Monday, May 19, 2008

Who Would Lincoln Endorse?

Lincoln Memorial

The campaign season has reached an inevitable point. The conversation has momentarily shifted away from the economy, health care, and foreign policy to delegates, super delegates, and political endorsements. Hardly a week goes by without two former rivals embracing in front of a large crowd of voters.

Just last week, former presidential hopeful John Edwards announced he was throwing his support to Barack Obama. The endorsement offers the Obama camp something they desperately need: white, working-class voters, a key constituency Obama lost by more than 2-to-1 in last week's West Virginia primary.

Edwards is only one of the many people to officially endorse Obama. Others include Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, as well as Governor Bill Richardson. Celebrities such as horror writer Stephen King, film-maker Ken Burns, and of course, talk show mogul Oprah Winfrey have also joined the Obama bandwagon.

John McCain has also compiled an impressive list of endorsements. Senators Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Former Army General Norman Schwarzkopf support McCain. Former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have bandaged their wounds and now support their rival. Celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and even Red Sox pitcher Curt Shilling have also spoken out in favor of McCain.

And then there is Hillary Clinton. She is still in the race and still touting the endorsements of Senators Evan Bayh and Dianne Feinstein. She also has support among celebrities, which include poet Maya Angelou, actor Jack Nicholson, and even Madonna.

What do all of these endorsements really mean? If you learned something from Ken Burns' massive Civil War documentary, are you going to vote for Obama? If you root for the Red Sox, are you going to support McCain? If you like Nicholson's portrayal of Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men, does that mean Clinton has earned your vote?

Celebrity endorsements are fun to read about, but I doubt they sway anyone to vote for a particular candidate. I suspect endorsements like those of Edwards, Lieberman, and Bayh have a more meaningful effect on a political campaign.

However, there is another endorsement politicians are eager to capture.

It is the WWLE question: Who Would Lincoln Endorse?

Of course, there is no answer to this question, but that does not prevent political pundits from claiming the "Great Emancipator" endorses their candidate.

On Friday, former Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern told a South Dakota crowd he was switching his support from Clinton to Obama. "Illinois gave us Abraham Lincoln," McGovern said. "That state may have now given us a second Abraham Lincoln."

McGovern is not the first person to compare Obama to Lincoln. Obama's rise from relative obscurity to presidential frontrunner has fueled comparisons, as has his gift for soaring oratory, which has been called "Lincolnesque" (see also Garry Wills, "Two Speeches on Race," in New York Review of Books 55:7(1 May 2008).

Instead of running from such lofty comparisons, Obama has encouraged them. Almost two years before the general election, Obama and 17,000 supporters stood in Lincoln's adopted hometown on a freezing February morning. "And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States," Obama said.

Similarly, McCain's supporters have begun to "get right with Lincoln." Just this week, Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan claimed the Lincoln endorsement for McCain. McCain, like Lincoln, Duncan argued, "understands the importance of the struggle" during wartime. Vague enough to be believed by some, Duncan went on to reminded voters that McCain is a Vietnam veteran, so he understands the importance of military victory, while his Democrat opponents are both too liberal to lead the nation effectively during a time of war.

By emphasizing military victory, Duncan resurrects Lincoln, circa 1864, as he ran for re-election against his war-weary Democratic opponent. If McCain is Lincoln, Duncan wants us to believe Obama is George McClellan.

And again, there is Hillary Clinton. The first woman to have a legitimate chance of capturing the White House has not been immune to nineteenth century analogies. Last month Manisha Sinha of the Huffington Post penned a thoughtful piece comparing Clinton's unexpected presidential collapse to William H. Seward, the Republican favorite in 1860, who eventually lost the nomination to an unknown lawyer from central Illinois.

Not to be outdone, David Quigg has added an additional wrinkle to the Clinton dilemma. After reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, Quigg ponders which path Clinton will take once Obama officially captures the nomination. If she is asked to play a role in an Obama administration, will she pattern herself after Seward, who as Lincoln's Secretary of State, became a staunch supporter of his former rival? Or, as Quigg seems to fear, will Clinton become the modern equivalent of Salmon P. Chase, who despite being Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, never yielded to his former rival and never stopped believing he deserved to be the one in the White House?

What do we make of all this? As David Herbert Donald pointed out more than a half century ago, Lincoln remains the most relevant political figure in American history. The 2008 presidential election has certainly followed a well-trodden path: each candidate has tried to convince voters they have earned Lincoln's endorsement.

However, the 2008 presidential election has indeed broken new ground in one very important area. McCain, Obama, and Clinton have emerged as the most diverse collection of presidential hopefuls in American history. By courting the coveted, yet ultimately unobtainable, Lincoln endorsement, they offer the most compelling evidence to date that Lincoln's legacy truly transcends party, race, and gender.

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