On the surface, President Obama’s refusal to speak today at the ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is nearly incomprehensible. This is especially true given Mr. Obama’s acknowledged talent as a public speaker. There is also the widely held belief that he is in love with the sound of his own voice and passing up a golden opportunity to make his mark on history by walking in the footsteps of Lincoln is out of character for him.
To compound the mystery is the way the snub was delivered. Rather than make the announcement of his decision not to attend the festivities from the White House, he left that distasteful task to the National Park Service, the federal agency that administers the Gettysburg National Military Park.
The National Park Service? Not exactly a profile in courage. Then there’s the curious choice of which person the president sent in his stead. Thank God it wasn’t Vice President Biden, but the choice of Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, to represent the administration turned a few heads. Actually, protocol suggests the highest-ranking cabinet member available should fill in for the president. The secretary of the interior is the fifth-ranking cabinet member behind (in order) the secretaries of state, treasury, defense (war), and the attorney general. Given the speaking abilities of those that the president bypassed, maybe we should be glad about getting Jewell to sub for Obama.
And what about White House press secretary Jay Carney? When the Park Service made their announcement on October 31 that Obama wasn’t going to attend, reporters pressed Carney for a reason:
“I think that is an enormously significant event in our history, and I think Americans will take the appropriate time to consider the speech that was delivered there. I would simply say that I have no updates on the president’s schedule,” Mr. Carney said. “I think all Americans will share and marvel in the remembrance of that important date in our history.”
Just in case the press didn’t get the message, Carney, sounding like a broken record, said this week, “I don’t have any scheduling updates to provide to you.” That’s the best they can do? Why make a mystery out of it?
The president is scheduled to speak that day at the annual meeting of the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in Washington, D.C., so it’s not like he’s indisposed otherwise. The fact that he would prefer to speak to a bunch of rich white guys rather than appear at an historic setting with the hoi polloi only adds to the unfathomable nature of the snub.
Needless to say, the residents of Gettysburg, who have been planning this celebration for years, are disappointed. The town’s mayor, William Troxell, remarked, “We don’t know why he’s not coming, but stuff like this happens with elected officials.” Gettysburg Borough Council Vice President Jacob Schindel took a more pragmatic view, saying, “I was really looking forward to him coming. But it’s still the 150th anniversary of Remembrance Day. We’ll still have more people than we usually would.” A journalist at the nearby Harrisburg Patriot-News grumbled: “In the end, Barack Obama simply didn’t have the stones. It’s sad. And telling. History will note that Lincoln’s legacy did not live up to the challenge.”
That may be, but the mystery of Obama’s no-show has initiated some interesting speculation about the reason he may have for staying home. Stephen Hayward speculates:
Can it be that Obama has sensed a limit to his own megalomania? While Obama has compared himself to Lincoln and FDR, and wasn’t bashful about assuming the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech, perhaps he knows that nothing he can say would measure up to Lincoln’s extraordinary 272-word achievement.
Obama barely clears his throat at 272 words. But he had no such qualms when speaking on the 50th anniversary of King’s speech — an address that is arguably as important and historic as Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech. It is doubtful that someone with Obama’s ego would worry about such trifles.
Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history at Boston College, actually thinks the president made the right decision:
“By not going, President Obama lets that speech stand on its own. If he went, it would all be about him,” she said, stressing that his detractors would unfairly have a “field day” trying to hammer Obama for drawing attention to himself on such a symbolic day.
“The themes of the Gettysburg Address are what we really need to focus on,” she added. “And in an ironic twist, our first black President can’t be present for them.”
Self-abnegation on the part of our narcissistic president? The thought is a parody of reality.
Closer to a more plausible explanation is Daniel Henninger’s take:
For Mr. Obama, and many others, “We the People” means not the Union of sovereign states, the Union for which a civil war was fought, but the single political agency of the national government. Had he decided to show up Tuesday in Gettsyburg, Mr. Obama would have repeated his belief that American freedom flows forward from acts taken by one national government, itself defining and administering the collective will of some inchoate force called “we.”
It’s a philosophically sound reason and rings true given what we know of Mr Obama’s ass-backward notion of rights flowing from the government to the people rather than the other way around. There is no room in the president’s radical communitarian philosophy for most individual rights to supersede the rights of the “community” — that being a benevolent and helpful national government that supposedly represents all of us and divvies up national goodies based on his special notions of “social justice.”
But looking more closely, the explanation is far too philosophical for such a political creature as the president. That’s why this speculation from Pennsylvania state Senator Rich Alloway (R-Chambersburg), who represents Gettysburg, may approach the truth of the matter:
“Gettysburg is a national treasure that doesn’t belong to one party or the other,” Alloway said. “However, with all the controversy surrounding him and Obamacare, it would only take away from the meaning of Remembrance Day.”
That’s a politician’s thinking and probably comes closest to Obama’s rationale for dodging Gettysburg. Is he afraid he might get booed? The president rarely appears these days before audiences that aren’t hand-picked sycophants. His attendance at a basketball game in Maryland over the weekend resulted in a chorus of boos and catcalls raining down from the stands on him. Since the announcement of his refusal to attend occurred the last week in October, when problems with the Obamacare rollout were beginning to snowball, it seems logical to assume that the president feared a less-than-optimal reception if he appeared in public in an uncontrolled environment.
Whatever his reasons, the event will be poorer for his absence. The majesty of the presidency knows no party or personality, and lending the event the power and prestige of the chief executive would have been a fitting coda to a ceremony honoring a “hinge of history.” America was a different country after Lincoln spoke those words than it was before he gave his “few appropriate remarks.” It’s a shame that President Obama couldn’t find it within himself to make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg to recognize the immense historical significance of the moment.