A Role Model So Much Larger Than Life
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
He could have chosen Frederick Douglass, whose fevered oratory he praised to his law school students. He could have evoked Martin Luther King Jr., whose dream of racial equality presaged his own historic election. Or Franklin D. Roosevelt, who inherited an economic crisis even more crippling than the one he will confront when he is sworn in Tuesday.
Instead, President-elect Barack Obama's inspiration is a brooding rail of a man whose election 148 years ago triggered scorn, ridicule and threats, one so severe he had to sneak into Washington to his own inauguration.
Abraham Lincoln's capacity to hurdle the many obstacles in his path, to journey from the unruly frontier to the apex of power, to conquer the greatest moral challenge of his time is evidence of "a fundamental element of the American character," Obama has said. "A belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams."
Obama's inauguration was America's moment to commemorate the election of its first African American president. Yet it was also the opportunity to indulge in an enduring American passion: honoring the 16th president, who salvaged a divided Union, liberated millions of slaves and, seven generations later, made Obama's rise possible.
Even before Obama's victory, Lincoln's symbolic presence at the inauguration was ensured because it is the 200th anniversary of his birth. But in any year, Lincoln remains a ubiquitous muse, inspiring more written words, by many estimates, than any historical figure except for Jesus Christ. Nearly 20,000 books have been written about him, according to one count.
His abiding influence is rooted in the folklore that attends his name. The Railsplitter. Honest Abe. The Great Emancipator. His prose is an indelible part of the American song: "Four score and seven years ago" . . . ''The mystic chords of memory" . . . "With malice toward none; with charity for all" . . .
But the allure of Lincoln also emanates from what is unknown: the inner Lincoln, the inscrutable Lincoln, the barest of clues suggested in those old black-and-white photos, the hooded eyes that convey torment, the tired, enigmatic smile.
"He's like the cliffhanger that never gets resolved," said Allen Guelzo, a Gettysburg College professor and a Lincoln biographer. "Here's the man who saved the Union, and we think, 'Boy, if we get into another crisis, we want to know the formula.' We want to discern another Lincoln. But they are elusive, which means we invent them. So we impute to Lincoln the qualities we hope will lead us through the wilderness. It's called myth. It's called legend."
The genesis of Obama's passion for Lincoln is a puzzle to his longtime friends and associates. They've seen the Lincoln photo in his Senate office, and they've seen him toting this or that Lincoln biography. But they struggle to explain how and when he adopted him as a spiritual guide. "A lot of stuff he thinks about, he keeps to himself," said Marty Nesbitt, a close friend who vacationed with Obama in Hawaii over the Christmas holiday. "He doesn't think out loud."
An essential part of Obama's immersion in Lincoln occurred when he was a state senator in Springfield, Ill., where the only house Lincoln ever owned still stands, where his desk and campaign poster are displayed in the Old State Capitol, the place he waited for election results on Nov. 6, 1860. On any given day, legions of visitors migrate to the president's tomb on the edge of town, rubbing the nose on the bronze Lincoln bust for luck.
"When you get to Springfield, there's almost a mystique about Lincoln," said former congressman Abner Mikva, an Obama mentor who served in the Illinois legislature for 10 years. "He sat there as a lowly state legislator, and you start to feel overwhelmed by it. His presence is there."
Dan Shomon, Obama's chief aide in Springfield, spent many days driving with his boss to appointments across the state, the two of them in Obama's Jeep. Inevitably, their path intersected with Lincoln's, whether in Vandalia, site of Illinois's first state capital, which Lincoln helped move to Springfield, or in towns that hosted the Lincoln-Douglas debates.