Obama, Lincoln took similar paths to presidency

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama is bringing something unseen with him to Washington as he assumes the presidency: the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

From his campaign kickoff on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln was a legislator in his time, to his replication of the final leg of president-elect Lincoln's 1861 train trip to Washington, Obama has frequently invoked Lincoln almost as a mentor, a man whom he once said "is calling us still, across the ages."

Obama talks about how Lincoln touches him and others, calling him a singular figure who came to "represent so much of who we are as a people and so much of what we aspire to be."

He also enjoys a rare, even historic, symmetry with the nation's greatest president.

Both built their political careers in Illinois. Both rose rapidly to national prominence. Most striking, the country's first African-American president will take office weeks before the 200th birthday of the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He'll even be sworn in using the same Bible that Lincoln did.

He's not alone, however, in his sense of awe at taking Lincoln's seat.

Almost all who've succeeded the 16th president in the White House have felt his hand on their shoulders, often citing his steadfast leadership in times of peril, frequently hearkening to his humor in times of trial and always seeking inspiration from his wisdom.

"They all feel it," said noted Lincoln scholar and historian Harold Holzer. "Everyone finds something in him."

For the generation of presidents who followed immediately in Lincoln's wake, several of whom served in the Civil War, he was a close memory. Perhaps too close for them and for the country, as none emerged from his shadow, and a succession of them was dismissed by novelist Thomas Wolfe as "the lost Americans."

Then there was Theodore Roosevelt, who "felt an almost mystical bond with Lincoln," in the words of presidential historian Richard Norton Smith.

As a boy, Roosevelt watched Lincoln's funeral procession pass by his New York City house. As president, he had the counsel of Lincoln's personal secretary, John Hay, and on the eve of his 1905 inauguration, fellow Republican Roosevelt received a treasured gift from Hay, a ring with a lock of Lincoln's hair encased in it.

"Please wear it tomorrow," Hay wrote to Roosevelt. "You are one of the men who most thoroughly understand and appreciate Lincoln."

Years later, then-New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, argued that his political party should seize Lincoln, a Republican, as their own.

"I think it is time to claim Lincoln as one of our own," Roosevelt said in the spring of 1929. "The Republican Party has certainly repudiated, first and last, everything he stood for. That period from 1865 to 1876 should be known as America's Dark Ages. I'm not sure that we are not headed toward the same type of era again."

After the stock market crashed that fall and the Great Depression set in, Herbert Hoover went to Springfield looking for Lincoln magic. He didn't find it, the depression worsened and Hoover, who lost to FDR in 1932, was voted into history as a failure.

Not all of Lincoln's successors have fared well in their attempts to wrap themselves in his mystique. During the Vietnam War, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon likened their cause to Lincoln's.

A few have fled the comparison. "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln," Gerald Ford once said.

All have reacted differently to parts of the Lincoln legend, whether it's his determined rise from poverty, the nobility of a great cause or his single-minded focus on victory in war.

Holzer recalled, for example, performing a reading of Lincoln with actor Sam Waterston at the White House for President George H.W. Bush. Talking with Bush afterward, he said that he found the president had been particularly moved by the words of Lincoln's farewell to Springfield as he left for Washington.

"I've never really heard the farewell address to Springfield as brilliantly spoken. That moved me more than anything else," Bush told Holzer, noting that Lincoln spoke of leaving the place where a child was buried, as Bush had done himself when he left the place where his own young daughter had died.

"You don't know what that means to leave the place where a child has died, leaving her behind," Bush told the historian.

It's always fascinating to watch presidents to see what they react to the most," Holzer added.

For the current president, it may be Lincoln's enduring faith in God and in the United States.

"Every generation strives to define the lessons of Abraham Lincoln," President George W. Bush said at the 2005 dedication of the Lincoln Library in Springfield. "None of us can claim his legacy as our own, but all of us can learn from the faith that guided him."

For the next president, it's the breadth of Lincoln, from a character defined by personal ordeal to the eloquence of his words.

He's read widely on the 16th president, met with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to discuss her book on Lincoln's "team of rivals" and jotted down notes to Lincoln scholars such as Holzer about their works and insights.

"He seems to be a man who thinks about history," Goodwin said of Obama.

He's also one who wants the country to think about the lessons of Lincoln and the past as he and the nation set off to chart a new history.

Said Obama at the Lincoln Library dedication: "As that man once called upon the better angels of our nature, so he is calling us still, across the ages, to summon some measure of that character, his character, in each of us today."

(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)

LINCOLN SITES IN WASHINGTON

  • Ford's Theater, 511 10th St. NW, where Lincoln was shot, is closed for renovation. It's set to re-open sometime this winter.
  • Petersen House, 516 10th St. NW, where Lincoln died, is open.
  • Anderson Cottage. Entrance at the intersection of Rock Creek Church Road NW and Upshur Street NW. Lincoln used this 14-room home as a getaway. He wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation there. Tickets are required, and it's closed on Inauguration Day.
  • Lincoln Memorial. On the Mall near 23rd Street NW. It was dedicated in 1922.
  • National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets NW. Exhibit of photographs of Lincoln.
  • National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Exhibit of more than 60 Lincoln items, from an iron wedge he used to split rails to the hat he was wearing when he was assassinated.

ON THE WEB

Lincoln bicentennial

Lincoln Legacy project

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington

The Lincoln Cottage in Washington

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Kentucky

Lincoln Boyhood Home National Memorial in Indiana

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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