Back in November 1963, John F. Kennedy was scheduled to appear at Gettysburg National Military Park to deliver the commemorative speech marking the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Just before the event, the White House announced the president was canceling. He had accepted another offer he could not refuse: a political trip to Texas. That November 19, Secretary of State Dean Rusk appeared at Gettysburg to speak for the administration. The world little noted nor long remembered what he said there. JFK went on to his rendezvous with destiny in Dallas three days later.
This year, organizers invited President Barack Obama to speak at the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s rhetorical zenith. The White House offered a preliminary “yes.” Secret Service teams paid visits to the village, scouted local restaurants and advanced potential landing spots for Marine One. And then, to an almost audible sigh of disappointment from the locals—along with the 300-plus history buffs who visit each year for the annual Lincoln Forum—the White House sent the word no one wanted to hear: Obama, like his predecessor half a century ago, was pulling out.
How could Obama skip the chance to commemorate the greatest moment his favorite president ever experienced—at the most hallowed spot his Civil War counterpart ever consecrated?
It is difficult to fathom, since Obama has quoted and embraced Lincoln’s words from the beginning of his national career. When he announced his candidacy for president in 2007, it was in front of the Illinois state capitol in Springfield, where Lincoln had delivered his “House Divided” address in 1858. There, then-Senator Obama staked his claim to Lincoln’s legacy. “Divided,” he declared, “we are bound to fail. But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible. He tells us that there is power in words…. Let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth.” Words right out of the Gettysburg Address.
A year-and-a-half later, claiming victory after his historic election, Obama called for national unity by quoting Lincoln’s first inaugural—“though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Then he dedicated his entire swearing-in to Lincoln, dubbing it the “new birth of freedom inaugural,” even taking his oath on the Bible Lincoln had used for the same purpose in 1861. Only last August, Obama cited Lincolnian scripture yet again, this time to mark the 50th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Echoing Lincoln’s Gettysburg call to complete the nation’s “unfinished work,” Obama urged America to attend to its “unfinished business.”
Then why did the almost universal expectation that in 2013 he would follow in his hero’s giant footsteps at Gettysburg vanish so inexplicably? Did Obama suspect he could never reach the heights Lincoln had attained at Gettysburg— since Rutherford B. Hayes, Dwight Eisenhower and other presidents tried, and failed even to come close (though none of them were known as great public speakers)? It remains difficult to understand, but in the meantime, suffice it to say it was an opportunity lost.
Perhaps the real explanation will hinge on our growing national indifference toward—even disrespect for— words, no matter who spouts them, or how well. Even Lincoln, author of an exquisite model of brevity at Gettysburg, would have been unable to ft his concise thoughts into a twitter message. Had today’s White House tried blogging this 272-word message, would news junkies accustomed to sound bites or screeching confrontations display the patience to absorb it? Yesterday’s schoolchildren memorized the Gettysburg Address. Today’s students, I fear, think it’s a post office box in Pennsylvania—if they think of it at all.
A potentially tragic manifestation of this indifference is brewing back in Lincoln’s Springfield, just inside the historic building where Obama launched his campaign for the White House. Here, the “Papers of Abraham Lincoln” project is struggling to complete a titanic but essential mission: unearthing, scanning, transcribing and ultimately publishing every word the most gifted writer among American presidents ever composed, and then making the results available online for all time.
Sounds like a no-brainer—yet the effort may well go the way of Obama’s visit to Gettysburg. After years of work, a number of extraordinary discoveries and the publication of enough teasers to set historians to panting with expectation, the project is perilously close to dying aborning. Funds are running out—money for researchers, travel, scanning and interpretation. Illinois is in budgetary distress and may terminate its financial commitment. Private donations only go so far. And national respect for words—well, let’s charitably say that too few among us remain “dedicated to the proposition.”
Here is one unfinished work that must be sustained to completion. The original Collected Works of Lincoln, published in the early 1950s, omitted much and failed to include the full record of incoming correspondence. At only eight volumes, it is woefully inadequate. The Lincoln Papers project is on the verge of giving Lincoln his long-needed due— and lovers of history a field to harvest for a lifetime.
Hopefully, Obama’s unwillingness to match words at Gettysburg will not ripple into withdrawal of support for the crucial effort to preserve all of Lincoln’s words. At Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln struck only one discordant note when he said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” It would be a tragedy far more long-lasting than Obama’s baffling retreat from Gettysburg if Lincoln turned out to be right after all.
Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. His latest book is The History of the Civil War in 50 Objects from the New-York Historical Society (Viking).
Originally published in the March 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.