Seven score and ten years ago President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the greatest speeches in history, and the anniversary of his short address at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, will be rightly honored today with a memorial at the same hallowed location. Conspicuously absent from the roster of speakers is the current president, and there has been much speculation about why.
Many of the speculators assume there is some noble and brilliant reason, of course. A CNN report on President Barack Obama’s no-show at the event — which appeared under the non-committal headline “Snub, or Smart?” — notes that the White House spokesman offered no explanation for the snub and then goes off in search of academics to explain why it’s smart. The best they could come up with was Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, who helpfully explained that “By not going, President Obama lets that speech stand on his own. If he went, it would all be about him.”
With all due respect to Professor Richardson, humility and an aversion to attention seem unlikely explanations for anything Obama might do. Obama has never been uncomfortable with the favorable comparisons to the Great Emancipator that his more fevered supporters used to make back in headier times, having launched his first presidential campaign in Lincoln’s adoptive hometown in Illinois and taken his oaths of office with Lincoln’s well-used Bible, and he has rarely missed an opportunity to give a speech. He notably declined an invitation to speak an anniversary celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, but that would have meant traveling all the way to Germany just to give a speech about great Ronald Reagan was, which would have been too onerous a burden to bear, while Gettysburg is only a few million dollars of travel time away and would have afforded Obama plenty of opportunities to speak about himself. The opportunity to be at the center of something other than the Obamacare debacle for a news cycle must have been especially tempting, and it is therefore hard to explain why he might have passed it up.
More cynical minds than Professor Richardson’s, such as ours, are left to speculate that Obama concluded the event would not be all about him, and that the world would little note nor long remember he said he there. Those gushing claims of Lincolnian greatness look more and more ridiculous with each passing day, and were ridiculous to begin to with, so we can’t help suspecting that somewhere deep in his hubristic psyche Obama has a hard-earned insecurity that the juxtaposition of himself and Lincoln would not make a good photo-op.
In Obama’s stead the audience at the memorial observance will hear remarks by the newly-fledged and little-known Secretary of the Interior, but it is unlikely that she will be able to top Lincoln’s efforts at the site. This is well enough, as the country should reflect on Lincoln’s inspiring exhortation to “be here dedicated to to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their 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.”
Such reflection won’t serve Obama’s purposes, and perhaps that’s why he won’t be there.
— Bud Norman