In a post on the New York Review of Books website, historian Garry Wills again compared Obama to Abraham Lincoln, a comparison uniquely compelling when assessed by Wills, our most interesting mind on the first American President from Illinois. The parallels felt truly new in the wake of yesterday’s speech in Tucson.
Obama’s words at the memorial were praised. The speech contained classic elements of his now recognizable rhetorical elixir: the diagnosis of a wrong coupled with the promise of a right–something brighter, possible, and even necessary. In this case, healing. But why was this speech historic?
Lincoln might have been expected in his Second Inaugural Address to trumpet the gains of the North and the setbacks to the South. Instead, he invited all Americans to grieve for the tragic war and to share blame for the historical crime of slavery. God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Death should forge a bond among the living. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better.” Obama stepped around the obvious and divisive sifting of wrongs done, to urge the doing of right.
Wills later compares the Tucson speech to Henry V’s at Agincourt, both being at once elegy and call to arms—in the contemporary case, metaphorical arms. What our President wanted listeners to understand was less the cause of one man’s heinous acts and more the wisdom of a public’s potential for humane response, a response not built on blame but on acceptance and introspection. As RFK knew when speaking of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Obama knew, too: loss is an opportunity to look inward. Implicit in what the President said was the idea that American introspection will see reveal our commonalities. Commonalities let us let go of what divides.
Wills is the author of Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, a book that looked into a speech that—perhaps after generations of enforced rote memorization—has lost the shock of greatness. Even if we disagree with the Obama/Lincoln comparison, we might concede: both men shared a respect for the power of words to heal in hard times. Both knew words are what remain to tell the story of how a nation moved through it worst defeats.