A Role Model So Much Larger Than Life

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"Barack saw in Lincoln a figure who could be emulated," Shomon said. "He saw where Lincoln had lived, where he had walked, and was amazed that he had done such great things on a worldwide level."

A decade after Obama arrived in Springfield, he returned to declare his candidacy for president. He incorporated Lincoln into his vision for his inauguration: to retrace part of Lincoln's trip to his first swearing-in by riding a train from Philadelphia to Washington, to recite the oath of office while laying his hand on the red velvet-bound Bible that Lincoln used when he took power.

Inevitably, Obama's stagecraft has provoked a measure of snickering. After he drew parallels between his own struggles and Lincoln's in a 2005 Time magazine essay, conservative columnist Peggy Noonan envisioned the dead president asking, "Barack, why are you such an egomaniac?"

Historians question the wisdom of inviting comparisons to a legend, of raising hopes at a time of unprecedented global challenges. "I'd calm down if I were him," said Eric Foner, a Lincoln scholar who teaches at Columbia University. "The danger is you don't live up to it. Lincoln is the highest standard."

David Axelrod, Obama's adviser, acknowledged that "you can overdo" the associations to Lincoln, but he said their goal is "not to emulate but to honor."

"Every president has his own legacy, you can't appropriate someone else's," Axelrod said. "It's also the foolish president who doesn't read history and learn from the mistakes of others."

Latching on to Lincoln's frock coat is an American political tradition that dates back to his assassination. Herbert Hoover invoked Lincoln when he declared war on the Great Depression. Adlai Stevenson communed with Lincoln's rocking chair after sealing the Democratic nomination in 1952. At the height of the Watergate scandal, President Richard M. Nixon quoted Lincoln during an address from the Oval Office: "If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything."

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of the country's devotion to Lincoln is the memorial on the Mall. A century ago, as civic leaders debated the proper way to salute Lincoln, one faction espoused a utilitarian gesture in keeping with the president as champion of the common man. But their idea of a Lincoln memorial highway from Washington to Gettysburg was dismissed as a way to enrich speculators buying property along the route.

Instead, Henry Bacon's Greek-style temple was chosen, its Doric columns and nearly 20-foot-tall sculpture of a seated Lincoln conveying a timeless majesty. Lincoln's only surviving son, Robert, then 82, attended the memorial's opening in 1922, a ceremony that drew more than 35,000 spectators, at that point the largest crowd ever assembled in Washington.

Like Lincoln, the memorial has acquired layers of meaning. The symbol of the preserved Union became an icon of civil rights in 1939 when Marian Anderson performed on the steps after she was barred from Constitution Hall because she was black. King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 was another defining moment, infusing the memorial and the martyred president with a still-deeper relevance.

"Lincoln is our contemporary in a way that George Washington is not," Foner said. "We respect George Washington, but the issues of Washington seem remote. The issues of Lincoln are up there on the front page, whether it's race or civil liberties in war time."

For Obama, Lincoln's American roots are a way to establish his own, especially useful for a politician born in Hawaii, the farthest reaches of the United States, and raised for four years in Indonesia. "More than any other president, Obama has no long American lineage," said David Herbert Donald, a Harvard University professor emeritus whose "Lincoln" is among the preeminent biographies of the president. "He's a newcomer into our ranks; he needs to connect himself to a powerful tradition, probably more so than other politicians."

When he arrived in Washington, Lincoln was regarded as a political novice who rose on the power of his oratory, among the qualities that he and Obama share, a list that includes law backgrounds, slim physiques and pre-presidential résumés light on national experience.

Lincoln's intellect, aloofness and humor masked his emotions, just as Obama's professorial explanations and ironic asides suggest an almost impenetrable cool. Yet their greatest similarity might be that their easy dispositions conceal the raw ambition and cunning that made them the golden politicians of their time.

Their contrasts are equally striking, the most noteworthy perhaps being that Lincoln's stature is rooted in the results of his presidency, while Obama's is based largely on potential. Upon his election, Lincoln was derided as a "huckster" and a "first-rate second-rate man," wholly unprepared to save the Union. The expectations greeting Obama seem only to grow with each public appearance.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the Lincoln history "Team of Rivals," recalls answering her phone in 2007 -- and there was Obama, inviting her to Washington to discuss her book. During their meeting, she recalled, Obama said he hoped that if he won the presidency, "at the end he would find that he was the same person, that the office had not fundamentally changed him."

His aspiration, Goodwin said, led her all the way back to Lincoln's wish that "if he lost all else, he would still retain the friend deep within."

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