There was a prominent no-show at the event: President Barack Obama, who chose to snub his predecessor and whose White House spokesman, Jay Carney, offered only a barely coherent excuse for his boss’s absence and decision to send an obscure Cabinet secretary in his place.
We realize that following in Lincoln’s footsteps would be a daunting task for any public speaker, even one as gifted as Obama. And we’re aware that even though 24 of the presidents since Lincoln have visited Gettysburg during their tenure (and according to The Gettysburg Times, every 20th-century president except Bill Clinton), many of them were reluctant to do so for that very reason.
Yet Woodrow Wilson spoke there on the 50th anniversary of the speech, Franklin Roosevelt did so on the 75th and Dwight Eisenhower (by then an ex-president living on a farm nearby) did so on the 100th. Vice President Lyndon Johnson spoke there that year (1963) as well (filling in for President Kennedy, who begged off) and used the opportunity to make one of the strongest pro-civil rights speeches of his career. President Ronald Reagan, for reasons presently unclear, did not attend the 125th anniversary event, although 125th anniversaries of things rarely get the attention that 100ths or 150ths do. Even so, if he was invited, he should have gone, and should have come in for some criticism on these pages for not doing so if he skipped the occasion.
But Obama’s absence was mystifying, considering that Lincoln used the speech to expand the justification for the war from “preserving the Union” to the need for “a new birth of freedom.” That is, a guarantee that the country would finally live up to the words of its Constitution that “all men are created equal.”
Had not the Civil War taken place and had not Lincoln been willing to stake the country’s future, his political prospects — and ultimately his life — on the need for such a change, as so powerfully argued in his Address, it’s unlikely that Obama would today be in the White House.
But perhaps it’s just as well Obama chose to spend the day holed up in the White House. Unlike Lincoln, who spoke of unity and rebirth, Obama trades in polarization and the politics of deceit. It’s possible that after paying lip service to Lincoln and those buried there that Obama would have used most of his speech to brag about his health care law, which has already caused millions of Americans to see their health insurance policies canceled, with many millions more to come.
And even had he not, Obama, as an advocate of ever-bigger and more intrusive government, might have put a different spin on Lincoln’s famous closing lines about “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Lincoln put the emphasis on the words “the people.” Obama might just have likely emphasized the word “government.”
Obama bypassed a golden opportunity to remind Americans of our shared heritage and to spur us to transcend our many differences. He also did himself no favors by snubbing one of this country’s most revered figures and failing to honor the sacrifices of those who fought and fell at Gettysburg.