Paul Holmes: Lincoln's legacy continues

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No one, anywhere in the world, could have watched the victory speech of President-elect Barack Obama in front of tens of thousands of people on the shores of Lake Michigan without a sense of wonderment.

The State of Illinois had just produced its third president. Its first was Abraham Lincoln. Obama launched his presidential bid from the steps of the Capitol in Springfield upon which Lincoln launched his in 1860.

Like you, I sat tearful, knowing the world had stopped in order to witness this moment, to marvel at this man. He is the greatest orator of his era, a rock star, a man of exquisite wisdom, intelligence and grace who, against all the odds, the greatest being the colour of his skin, had won the greatest prize in politics, the presidency of the United States.

Here was a man who came from nowhere and who by the sheer force of his personality, against the might of the Clinton political machine and the wealth of the Republican Party, had reached to the people, to the ignored, the down-trodden and the dispossessed and to the worried middle classes too, and won the leadership by millions of votes.

Tears too, because of the historic geometry of his presence there in Illinois, in that place at that moment, the fulfilment of the promise of Lincoln himself.

As he spoke, I wondered how I could express in words for my radio programme and for this column, the complexity of what we were seeing and what we were feeling.

I recalled a fine piece of writing that was constructed when the heat, the noise, the turbulence and the hurt and the outrage and the shock and dismay, the violation and humiliation were a violent, tossing sea in the days after September 11, 2001, when everyone struggled to find words.

Saturday, September 15, 2001. That day, the Weekend Herald, in one of the finest decisions it has made, surrendered its front page to a column published by the Miami Herald and written by one Leonard Pitts jnr.

Look at the way, as a writer, Pitts laid it out for us in those fearful days.

To my mind, with his contained smouldering passion, with the hot wetness of his tears and muscularity of his writing, Leonard Pitts jnr arranged the words perfectly for us all in those days of ``airless shock'.

Well, I cannot hope to emulate him and I will not try.

The ascendancy of Obama is quite a different thing from what Pitts was writing about. But something very big is going on here, something complicated, some uncharted change of course at a desperate time in American history. At the centre of it is one extraordinary man.

Obama, good humoured, able to withstand savage attack, refusing to rise to the bait, able to beat the great political machines, with his intelligence, his patience, his grace, his good humour and his understanding of the long game, invites an irresistible comparison with the first president from the State of Illinois.

You may think me hysterically premature. After all, the man is not even sworn in.

But I am devouring the Pulitzer Prize winning-work published by American historian Dorothy Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln should not have won the Republican nomination in 1860. He was a mere circuit court lawyer from Springfield, Illinois.

He spent years on a horse, travelling the backblocks and the small towns defending petty cases. He came from nowhere too, a log cabin in Kentucky, his mother dying when he was a boy.

He educated himself seriously, but he did not flaunt it. He told jokes and regaled his colleagues with yarns from rural America, stories about dogs and horses and country folk and ploughs.

What chance did he have now for the nomination against some of the finest, most elegant political thinkers and speakers of the day, the east coast types like New York Governor William Seward and Edward Bates and Salmon Chase and Edward Stanton, the greatest trial lawyer of the age?

Each of these brilliant, thinking men presumed he would win, yet each of them made mistakes and enemies in the lead-up to the Convention.

The Convention deadlocked and chose Lincoln, who waited for news back in Springfield, yarning at the hardware store. He won the election and went to Washington, a complete outsider and a beginner. His country was disintegrating into Civil War.

Knowing he had to maintain unity, he appointed to his Cabinet the great rivals he had beaten for the nomination, each of whom, while they found Lincoln a pleasant fellow, considered him an ungainly country hick, a man not up to the demands of the times.

But there was something about Lincoln, the way he could quote the Bible and the classics, his fluent recitation of the speeches of Shakespeare, something that always surprised. Within a year, they all came to see what a subtle manipulator he was, how patient he was, what good humour he preserved in the face of provocation and frustration, how wise he was in the matter of human nature.

When a situation got heated, Lincoln showed the common touch.

He endured years of bad generals and battlefield failure but when Washington panicked, while Cabinet ministers tore their hair out, they all noticed that Lincoln was calm.

Lincoln believed it would all work out in the end because it had to and the cause was just.

He felt deeply a responsibility to show a still sceptical world that the government of the people, by the people and for the people was the best form of governance devised and that it should not perish from the earth.

In those terrible few years as the Civil War dragged on, with hundreds of thousands dying, the people came to love him too. Lincoln could sense them acutely. He knew he must never get ahead of them, that he must wait until they were ready. Hence the long delay that angered so many before he issued his proclamation to free slaves.

Lincoln knew how to play the long game.

And the troops loved him. They knew he bled for them, that he cared, this odd-looking man with the haunted eyes who often rode out to see them.

William Seward, his Secretary of State, himself a brilliant raconteur, the greatest rival of all, the man who should have won the Presidency but for providence having a different idea, came to love him too. When Lincoln died, it was Seward who said: ``Now he belongs to the ages.'

I thought of him, as I watched Obama, President-elect in front of his adoring Chicago crowd.

Something new in his demeanour made one sense he already felt the weight of the burden he will carry.

And I wondered, as the power of his oratory pierced the hearts of millions throughout the world, if he might just be, in his own way, with his background of struggle, with the early death of his mother, with his brains and his patience, his determination and his generosity, his steadiness in the face of attack, in his single-minded determination and above all his understanding of the long game, another Abraham Lincoln.

- Herald on Sunday

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