Lee Siegel: Obama's literary and political inspiration, the career of Abraham Lincoln, has a double edge

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You would be hard-pressed to think of another president who identified as emphatically and relentlessly with one of his predecessors as President-elect Barack Obama does with Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Obama's publicly declared kinship with Lincoln is long-lived and meticulously fashioned. At his first press conference last week, in response to a question about what books he was reading "to get ready for the job," Mr. Obama cited only one author: "I have reread some of Lincoln's writings, which are always an extraordinary inspiration." The president-elect announced his run for the White House in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln lived and practiced law until he ascended to the presidency in 1860. Mr. Obama has written that Lincoln's "arguments [in his debates with Stephen Douglas] would result, centuries later, in my occupying the same seat that he coveted," and his 2006 book "Audacity of Hope" brims with references to Lincoln. He has said that, along with the Bible, Doris Kearns Goodwin's brilliant study of Lincoln's political deftness, "Team of Rivals," was the one book he would take with him to the proverbial desert island. His stump speeches were laced with implicit and explicit allusions to the man from Illinois.
And in his victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, Lincoln was the only historical name Mr. Obama mentioned: "And while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, 'We are not enemies, but friends -- though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.'"

Mr. Obama's close identification with such an admirable figure is itself admirable, and it seems as sincere as it's calculated to please and impress. And yet there's something puzzling about his obsession with a president whose tenure was entirely taken up with conducting the bloodiest war the modern world had seen, and whose eloquence and intelligence we perhaps would not be aware of if the republic's imminent dissolution hadn't inspired him to remarkable feats of self-mastery and self-expression. For at times, Lincoln's mighty rhetorical gift led him into morally dangerous or emotionally disconnected waters....

For Mr. Obama, the most important point of similarity derives from a most fundamental difference. The American Civil War ended the institution of slavery in the South: the self-made white president who prosecuted the war created the conditions for the self-made black senator. As Mr. Obama writes about winning the Senate seat that Lincoln unsuccessfully sought: "[Lincoln] may not have dreamed of that exact outcome. But I like to believe he would have appreciated the irony." Mr. Obama seems to consider himself both Lincoln's beneficiary, and Lincoln's heir -- not to mention his soul mate: "On trying days, the portrait... soothes me; it always asks me questions."

As the war raged on, Lincoln's rhetoric took poetic flight -- just as Mr. Obama reached glorious planes of oratory in the speech on race that he gave in Philadelphia, at a time when his relationship with the pastor Jeremiah Wright seemed to pose a fatal threat to his candidacy. No American politician has ever prided himself so self-consciously on his linguistic gifts as did Lincoln, or worked so hard to cultivate them. But his legendary and indisputable eloquence had a double edge.

Consider Lincoln's famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby (sometimes attributed to his secretary), who lost five sons in the War, a letter in which Lincoln prettily writes of his "attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming" and finishes by referring to "the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom." It is doubtful that a modern-day president could use the phrase "solemn pride that must be yours" in such a context and not fear a sardonic or indignant public response. The language seems facile in such barely comprehensible circumstances.

Mr. Obama, too, can fall into the trap that waits for people to whom words come quickly and easily. He writes in his Time magazine article about how he gazes at Lincoln's portrait, believing that Lincoln "still cherishes his memories -- of an imperfect world and its fleeting, sometimes terrible beauty." But it is difficult to imagine Lincoln cherishing the memories of the deaths of his two beloved sons, or of the incredible carnage that he unleashed in the Civil War. "Imperfect world"; "terrible beauty" -- these are mellifluous yet weak words for such unspeakable experiences.

There is a snare to such eloquence. As Lincoln encouraged his generals to pursue a "total war" that would destroy 50,000 civilians along with 620,000 soldiers and cripple hundreds of thousands more, his rhetoric continued to intensify in power, and in its lack of human connection. In his Second Inaugural address, justly celebrated for its potent language and its magnanimity, Lincoln also spoke these cruel and unmagnanimous lines: "If God wills that it continue... until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'"

Yet even before the war, Lincoln had seen himself as a divinely appointed hero at the center of history. On the eve of his inauguration, he declaimed: "A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington."

Mr. Obama, like Lincoln, has a very powerful sense of himself as an agent of historical destiny. That sentiment recurs throughout his two autobiographies; it also surfaced in a slightly jarring moment in his victory speech on the night of his election, when he spoke of the election having "many stories that will be told for generations."...

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