Thinkin’ About Lincoln (and Whitman, and Obama)

Cody Walker
November 6, 2010
Comments 3

It’s an odd election that finds both Lincoln and Whitman coming up short and that imagines Slurpees (“delicious drinks,” according to Obama) as a means to bridge partisan differences. And then there’s the whole question as to who really won. (On Slate, William Saletan persuasively claims it was the Democrats.) But why am I posting these thoughts now, when much of the country has moved on to other things (and the president has moved on to India)? The first and best reason is that I have a two-week-old baby by my side — so I’ve been thinking about my daughter more than I’ve been thinking about deadlines. But there’s another reason: Today marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s ascension to the presidency. And there’s a third reason: I recently listened to the audio version of Obama’s Dreams from My Father — and, like Curtis Sittenfeld on Slate, I’m all a-swoon again for the president.

In the Epilogue to his memoir, Obama writes: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. In those words, I hear the spirit of Douglass and Delany, as well as Jefferson and Lincoln; the struggles of Martin and Malcolm and unheralded marchers to bring these words to life.” A few sentences down, he continues:

How far do our obligations reach? How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love? The answers I find in law books don’t always satisfy me — for every Brown v. Board of Education I find a score of cases where conscience is sacrificed to expedience or greed. And yet, in the conversation itself, in the joining of voices, I find myself modestly encouraged, believing that so long as the questions are still being asked, what binds us together might somehow, ultimately, prevail.

Listening to this passage and others like it, I found my eyes filling with tears. A president who reflects before he acts, a president who asks the big and necessary questions: imagine! (It really was, in 2008, time for a change.) And the prose! Dreams from My Father was written by a guy with mad sentence-skills. Here’s its pitch-perfect, minor-key ending: “And so the three of us made our way over the widening dirt road, picking at leaves that grew along the way, watching the rain blow down across the several valleys.”

My favorite moments in Dream from My Father are the small ones: the future president playing basketball, the future president going out for a smoke. And I’m moved by his fierce devotion to his family — to his reliable grandparents, his mysterious father, his much-missed mother (about whom he writes, “In my daughters I see her every day, her joy, her capacity for wonder”). Is it too late to take back the jab about the Slurpees? I’m writing as someone whose favorite high school snack was a Coke Slurpee and (thank Heaven) three pretzel rods.

Earlier today I read Jonah Winter’s Barack to my tiny daughter. I’m not sure what she thought about it; at least she didn’t complain. When the book was finished, and my daughter was more or less asleep, I read a few online interviews with Winter, including a good one in Pittsburgh’s City Paper. (Winter once described himself as “a POET (whohappenstowritechildren’sbooks),” but he has since revised the description.) Later, I read my daughter the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln had those same sentence skills, and that same standard of humanity, that I see in Obama. And Obama has of course used Lincoln’s presidency as a model for his own. (Obama even followed Lincoln’s lead in choosing an Inauguration Day lunch: seafood stew.) About the 16th President, Whitman wrote, “O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? / And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone? / And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?” The poet and president never met — and yet, for years, Whitman would deliver a lecture upon the anniversary of the president’s assassination.

In one of those lectures, Whitman called Lincoln “the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.” Obama is, to me, the grandest figure of our Twenty-first Century — though the canvas is admittedly less crowded. I don’t know whether he’ll command the nation’s attention for two or six more years (I’ll hope for six — and then for more, in whatever role follows), but I’m glad my daughter was born in a time when the arc of the moral universe, thanks to Obama, again mattered.

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