Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Garry Wills Sees What I Saw

Posted by Phoenix Woman on April 18, 2008

Except that he does a much better job than I did of delineating it:

Two men, two speeches. The men, both lawyers, both from Illinois, were seeking the presidency, despite what seemed their crippling connection with extremists. Each was young by modern standards for a president. Abraham Lincoln had turned fifty-one just five days before delivering his speech. Barack Obama was forty-six when he gave his. Their political experience was mainly provincial, in the Illinois legislature for both of them, and they had received little exposure at the national level—two years in the House of Representatives for Lincoln, four years in the Senate for Obama. Yet each was seeking his party’s nomination against a New York senator of longer standing and greater prior reputation—Lincoln against Senator William Seward, Obama against Senator Hillary Clinton. They were both known for having opposed an initially popular war—Lincoln against President Polk’s Mexican War, raised on the basis of a fictitious provocation; Obama against President Bush’s Iraq War, launched on false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and had made an alliance with Osama bin Laden.

Neither man fit the conventions of a statesman in his era. Lincoln, thin, gangling, and unkempt, was considered a backwoods rube, born in the frontier conditions of Kentucky, estranged from his father, limited to a catch-as-catch-can education. He was better known as a prairie raconteur than as a legal theorist or prose stylist. Obama, of mixed race and foreign upbringing, had barely known his father, and looked suspiciously “different.”

The most damaging charge against each was an alleged connection with unpatriotic and potentially violent radicals. Lincoln’s Republican Party was accused of supporting abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who burned the Constitution, or John Brown, who took arms against United States troops, or those who rejected the Supreme Court because of its Dred Scott decision. Obama was suspected of Muslim associations and of following the teachings of an inflammatory preacher who damned the United States. How to face such charges? Each decided to address them openly in a prominent national venue, well before their parties’ nominating conventions—Lincoln at the Cooper Union in New York, Obama at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

[…]

Obama’s speech has been widely praised—compared with JFK’s speech to Protestant ministers, or FDR’s First Inaugural, even to the Gettysburg Address. Those are exaggerations. But the comparison with the Cooper Union address is both more realistic and more enlightening. It helps us understand each text better, one in terms of the other, since both speakers faced similar obstacles to their becoming president. Both used a campaign occasion to rise to a higher vision of America’s future. Both argued intelligently for closer union in the cause of progress.

Lincoln faced a greater challenge— the threat of national disintegration— and he had to make commensurately greater concessions, like granting the South its claim to constitutional protection of slavery. The extremist in his attic, John Brown, had not only spoken wild words but taken up weapons and killed men. Lincoln was under strong pressures to trash Brown, but he knew this would serve no useful purpose.

In his prose, Obama of necessity lagged far behind the resplendent Lincoln. But what is of lasting interest is their similar strategy for meeting the charge of extremism. Both argued against the politics of fear. Neither denied the darker aspects of our history, yet they held out hope for what Lincoln called here the better “lights of current experience”—what he would later call the “better angels of our nature.” Each looked for larger patterns under the surface bitternesses of their day. Each forged a moral position that rose above the occasions for their speaking.

Go read the whole thing. It’s superb, and a tonic against the sea of stupidity around us.

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