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NAACP protesters march against the Secession Ball on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina?s secession from the Union on December 20, 2010 in Charleston, SC. South Carolina was the first state to secede in a process that led to the U.S. Civil War. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)
NAACP protesters march against the Secession Ball on the 150th anniversary of South Carolina?s secession from the Union on December 20, 2010 in Charleston, SC. South Carolina was the first state to secede in a process that led to the U.S. Civil War. (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

The Civil War never ended - it just gave way to an uncivil one Add to ...

When Mr. Obama won the White House in 2008, he was held up by many enthusiastic historians as a Lincolnesque figure. Little did we know then that the analogy would prove so appropriate. Like Lincoln, Mr. Obama often speaks in poetry and governs in prose.

In this, he is no different than Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, all giants of the Oval Office whose oratorical prowess obscured the unsightliness of their sausage-making. Mr. Obama's record on Guantanamo Bay, financial regulation and health-care reform shows that he, too, has not been willing or able to live up to the hype of his early speeches.

His opponents, however, continue to slap a "radical" label on him. That, Princeton's Prof. McPherson explains, makes "comparisons to Lincoln more appropriate than ever.

"Lincoln, too, was accused by one side of extremism and, by the left wing of his own party, of a lack of conviction and principle. Yet he continued to hold his party together, to recruit support from the other party and he moved steadily toward the goal of preserving the Union."

Polarized media

A polemical press was one of the characteristics of the Civil War era, stoking animosities on both sides. That tradition is also on the upsurge in the Internet era as ideologically driven media sources increasingly crowd out mainstream news outlets.

Had Fox News and MSNBC existed in Lincoln's time, he would surely have been maligned by one for pursuing a radical left-wing agenda and by the other for lacking the backbone to stand up to radical conservatives, just as Mr. Obama is today.

Indeed, if you think U.S. political debate is over the top now, you should read the newspapers of the Civil War era. In recounting the Confederate Army's capture of Fort Sumter in Charleston, the attack that launched the war, The Richmond Dispatch hailed "the great triumph … in obliterating one of the Illinois ape's standing menaces against the assertion of Southern rights and equality."

Seeking to heal his divided country, Lincoln called on Americans at war's end to "bind up the nation's wounds." Almost 150 years on, they seem to keep on reopening them.

Konrad Yakabuski is a Washington correspondent for The Globe and Mail.

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