Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Peggy Noonan, Obama, and Abe Lincoln

Peggy Noonan had a hard time with Barak's musings on Lincoln too.
This week comes the previously careful Sen. Barack Obama, flapping his wings in Time magazine and explaining that he's a lot like Abraham Lincoln, only sort of better. "In Lincoln's rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat--in all this he reminded me not just of my own struggles."

Oh. So that's what Lincoln's for. Actually Lincoln's life is a lot like Mr. Obama's. Lincoln came from a lean-to in the backwoods. His mother died when he was 9. The Lincolns had no money, no standing. Lincoln educated himself, reading law on his own, working as a field hand, a store clerk and a raft hand on the Mississippi. He also split some rails. He entered politics, knew more defeat than victory, and went on to lead the nation through its greatest trauma, the Civil War, and past its greatest sin, slavery.

Barack Obama, the son of two University of Hawaii students, went to Columbia and Harvard Law after attending a private academy that taught the children of the Hawaiian royal family. He made his name in politics as an aggressive Chicago vote hustler in Bill Clinton's first campaign for the presidency.

You see the similarities.

1 comment:

mlajoie2 said...


In his continuing ‘symbolism over substance’ offensive, Obama and his acolytes like to draw the appealing comparison to Abraham Lincoln: he is another tall man from Illinois who is above politics, or who is very appealing, etc.

There are problems with this analogy. The main contradiction I would like to point out is that of oratory and presentation. Many have pointed out Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in New York as launching his political career and that is true enough. What they fail to point out is that Lincoln undoubtedly succeeded in spite of his appearance and presentation, not because of it. It was what he was saying and not how he was saying it at all that helped Cooper Union launch Lincoln.

Carl Sandburg in his famous biography of Lincoln describes his “high, squeaky voice” with its Western nasally twang, which immediately put him at a disadvantage with the Eastern bigwigs. His appearance was off-putting to say the least: he was gangly, over-tall and long, awkward and most said ugly. We now suspect this jarring impression might have been caused by disease.

There is no doubt really as to who the most hated President was in history (when he was serving). It was Lincoln. What was the main subject of the vitriolic, vicious attacks? It was his appearance and presentation. His speeches, for instance, were routinely panned as an embarrassment to the country. One famous example is the Gettysburg Address. Edward Everett’s lengthy address was universally acclaimed; he was an oratory artist of the highest degree. Comments on Lincoln included the observation that he might have saved everyone the trouble by not speaking.

On the other hand, Lincoln was a master of the informal debate, the small group, one-on-one discussions, etc. In the free-form give-and-take of the courtroom or the town hall meeting, Lincoln had no peer. He knew his Bible and his Shakespeare on demand and used favorite anecdotes with adaptation for the situation. His life experience shone brightly through here like it could not in a speech.

So, Lincoln succeeded in spite of a handicap in prepared speeches. Why then did he succeed? He knew what he believed and why with great intellectual and spiritual depth. That is why his true strength was seen in informal settings where someone like Douglas, great at the prepared speech, was often exposed.

We should note that Lincoln was no political dummy. He had a great instinct for the realities. But he knew the value of consistency in the long run. He adapted ingeniously but what drove him were his core beliefs.

Now, if we draw the analogy out, the main success of Obama has been in his appearance, prepared speeches and presentation. He is smooth, suave, and handsome in appearance. His long speeches with their choreographed repetition and enthusiasm are his calling card. Everyone agrees about his style and acumen.

How does Obama do at the press conference, town hall meeting, and more informal interaction? I think we all know! Examples are his speaking to the dead in the crowd at Arlington, the 57 states, etc. Despite saying he would meet John McCain anywhere, anytime, when he was actually called on it, it hasn’t happened. His staff is going to try and avoid it because Obama is terrible at it.

I think the bottom line is that, with Obama, there is no ‘there’ there, quite unlike Lincoln. Either he is trying to hide what he believes or he is such a chameleon he just doesn’t know. His ferocious flip-flopping of recent days has given us all vertigo.

If you think about it John McCain is actually a much better fit in this particular analysis. He is pretty bad at the prepared speech, but he excels at town hall meetings because he has had the life experience and he knows what he believes. Love of country and a cause greater than self are not just rhetoric for him. He uses anecdotes to advantage like Lincoln did. He doesn’t have to check what he’s supposed to believe that day.

One other thing that sticks out to me is that McCain has stuck with his beliefs despite significant political risk (e.g. the Petraeus surge) while also being able to adapt and make things workable in the real political world. Lincoln stuck with his anti-slavery stance at great risk but also adapted as he went to make it workable in light of the actual situation.

Obama, like his friend Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, is really much more comparable to the Little Giant, Stephen Douglas from Illinois. They all made quite a big splash with their oratory but each of them is so ambivalent as to their core and soul that they can never make the impact that Abraham Lincoln made.