Generally speaking, for me, anything after 1900 is current events. Frankly, observing today's leaders at all levels depresses me. And I have bemoaned in class more times than I care to remember that if the Founding Fathers were alive today, they would absolutely drop dead watching what is happening to the country that they created. Thus, as I was working on a new course on Abraham Lincoln with the news blaring all around me about the presidential candidate endorsement sweepstakes, I couldn't help but drift into historical reverie and wonder WWLE? -- or translated, who would Abraham Lincoln endorse?
Each candidate revels in rolling out their endorsers. Just recently John Edwards joined Ted Kennedy, Stephen King, Ken Burns, and Oprah Winfrey in endorsing Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton countered with her share of prominent supporters as well, including Evan Bayh, Dianne Feinstein, Maya Angelou, Jack Nicholson and Madonna. The Republican presumptive candidate, John McCain, lists Arnold Schwarzenegger, Norman Schwarzkopf, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sylvester Stallone as those who are supporting him.
All of this is well and good. But, let's face it, who would Lincoln endorse? Obviously, this question cannot be answered with certainty, but what is certain is how the political pundits are claiming that Lincoln endorses their candidate. Just recently, former senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern switched his allegiance from Clinton to Obama. "Illinois gave us Abraham Lincoln," McGovern told a cheering crowd, "and that state may now have given us a second Abraham Lincoln."
McGovern is not the first person to draw parallels between Obama and the "Great Emancipator." Obama's rise from relative political obscurity to presidential frontrunner and his lofty rhetorical skills have fueled many comparisons and the frequent use of the moniker "Lincolnesque."
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Rather than running from such a formidable comparison, Obama has encouraged it. On a freezing February morning in Springfield, Ill., some 15 months ago, Obama proclaimed, "And, that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States." Just this past week, in Florida, Obama literally compared himself to Lincoln: "Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet," Obama said, "because whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was, 'How can we get this country through this time of crisis?'" Obama then said he would take the same approach as president.
Similarly, McCain's supporters have sought to obtain Lincoln's imprimatur. Republican National Committee Chairman, Mike Duncan, simply gave McCain Lincoln's endorsement. 'McCain, much like Lincoln," Duncan asserted, "understands the importance of the struggle during wartime... and like Lincoln, [but unlike the Democrats] understands and recognizes the importance of military victory." Resurrecting the Lincoln running for reelection in 1864 against his war-weary Democratic opponent, George McClellan, Duncan unabashedly anointed McCain as the direct political descendant of Abraham Lincoln.
While not specifically being touted as Lincoln's candidate, Clinton has been painted with 19th-century analogies. One columnist speculated that Clinton was much like New York Senator William Seward, the 1860 front running candidate, who eventually lost the nomination to an unknown prairie lawyer from Illinois. Another wondered aloud that if Clinton lost the nomination to Obama, would she take a position in his new administration? And, if she did, would she be more like Seward who, upon becoming Lincoln's secretary of State, became an avid and trusted supporter of his former rival? Or, would she be more like Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's secretary of the Treasury, who never bowed to his political adversary and never stopped believing that he deserved to be in the White House?
What should we make of all of this? Perhaps Lincoln is indeed the most relevant political figure in American history. The 2008 presidential election has doubtless followed a very well trodden path as each candidate tries to convince the voters that they have earned Lincoln's seal of approval.
Yet, they all would be well advised to listen to the words of the man whom they seek to emulate. "I do the very best I know how," Lincoln said, "the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference." And, again, "I will not buy the nomination with pledges. If I am nominated and elected, I shall not go into the presidency as the tool of this man or that man, or as the property of any factor or clique."
By courting the coveted, yet ultimately unobtainable, Lincoln endorsement, Obama, McCain, and Clinton have clearly demonstrated that Lincoln's legacy truly transcends party, race, and gender. WWLE? That's a good question. I imagine I will have that figured out just in time to deliver the first lecture to my new class on Abraham Lincoln.
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