Yesterday I noticed that Newsweek‘s cover story compares Lincoln to Obama. (You can read an online version here.) Excited by the prospect of posting about it, I logged on this morning to find that Dimitri Rotov and Kevin Levin beat me to the draw. The Newsweek item references Doris Kearns Goodwin’s thesis that Lincoln built a successful coalition out of his former enemies, and compares this to the buzz about Obama’s prospective political appointments. Levin questions whether applying this concept to Obama is valid, while Rotov challenges both the Obama comparison and the accuracy of Goodwin’s original argument. They both make for interesting reading, and I highly recommend them.
Newsweek strains to draw additional parallels between Lincoln and Obama, none of which are particularly profound or useful in understanding either man. Here’s the opening:
Two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches, or at least drafts the really important ones—by hand, on yellow legal paper—such as his remarkably honest speech on race during the Reverend Wright imbroglio last spring.
Yes, Lincoln was thin, and darned if Obama isn’t thin, too. Now that’s the kind of insight I’d expect from a prestigious national publication.
It seems to me that whenever we’re subjected to these comparisons between modern and historical public figures, it always comes down to the style of leadership as opposed to its substance. There is seldom any meaningful attempt to compare the actual policies and decisions that make up the meat and potatoes of public service, or the ideologies behind those policies and decisions.
Drawing on the past doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re informing the present. Sometimes we’re not really looking to make sense of things; we’re merely skimming the surface of history in search of platitudes and generalities. The latter doesn’t require us to abandon our intellectual laziness, which probably explains why it’s much more common.
(The Lincoln photo is from the Library of Congress.)