At the close of his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke to those who would divide the United States.
“We are not enemies, but friends,” said the 16th president. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Almost 150 years after Lincoln uttered those words, America is again divided.
The question that will be answered by voters on this first Tuesday in November is whether the land must remain divided.
Eight years of George Bush’s tragically flawed attempt at a presidency have strained the very fabric of the American experiment. Our debates about war and peace, taxes and spending, civil rights and civil liberties have developed bitter edges that suggest we are enemies: Democrat versus Republican, Red State versus Blue State, liberal versus conservative.
The banner-carrier of Lincoln’s Republican party in this fall’s election, John McCain, has torn open holes in that fabric, exploiting the oldest and ugliest of our differences.
And yet, most Americans are still touched by the better angels of our nature.
We still believe that this great nation can and should be what Lincoln imagined: “the last best hope of Earth.”
That, more than any of the vagaries of campaign finance, battleground-state calculations or simplistic candidate comparisons, explains why Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency has been so successful — and why its success has become an imperative no less consequential than those of other historic candidacies: Jefferson in 1800, Lincoln in 1860, Roosevelt in 1932.
It may be mere coincidence that Obama is, like Lincoln, an Illinoisan with a relatively short resume of electoral service.
But as Obama submits himself to what his home-state predecessor called “this great tribunal of the American people,” we are reminded of the essential message of Lincoln’s distant campaigning: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew and then we shall save our country.”
The more cautious among us still suggest that to support Obama requires too great a leap of faith, just as it has always been suggested of young men who bid for the presidency before the established order judges it to be their time. But the American people have a history of understanding, as they did with Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, that sound judgment and an ability to inspire should count for more than a long resume and the burden of knowing too much of what is not supposed to be achievable and too little of the infinite possibility of this unfinished American project.
Had he run a better campaign, John McCain would be a worthy adversary to Obama. He was a maverick once – not a progressive maverick, not a radical reformer. But after the most dangerous elements in his party took charge in the mid-1990s, McCain refused for a time to go along with those who sought to destroy the last vestiges of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.
Clinton’s record was once commendable, if imperfect. It is now tarnished beyond repair.
Obama’s resume is shorter than McCain’s, and imperfect in places. But it is precisely right for the American moment. As a community organizer in Chicago. Obama worked to save industrial jobs and the neighborhoods they sustain. As an Illinois state senator he was an ardent advocate of that state’s historic death penalty moratorium. As a likely contender for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2003, he marched with anti-war protesters. As a freshman senator he worked with Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold to promote sweeping ethics reforms. And as a presidential candidate he has mounted a campaign distinguished by its optimism, its vigor, its appeal to the young and the previously disengaged, and its success in upending the calculations of those who thought they controlled our politics.
Everything about the Republican nominee’s current campaign suggests that a McCain presidency would be a continuation of the Bush era. Everything about Obama’s campaign suggests that he favors a bolder break with the failed politics and policies of the Bush interregnum.
McCain has attempted to define Obama as a radical in the last days of this very long campaign. And, in a sense, the senior senator is right. In fact, the Democrat proposes a change that would be far more radical than McCain and angriest supporters dare imagine: a transformation. Obama’s is the politics of faith in the prospect of democratic renewal; of the worthy dream that a divided people might unite around common purposes and lower partisan barriers to make possible dramatic shifts in the way the United States relates to the world and to itself.
It is for that reason that many of the nation’s most prominent Republicans – former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Susan Eisenhower, former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach, and former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, among them – have endorsed Obama.
McCain derides Obama as a “big talker” holding out false hope to worried Americans.
Obama responds that, “This whole notion of false hopes bothers me. There is no such thing as false hopes.”
Some truths are self-evident – among them, that Lincoln would have preferred Obama’s hope to McCain’s desperate denial of it. And so, it seems, will the voters of these United States. Just as when they supported another radical from Illinois 148 years ago, the American people continue to prefer the audacity of hope to the compromise of complacency.
As Election Day finally arrives, it is right to speak of hope – a hope that America’s Democrats, independents and Republicans will again embrace the better angels of our nature and support the candidacy of another young Illinoisan so overwhelmingly that he can secure his claim on the presidency of a nation that is so ready to begin anew.