No Comment — November 3, 2008, 10:12 am

Best of the ’08 Campaign: The effective use of history

History has an important role in our political discourse. It can be used to induce fear, to intimidate. It can also offer inspiration and a sense of common purpose. It can remind an audience of a communal legacy and a shared goal. History belongs to the staple of political speech-writing. Still, much of the political speech that draws on history sounds unconvincing and contrived; it reveals not historical depth, but ignorance. Often political figures stretch implausibly to tie themselves to iconic figures of the nation’s past. As I documented here previously, Bush’s senior strategist, Karl Rove, decided that Bush’s legacy could be bolstered by flattering comparisons of Bush with Abraham Lincoln. Rove launched dozens of PR sorties in which loyal Bushies invoked the image of Abraham Lincoln in connection with Bush. The effort fell flat—indeed, it invited ridicule—because it was too transparent an effort at self-aggrandizement and because the historical comparisons were implausible.

And it is therefore doubly curious that the most impressive and effective invocation of history in the course of the ’08 campaign has involved Abraham Lincoln. This came in the speech with which Barack Obama launched his campaign, on February 10, 2007, in view of the statehouse in Springfield, Illinois. The speech was widely lauded, but when it was delivered, Obama was considered a long-shot candidate for the Democratic nomination, a figure who—in the view of our supremely fallible punditry—would build his name and reputation for a later effort. Here is the speech, which runs just over twenty minutes, and it is worth taking the time to listen to in its entirety:

But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible. He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in conviction. That beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there is power in hope.

As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say this: “Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through…” I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America. And if you will join me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling, and see as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us; if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear, and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I’m ready to take up the cause, and march with you, and work with you. Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.

Obama, seeking the Democratic nomination, invokes the memory of the greatest of the Republican presidents. There is that reference to the “tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer,” a description that could apply just as well to Barack Obama. But the invocation of Lincoln is not introduced by way of self-flattery; it is presented as a reminder of a beacon who illuminated the nation and held it together, who provided purpose and definition, who called us to sacrifice to build a better future and demanded that the benefits of citizenship be spread to those who were previously property.

History is grabbed by the roots when it is used to remind a new generation of the accomplishments of the past, when it is used to inspire a people to accomplish what they can and prevent what they must. The invocation of history is particularly powerful when it is used to remind a nation of aspirations long cherished but not fully achieved. The image of that tall and gangly lawyer from Springfield has been summoned to motivate a new generation of Americans to reclaim a democratic legacy. It has served to power a political campaign that has known few equals in the nation’s history. The election on Tuesday will mark the beginning of the end of a great national nightmare. But still greater tests are ahead of us. Those tests will be more daunting than any election battle and they will require a leader who can mobilize the best the country has to offer, approximating Lincoln through more than mere rhetoric. But who at this point can doubt this candidate’s power to inspire, to mobilize and to draw on the best in our nation’s past in building to our future?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Ratio of money spent by Britons on prostitution to that spent on hairdressing:

1:1

A German scientist was testing an anti-stupidity pill.

A Twitter spokesperson conceded that a “Frat House”–themed office party “was in poor taste at best.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today