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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?

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