How did Lincoln craft two of the greatest inaugural addresses of all time, and how can Obama, already a remarkable orator, rise to that level? What can Obama learn about facing a national economic crisis from the president who confronted the crisis of war within our borders? Why is the "team of rivals" comparison between Obama and Lincoln an exaggeration at best?
No one is better equipped to answer such questions than Harold Holzer. He is one of the nation's leading Lincoln scholars, author of 31 books about the 16th president, most recently Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-61, and co-chairman of the United States Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He also is senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. He addressed these matters and more with Forbeson the eve of Obama's inauguration.
Barack Obama has proved himself to be a remarkable orator. What can he learn from perhaps the greatest American speechmaker of all, Abraham Lincoln, as he prepares his inaugural address?
Harold Holzer: Both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama not only rank high among the greatest orators the nation has ever produced; both earned reputations as gifted writers as well as speakers (and both even wrote best-sellers, if you count the Lincoln-Douglas debates transcripts Lincoln had printed as a book in 1860). But Lincoln knew when to ask others to help him, not a bad lesson for even the best writer-presidents. While he drafted his inaugural address in solitary seclusion in a loft above his brother-in-law's Springfield grocery store, Lincoln subsequently palliated its originally harsh tone--and improved its cadence in the bargain--by inviting several others to review it and suggest changes.
The lessons for President-elect Obama are pretty clear: Don't be afraid to show the speech to others and invite suggestions. Lincoln showed his remarks to his old friends, David Davis and Orville Browning; to the German-American leader Carl Schurz; to Francis Preston Blair Sr.; to William H. Seward (who proposed and drafted a new conclusion, which Lincoln massaged into poetry); and even to his lifetime political rival Stephen A. Douglas--which helped ensure for the speech a pretty positive reaction among Northern Democrats, who would constitute a crucial part of Lincoln's wartime coalition going forward. It's a process every great writer should welcome: great editing.
What do you think he has already learned from Lincoln? Do you see signs of studying the words of the 16th president in Obama's earlier speeches?
Mr. Obama is clearly inspired by Lincoln in a healthy way that, in turn, inspires confidence from the voters. He announced his candidacy in front of the Illinois Statehouse, where Lincoln had warned the country about a "house divided" in 1858, and in that very act, Obama helped heal some lingering wounds. He not only quoted Lincoln in his victory statement in Chicago, he very prudently reminded America that however anxious we are about foreign crises and financial meltdowns, Lincoln, and the country, had faced a far graver crisis in 1861, and not only survived but blossomed--and that he, like Lincoln, believed "passions" ought not to strain our "bonds of affection."
I think the way he has begun self-confidently constructing his administration, holding to the "one president at a time" policy that Lincoln advocated during the tense secession winter of 1860 to 1861 and showing great courtesy and goodwill toward his predecessor (even though he all but ran against him to win the White House); the way he has employed humor, charm and has shown his concern for his children--all of these echo Lincoln's mixture of dignity, gravitas and good nature. And all this was fully on view even before Mr. Obama decided not only to replicate Lincoln's inaugural journey by train, but to take his oath of office on the same Bible Lincoln used on March 4, 1861. The echoes could not be louder--or more vivid to the writer and reader of history.
There has been much talk of Obama's forming a "team of rivals" as his cabinet forms in the manner of Lincoln's. Do you see what has happened that way? What should Lincoln's experience in building and utilizing his cabinet mean for Obama?
There is a huge difference between Lincoln's "team of rivals" and Obama's--and that is that Lincoln's cabinet officers really weren't rivals at all. They were fellow Republican superstars whose names had been submitted to the Republican Convention in 1860, only to lose to the Westerner from Illinois. Their entire personal "rivalry" lasted about a day and a half. They never debated, never attacked each other, never faced one another on an electoral ballot. Obama's new team--Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and until recently Bill Richardson--really were rivals, and had a year-long record, in some cases, of verbally assaulting the man they will now work for. The fact is, 19th-century tradition made choosing the luminaries of your party for the cabinet a no-brainer.
Obama has taken a page from history, but he deserves acknowledgment for his enormous self-confidence in going one giant step further: His cabinet really is a team of rivals. No one knows how it will play out, but I doubt one thing: that any of his official family will plot against him for renomination, which is what Lincoln's Treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, did. There is another major difference between 1861 and 2009: In Lincoln's day, Cabinet ministers operated their departments pretty independently, and had a big voice as a group in discussing and even voting on major policy decisions for the government. Today a White House senior staff exists to do most of that work and act as a buffer, and the full Cabinet meets infrequently. But I dare say Hillary Clinton will outdo William H. Seward in miles traveled, probably in week No. 1. Seward, after all, once he took the job, he never left the country.
As Lincoln faced the prospect of a devastating American war, Obama faces a national economic crisis. Do you see lessons for Obama in Lincoln's experience, as he goes to work trying to restore the American economy and as he endeavors to unite a nation behind him in a terribly difficult undertaking?
Let's be clear: Few presidents-elect have entered office amid more united good feelings from both parties than Barack Obama. I have never seen anything quite like it; it bodes a long honeymoon period, which may well help the country to coalesce around the kind of aggressive and imaginative policies we probably need to lift us out of the current economic decline. Lincoln, on the other hand, came to office after 60% of Americans had voted against him. Most Southern states didn't even list his name on the presidential ballot in 1860, and in those that did, he won 1% or 2% of the vote--zero support. In response to his election, seven of those states announced they would no longer be part of the American Union, formed their own government and inaugurated their own alternative president. I dare say that was quite the opposite of the situation facing Obama.
Oh, yes, Lincoln had a Wall Street crisis to deal with as well. The financial community tanked in the days following his election, fearing the dire consequences of a cutoff from Southern markets. Remarkably, Lincoln managed to inspire what remained of the nation to unite around an effort to restore the Union and to cleanse it of the hideous stain of slavery--a task that required four years of lost life and treasure.
By comparison, Obama starts out with a far easier task, as he has acknowledged himself. And he comes armed with huge goodwill and admiration for his personal story. He has tapped into a yearning for fundamental change, which he now personifies. The real test will come over time, during the crises sure to come, when Lincolnesque writing, leadership and inspiration will undoubtedly be required again. Lincoln always believed "public sentiment" meant more than enacting "statutes." If Obama really believes in the Lincolnesque way, he will remember that he'll always be a symbolic leader as well as a chief magistrate. I strongly suspect he knows that pretty well.
What greatest danger lies ahead for the new president, judging from Lincoln's experience?
The biggest danger facing any president over four long years is the unknowable. Lincoln was tested by a rebellion he never suspected would achieve the duration and consequence it did, by technologies that made warfare more deadly than any before it in history, and by social change he originally thought might not occur until the 20th century. Did he imagine in 1861 that by 1865 he would be pushing a 13th amendment through Congress abolishing slavery everywhere? I doubt it. Nor could George W. Bush have known that the Sept. 11 attacks would change the country and the world a few months after his inauguration. So while Obama comes to office more in an FDR mode, riding into town to right the economy and create jobs, no one knows what may happen, beyond his or anyone else's control, that will undoubtedly require a whole different set of priorities later.
The great ones are up to the task--to just about any task--as when Roosevelt, the New Deal Depression warrior became the global warrior against fascism. The other danger, the one that Kennedy adviser Ted Sorenson calls the issue everyone must think about but never discuss, is personal safety. Lincoln avoided the city of Baltimore en route to his inauguration because of credible threats of an assassination plot awaiting him there, and over the course of his term he received countless death warnings, which he dismissed, confident that he was in God's hands. Today, security professionals make God's work their own, to paraphrase JFK, and they must be especially vigilant over the next four years. Enough said.