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Honest Abe and Honest Obe

BY Laura S. Washington

Obama has run away from race. That’s why his campaign has stepped gingerly around issues like profiling, urban crime and gun control.

Abraham Lincoln will rise again.

At least that’s what Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama would like you to believe. Since 2005, when he penned an homage to Lincoln for Time magazine, the senator from Illinois has been peddling the notion that he is the rightful heir to the Lincoln legend, as rail splitter, rhetorician extraordinaire, debater and liberator.

In February 2007, when Obama kicked off his historic campaign in Springfield, Ill., he told the throngs he had returned to his Illinois State Senate stomping grounds to stand “in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together.” He continued: “By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail. … But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible.”

That tall, gangly and little-known state senator rode his oratory skills and cerebral wisdom to the White House in 1860. Lincoln took the nation’s reins in a singular time of crisis and made history by holding the nation together and forging the Emancipation Proclamation.

The nation is once again in crisis. The slick message: Obama is the new Lincoln.

Obama tried the analogy again last month when he returned to Lincoln Land to launch Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) as his vice presidential pick. Throughout the campaign, he has peppered his talks on the trail with references to Honest Abe.

It has been risky. Obama’s conservative critics slammed his comparisons as “messianic,” full of “conceit” and “egomaniacal.”

Charges of hubris aside, the Obama-Lincoln parallel is a hard sell. Many historians consider Lincoln our greatest president. But when it comes to history, the average American voter has the memory of a goldfish. My friend Studs Terkel calls our nation the “United States of Alzheimer’s.”

It doesn’t help that the Obama has cherry-picked the Lincoln legacy. Lincoln’s greatest act was signing two executive orders – in 1862 and 1863 – to free the slaves. You won’t hear Obama talk as much about that.

For most of his presidential quest, Obama has run away from race. That’s why he couldn’t bring himself to utter the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name during his nomination acceptance speech on Aug. 28 in Denver. That’s why he keeps “race men,” like the Revs. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Al Sharpton, at arm’s length. That’s why his campaign has stepped gingerly around issues like profiling, urban crime, gun control and reparations.

See no black people. Hear no black people. Speak no black people.

So far, it seems to be working.

Nevertheless, Obama should find a way to embrace the Lincoln motif and work it hard, says Richard Norton Smith, the distinguished American historian and founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Obama can dodge the messiah rap, says Smith, now a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University, who regularly opines on presidential history for PBS’s “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

“I would distinguish between holding up the Lincoln example as finding inspiration, rather than equating oneself with Lincoln,” Smith says.

In fact, one of Lincoln’s most eloquent moments came during the harrowed debate over slavery. In 1862, during the run-up to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln sent this message to Congress: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country.”

Methinks this is the right “occasion.”

We are mired in a disastrous and un-winnable war. The U.S. economic system may be on the brink of a depression. Mr. Change is claiming to be a new kind of politician who can pull us out of partisan politics to finally deal with the big stuff. Let’s get to it.

“The Lincoln story continues to haunt us to this day,” Smith said, “because of the potential, the possibility of a (new kind of) politics that he brought to the office.”

Can Obama rise to the occasion? 

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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