Thursday, January 13, 2011

From Gettysburg to Tucson

In the fall of 1863, Abraham Lincoln was asked to speak at a memorial for the soldiers who died at the battle of Gettysburg. On the train from Washington to the site of the event, he wrote out a brief speech on scraps of paper. The famous orator, Edward Everett, preceded him on the podium, and spoke for over two hours, his address punctuated by applause and followed by an ovation. Lincoln then rose to deliver his remarks, which lasted only a few minutes. There was no applause, and there was silence as the president returned to his seat. That silence lingered for some time.

Today no one can remember anything Everett said, while all of us (I hope) can quote from Lincoln's address. Every school child is required to read it, and, in private schools at least, to memorize it. The mainstream press of the time derided the Gettysburg Address, calling it silly, trivial, and disrespectful. They offered it as proof of Lincoln's unfitness for the office he held, and dismissed it out of hand. Yet it is now regarded as the greatest speech in American history.

The listeners at Gettysburg knew it if the self-appointed experts did not. Their silence throughout the speech, and especially after it, was not only a fitting response to Lincoln's words, which perfectly summarized the meaning of the event, but that silence was also a perfect tribute to the sacrifices and memory of those whom they had gathered to honor.

In Tucson yesterday, another president who, for reasons I cannot fathom, has been compared to Lincoln, spoke at a memorial for fallen Americans. The atmosphere, and his management of it, were quite different. There were cheers, hooting, shouts and whistles as he spoke; the event had more the character of a pep rally than a memorial service.

Now, of course, the behavior of the largely college-student audience was not the president's doing; but to my mind, as soon as the raucous reaction started during his speech, he had an obligation to quieten it, politely but firmly, as we do with misbehaved children. Instead, he chose to ride the wave of adolescent enthusiasm, and to encourage the entirely inappropriate aura of celebration in the wake of tragedy. He treated the memorial as though it were a campaign rally, which it quickly became, because, I suppose, that is the forum in which he feels most comfortable. And not only that: After the speech, he descended from the podium to shake hands, exactly as if it were a campaign whistle stop, and to pause for photo ops with members of the audience, smiling, hugging young women and backslapping supporters. To my mind, this went beyond disrespect; it was disgraceful.

Whatever you thought of the speech, whatever you think of the president, I ask you to try to imagine Lincoln having behaved in this way at Gettysburg. Can you conceive of that president whipping up the audience, eliciting and reveling in their cheers, and then moving down among the crowd to press the flesh and pause and grin while Brady or O'Sullivan flashed their magnesium? And what would history have recorded of the fact?

Presidential remarks at a memorial service for murdered Americans call for solemnity, grace, and the head of state's obligation to put current tragedy in the perspective of the nation's history not only in his words, but by his demeanor. That is what Lincoln did, and what Obama failed utterly to do. It is not what Obama said that I object to (though whereas Lincoln wrote his speech himself, Obama's was yet another oration by committee); it is the manner in which he comported himself and the shameful way in which he allowed this solemn occasion to become just another campaign stop that I found not merely disappointing, but disturbing.

In my view, Obama's speech was the equivalent of Edward Everett's, and Lincoln's, alas, was not heard, for there was no one to deliver it. I suppose that, just as every nation gets the politics it deserves, every generation of the electorate gets the president it deserves.