Warner Todd Huston
July 4, 2005
Sen. Barack Obama, just like Lincoln?
By Warner Todd Huston

The July issue of Time Magazine, a "Special Issue" as they are selling it, has several segments on President Abraham Lincoln one of which is penned by the Junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. In this issue the articles ruminate on how Lincoln has been understood or misunderstood by the "ages" to which Secretary of War and one time Lincoln rival, Edwin M. Stanton, remanded him upon the President's assassination.

There are 5 articles on the Civil War leader, one superfluous one on Lincoln impersonators and Obama's piece, which is termed a "viewpoint." Along with an excellent chart called "Slavery Up Close" showing statistics on slavery, a less excellent one on some of the generals Lincoln suffered with throughout the war and an equally space filling time-line chart on Lincoln's life, the magazine is a virtual Abe-o-rama.

But the effort with the byline of Senator Obama is the most curious one of the collection. In fact, one is hard pressed to decipher why it is even included in the issue as it pertains neither to historical research of Lincoln nor a clear presentation of how Lincoln is viewed today by anyone but those who dislike his memory in the black community. It purports to be a "Character Study" and also claims to show Obama looking to Lincoln for guidance, but it really doesn't seem to be either.

Interestingly, Obama seems to attempt to claim that he and the long-suffering President are some how alike because of "humble beginnings." Now, Lincoln truly did come from humble beginnings. His parents were hardscrabble farmers and he was himself a self taught man who never could afford to attend a college. Everything he did was through his own hard work and he never got a fee ticket from anyone.

And, while Obama recounts how he knew no one and had "no money" in his pockets when he first arrived in Chicago, the good Senator seems to have had all kinds of opportunities, educational and otherwise, in his fortunate life and a family that could assist him. Obama had many opportunities and assistance that Lincoln never enjoyed.

Obama went from the Punahou School, a prestigious Hawaiian academy, to two years at Occidental College in California, to Columbia University then off to Harvard law school finally becoming a lecturer at the University of Chicago. Far from "humble" those.

Next Obama likens Lincoln's struggles to succeed in life with his own meteoric ascendancy in politics which is somewhat self service at best, ridiculous at worst. Lincoln had to overcome personal loss that would drive a comfortable modern American mad with grief. To death he lost an early love and several children and he had to overcome the prejudice against the self taught in a day when education was not only far more important to the general public, but a day when few regular folk could attain it nearly as easily. I am hard pressed to find Obama in the same category of "struggle" in which Lincoln resided.

The worst part of the "viewpoint" is where he claims not to be able to "swallow whole" the view that Lincoln deserves to be considered the Great Emancipator. He claims to be "fully aware" of Lincoln's "limited views on race." Obama has fallen into the same trap that every Lincoln denier in the African American community has in modern times, that of ascribing today's mores and mentality to a man from another time. I just cannot be done. It's the same mistake the gay community makes when they assume that, because Lincoln once shared a room with a man, then he must assuredly be gay. Of course, it was common for young, single, aspiring men to share living expenses with other young, single, aspiring men in those days. The catalyst for rooming arrangements like Lincoln's and many others of his day wasn't sexuality, it was economics. To assume that men of decades ago think about things exactly as we do is just not good history.

Even earlier in the issue Harvard Professor, John Stauffer, refutes Obama's Lincoln scoffing by revealing how exceptional Lincoln's actions for the Negro really was for the time and reports how the greatest black American of his age, Frederick Douglas, came to love and admire Lincoln. He relates how important Douglas viewed Lincoln's efforts for American blacks. Apparently, Obama is not aware of how the preeminent black man of his day felt about a president that Obama discounts as "limited."

Obama wraps up his piece marveling at how Lincoln was able to retain his "humanity" throughout all his travails. He is impressed that Lincoln wandered the earth "making mistakes, loving his family but causing them pain, despairing over events, trying to divine God's will." After all Lincoln did, keeping his "humanity" is the only successful thing that Obama can firmly ascribe to one of the greatest presidents in American history without some sort of creeping doubt filling his mind.

All in all, Obama proves one of the points the magazine makes before Obama's Op Ed appears in the issue, that Lincoln is all too often morphed and molded to fit what some modern movement wants him to be and not what he really was. Obama makes this mistake with nearly every word of the piece that bears his name.

It makes one wonder if attending all those wonderful institutes of higher learning did the good Senator much good? It also makes one yearn for a log cabin or two to send our own children to instead of where Obama went.

© Warner Todd Huston


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Warner Todd Huston

Warner Todd Huston's thoughtful commentary, sometimes irreverent often historically based, is featured on many websites... (more)

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