President Obama will wind up his black bus tour today in Peoria, Ill. And while he’s in the Land of Lincoln, we have to hope he won’t be tempted to repeat the comparison he made yesterday in Decorah, Iowa, of himself to Lincoln. Or of his sufferings to Lincoln’s.
It began with a friendly question from the audience, asking Mr. Obama how he hoped to manage a Congress which has proven so hostile to his agenda. He replied with what was intended to be a self-deprecating comment about presidents in the past who have had it worse. “But when you listen to what the Federalists said about the anti-Federalists and the names that Jefferson called Hamilton and back and forth — I mean, those guys were tough.”
But then, somewhere in the line of his thinking, President Obama performed a rhetorical U-turn: “Lincoln, they used to talk about him almost as bad as they talk about me.” One moment, Obama was modestly declining to claim that he had it worse than Hamilton or Jefferson — Hamilton and Jefferson, now those guys were really mean — and in a blink, he was presenting himself as an object of pity, exceeding in his sorrow even the American Man of Sorrows.
It is never a good sign when a president positions himself as a Lincolnian martyr. The presidency of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, began circling the drain on the day he, too, tried to one-up Lincoln in the Sufferings Department. “Who has suffered more than I have?” Johnson asked in 1866. The response he got, from a nation which was still mourning 450,000 deaths in the Civil War, was an incredulous national guffaw.
Nor is Andrew Johnson the only bad company Obama is keeping in this Lincolnian one-upmanship. Richard Nixon, in the depths of the slough of Watergate, tried to solicit sympathy with the same comparison. The night before he left office in disgrace, Nixon took Henry Kissinger into the room Nixon had designated “the Lincoln sitting room” and “we knelt down before that table where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Of course, not too many people, then or now, bought the Nixon-Lincoln comparison. And not too many are signing on to Barack Obama’s version of this perennial presidential passion play. One reason for the skepticism is the contrast between the almost-untouchable media status Obama has enjoyed, and the raw brutality with which Lincoln was boiled in the oil of hostile politics.
As the first anti-slavery, Republican president, Lincoln was damned without recoil by those who hated him as an abolitionist fanatic, as “Abraham Africanus the First,” dreaming of racial civil war and lusting after racial intermarriage (the critics made no attempt to reconcile the two). His allies and supporters were hardly better. The veteran Republican senator from Ohio, Benjamin Wade, wearily dismissed Lincoln as “born of poor white trash, and educated in a slave state.” Disbelieving literati posed the question, “Who will write this ignorant man’s state papers for him?” and sophisticates like Lincoln’s Philadelphia-born general, George McClellan, sneered at Lincoln as “an idiot” and “the original gorilla.”
Barack Obama, by contrast, rocketed up the ladder of privilege, from Punahou School to Harvard Law. He has been gifted with an eloquence unusual even for presidents, and an elegance of manner that the presidency has lacked since Ronald Reagan, perhaps even since Jack Kennedy. And the adulation with which he was hailed at his political debut at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — and at his nomination and election in 2008, and his inaugural in 2009 — bordered disturbingly on the mystical.
From that height, Obama has fallen a long, long way; but he has not fallen nearly so hard or so long as he thinks when compared with Lincoln. The 16th president didn’t even have the luxury of falling, since he was barely permitted to stand up before the political hounds were set on him. Eric Foner, whom no one will mistake for a friend of the Tea Party, recoiled for just this reason from Obama’s indecorous Decorah comparison. Lincoln-hatred “was even more vitriolic than what you see about Obama,” said Foner. “Obama is a guy who has a thin skin and does not take criticism well.”
There is a pathos in this season of Obama’s discontent. Just as it turned out that Lincoln had been misunderstood for a season, Barack Obama must hope that it will turn out that he, too, has been temporarily misunderstood, and that he will eventually be crowned with the Lincolnian laurels his suffering has earned him. There is, however, this difference: Americans were wrong about Lincoln because they were wrong about themselves 150 years ago. And as they passed through fire and blood, they came to see a greatness in Lincoln not unlike the greatness children see in their parents once they put away adolescent things. In our current national agony, exactly the opposite process has taken place. We have come to see a littleness, not a greatness, in Barack Obama. And it is not for him that we feel sorry, but for ourselves.
— Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.