This is a column about something that is not going to happen, and about one of the greatest missed opportunities of the Obama years. The 44th president of the United States – a black man from Illinois known for his erudition and his mastery of the spoken word – is not going to be present when the country marks the 150th anniversary of the 16th president’s address at Gettysburg.
Barack Obama, who once flew 5,905 km to London to lobby to win the summer Olympics for Chicago, has decided not to travel one-fortieth of that distance – a mere 138 km – to the pleasant tiny crossroads town where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, so famous a speech – so significant an American moment – that nearly every American schoolboy of Mr. Obama’s generation was required to set its 272 words to memory.
In the long history of America’s struggle with racial issues there are only a few experiences unabashedly, incontrovertibly and proudly shared by black and white, if not in real time then surely in retrospect: Jackie Robinson’s integration of major-league baseball, celebrated in this year’s Hollywood movie 42, beloved on both sides of the 49th parallel in part because of Robinson’s experience in Montreal. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, tearfully commemorated this summer on its 50th anniversary. And the Gettysburg Address, whose poignant sesquicentennial is to be marked Nov. 19.
Make no mistake. Those spare words at the military cemetery at Gettysburg changed the country. By speaking of what the American patriots had done four score and seven years ago, Lincoln elevated the Declaration of Independence, which declared that all men were created equal, into a settled matter, if not quite settled law, in a real sense superseding the American Constitution, which plainly did not declare all men equal. He transformed the Civil War from a struggle over secession into a struggle that eventually would be one over integration. He took a war to preserve the Union and made it a war to end slavery. He did it with 10 sentences.
In a masterly act of rhetoric, Lincoln went from dedicating a cemetery to committing his country to a new dedication to one of its founding documents, telling Americans in a breathtaking run-on-sentence that it was their duty “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Surely Mr. Obama embraces those words, and that notion.
But perhaps he worries that the world would – as the self-deprecating but falsely modest Lincoln put it in his own address – little note nor long remember what he might say at Gettysburg. Perhaps he is concerned that anniversary commemorations seldom make an impact, or even news – though both Ronald Reagan (1984) and Bill Clinton (1994) did both with evocative speeches at the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Allied invasion of Normandy.
And perhaps he does not realize that addresses at Gettysburg changed the profile of not one but of two men who gave them – Lincoln in 1863, Lyndon B. Johnson at the centenary in 1963 – transforming them into completely different characters from the men who had travelled to Gettysburg to deliver those addresses.
The speech by Johnson, who wasn’t even president yet, is illustrative. The proud Texan was a frustrated vice president, depressed at his secondary role in John F. Kennedy’s Washington, moping around the White House compound, reminding George Reedy, a top LBJ aide “of one of those Tennessee bloodhounds, you know, with the drooping ears.”
Then arrived an invitation for Johnson to speak at the 100th anniversary of Gettysburg. The vice president demurred. But his personal secretary pushed him, arguing that as the grandson of a Confederate soldier Johnson’s words might have special power at Gettysburg.
Johnson finally accepted and delivered a speech that may have set the agenda for the Kennedy administration – and certainly foreshadowed what the Johnson administration would accomplish, a legacy that includes the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed,” Johnson said at Gettysburg. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”
Johnson changed his mind and changed the world. Perhaps Mr. Obama could do both as well.
It was the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban who only weeks short of exactly 40 years ago said that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Imagine what Eban, who died in 2002, might have said had he known Mr. Obama.