Sunday, 18 January 2009

Lincoln's second coming...

Barack Obama's inauguration speech will echo Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The theme is a 'new birth of freedom' which is taken from the famous line:
"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Now, these Lincoln train rides, the self-regarding historical references, the flighty rhetoric is all fairly alien to us Brits who tend to cast a rather more sceptical eye on the world. There is little doubt that Barack Obama sets the bar exceptionally high by drawing reference to Abraham Lincoln and inviting the notion that, in his election, we are seeing some sort of second re-birth of freedom (the birth being American independence...)

Culturally, Americans seem to approach these things differently- this is just an observation- and are far more celebratory about their past in a way that we have ceased to become. I can't imagine a new Prime Minister making a journey in echo of Winston Churchill, say, such as Barack Obama is doing on his train journey from Philadelphia to Washington.

I have to say that I have a slight dose of mild scepticism myself. I really wonder whether America is at a 'Gettysburg' moment where its very existence and the rights of all men to freedom and equality are under threat. It feels rather more like a Rooseveltian moment which demands a coming together and strong government to avert economic catastrophe. My preference would have been for a more 'we have nothing to fear but fear itself', Roosevelt's first inaugural address, theme to the speech.

Equally, it's important to point out that I had a degree of scepticism when I arrived at Mile High Stadium in Denver on the day of the acceptance speech and saw the Styrofoam mock up of the Lincoln Memorial on the stage. Barack Obama smashed his acceptance speech out of the park- or whatever the equivalent American Football metaphor is- on that occasion. It echoed Martin Luther King's historic 'I have a dream' speech which was delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I hope that the scheduled concert in front of the Memorial- Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, and Bono- will seek to induce real contemplation also.

There is little doubt that the inauguration speech will be brilliant and will inspire not just the American people but the globe. I just have a nagging doubt that the historical reference is the right one. The election of an African American is a history making moment and both reflects and will inspire change. But is it the second re-birth of freedom? A moment equal to the abolition of slavery or even the legal dismantling of segregation?

One lesson I hope that he does draw from Abraham Lincoln is that it is better to keep your speech short- history is more likely to remember it if you do. Lincoln's second inaugural was just a few minutes long and concludes with the words:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
That is a man who was humble, aware of his historical mission, and achieved far more than perhaps any other President. It is a powerful historical echo. May President Barack Obama govern with Lincoln's calmness of thought, judgement, and courage.

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