, Salem, MA


January 19, 2013

Shribman: Obama’s inaugural: Where would he have us go?


“I do not consider it necessary at present for me to discuss those matters of administration about which there is no special anxiety or excitement.”

That’s what Feb. 12 is all about.

There was a time when every American schoolchild knew that Feb. 12 was Lincoln’s birthday, a small fact whose passing from the American collective consciousness speaks volumes about the country’s historical memory. Indeed, the substitution of celebrating Lincoln’s and Washington’s separate February birthdays, 10 days apart, for the more generic Presidents Day, which includes Warren Harding and John Tyler, symbolizes a celebration of mediocrity across the nation.

But a president who wants to set himself apart from the Chester Arthurs and the Martin Van Burens — Obama was, after all, the candidate who in 2008 said he didn’t look like all those presidents on American currency — must seek to place himself alongside Lincoln, who knew how to use an inaugural address.

At his second inaugural, Lincoln didn’t linger on the subject on everyone’s mind, the battle still raging with Confederate forces. “With high hope for the future,” he said, “no prediction in regard to it is ventured.” That was it.

Instead, we remember Lincoln’s speech for his vision of a new America: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln proved that a run-on sentence can be stirring; in this case, its rhythms are those of the heart.

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