Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lincoln/Obama, Once More

The historian Garry Wills has usefully outlined the comparisons and contrasts between Lincoln and Obama. There is the external parallel, both hailing from exotic backgrounds (Obama, of course, with the Kenya-Hawaii-Indonesia connections, and Lincoln coming from abject poverty in backwoods Kentucky, exotic in its own way) and adopting the state of Illinois as adults. Both saw themselves as outsiders until, perhaps somewhat to their own surprise, they "made it" in the ultimate political fashion.

But Wills argues that the deeper similarity is temperamental and interpersonal. They have had in common a quietly high intelligence that is deliberately downplayed, not out of any lack of ambition or confidence, but out of discretion and political astuteness. This led both to be underestimated, arguably to their benefit. The main difference between them, in terms of personality, appears to be Obama's narrower emotional range, lacking both Lincoln's disposition to melancholy and his perhaps compensatory storytelling hilarity. Obama is capable of wry humor, but he is no comedian. If anecdotal history is accurate, Lincoln may be one of the few Presidents who, were he brought back today, might be able to give Letterman, Stewart, et al a real run for their money.


vanderleun said...

"Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark"

As the superlatives are hauled up from ever deeper in the well of worship we'll see a tsunami of such comparisons in advance of the landing.

But to really prove this comparison, we'd have to have a Civil War.

I think I'd prefer fitting him quickly with a pair of clay shoes.

Novalis said...

Oh, Gerard, where have I gone wrong with you?

Actually, for me at this point it's largely about the amazing biography (that's why I'm a psychiatrist and not, say, a political scientist). I think he will make a decent President, but true greatness only rolls around every other generation or so, and I'm not ready to place big money on it at this early stage.

For me, admittedly, it's also about the boorishness and buffoonery of the past eight years. If Obama had been elected after, say, Bush pere, the contrast would have been less affecting.

vanderleun said...

Seeing as how it really is two months until Obama even starts to be able to act, I think we'll need a bit more than two weeks of prep to know exactly what the contrast will be.

I'm very suspicious of those who post from the future.

John J. Coupal said...

I'll have to be The Devil's [i.e., Gerard's] Advocate here.

Despite CNN's characterization of President Obama's performance to date, the President-Elect still has two months to work out his post-election jitters and giddiness before actually taking on the job.

But, look on the bright side! CNN still has two months to bash Bush for his every move.