here tonight, surrounded by all of you, I share his sentiments.
But looking out at this room, full of so many who did so much for me, I’m also reminded of what Lincoln once said to a favor-seeker who claimed it was his efforts that made the difference in the election. Lincoln asked him, “So you think you made me President?” “Yes,” the man replied, “under Providence, I think I did.” “Well,” said Lincoln, “it’s a pretty mess you’ve got me into. But I forgive you.”
It is a humbling task, marking the bicentennial of our 16th President’s birth - humbling for me in particular, I think, for the presidency of this singular figure in so many ways made my own story possible.
Isnt it wonderful to know that those 630,000 Union and Confederate dead did not die in vain? That Lincolns own martyrs death combined with those fallen soldiers to make possible the election of Barack Obama?
In the passage quoted above, just first 250 words of a lengthy speech, Mr. Obama manages to make eight references to himselfthis in an address ostensibly honoring the Great Emancipators birth.
Count the references to himself in Lincolns Gettysburg Address. There are none.
Maybe thats why Edward Everett had the grace to write the President: I should like to flatter myself that I came as close to the central meaning of the day in two hours as you did in two minutes.