Obama Snubs 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg Address

His decision is doubly surprising because he has so often tied himself to his fellow Illinoisan Lincoln.

A photographic portrait is displayed showing Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Nov. 19, 2013, midnight

Just 65 miles from the White House, thou­sands will gath­er Tues­day at the bat­tle­field where 150 years ago the sac­ri­fice and blood­shed and deaths of war­ring Amer­ic­ans were im­mor­tal­ized by the words of Pres­id­ent Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln. Fifty-one thou­sand cas­u­al­ties were coun­ted when the fight­ing ceased in 1863, in­clud­ing 8,000 deaths, a toll that Lin­coln, in his Gettys­burg Ad­dress, pledged the na­tion “can nev­er for­get.”

But among the thou­sands in at­tend­ance will not be Pres­id­ent Obama. Cit­ing schedul­ing prob­lems, the White House said he is stay­ing in Wash­ing­ton. In­stead of go­ing to Gettys­burg, he will go to the Four Sea­sons Hotel to ad­dress The Wall Street Journ­al CEO Coun­cil’s an­nu­al meet­ing and talk about the eco­nomy. In his place, he has dis­patched little-known Sec­ret­ary of the In­teri­or Sally Jew­ell to the ce­re­mon­ies. She will be joined there by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.

Obama is by no means the first pres­id­ent wary of giv­ing a speech where every word will be com­pared to the most fam­ous piece of oratory in Amer­ic­an his­tory. Many of his pre­de­cessors in the White House have balked at speak­ing in Gettys­burg and had to be talked out of ini­tial re­fus­als. They un­der­stood that no mat­ter what they would say, it would fall short of the spare 272 words de­livered by Lin­coln, who needed only two minutes to ded­ic­ate a cemetery where less than five months earli­er 165,000 sol­diers had clashed. That battle de­term­ined the out­come of the Civil War; Lin­coln’s ad­dress cla­ri­fied the mean­ing of the war and re­defined what it meant to be an Amer­ic­an.

But Obama, un­like his pre­de­cessors, stuck to his de­cision not to go to such an an­niversary com­mem­or­a­tion. His de­cision is doubly sur­pris­ing be­cause he has so of­ten tied him­self to his fel­low Illinois­an Lin­coln. Obama an­nounced his can­did­acy in 2007 near Lin­coln’s law of­fice in Spring­field, Ill. Both in 2009 and 2013, he took the oath of of­fice with his hand on Lin­coln’s Bible. And in 2009, he rep­lic­ated Lin­coln’s 1861 route from Phil­adelphia to Wash­ing­ton for the In­aug­ur­a­tion.

“It didn’t work sched­ule-wise,” was the ex­plan­a­tion tweeted Tues­day morn­ing by Dan Pfeif­fer, the pres­id­ent’s seni­or ad­viser. The sched­ule re­leased by the White House showed the pres­id­ent at 10 a.m. in the Oval Of­fice re­ceiv­ing his reg­u­lar daily brief­ing. Then, at 10:45, he wel­comed to the White House a group of sen­at­ors to brief them on the latest de­vel­op­ments in Ir­an. That brief­ing was not sched­uled un­til Monday, well after the White House de­clined the Gettys­burg in­vit­a­tion. Later in the day — after he would have been back from the planned ce­re­mony at Gettys­burg — he goes to the Four Sea­sons Hotel to ad­dress The Wall Street Journ­al CEO Coun­cil’s an­nu­al meet­ing and talk about the eco­nomy.

There are dif­fer­ing counts of how many of the 28 pres­id­ents after Lin­coln traveled to Gettys­burg. CNN re­ports that 24 have gone. The Gettys­burg Times re­ports that every 20th-cen­tury pres­id­ent made the pil­grim­age ex­cept for Bill Clin­ton. Woo­drow Wilson spoke at the 50th an­niversary in 1913. Frank­lin D. Roosevelt spoke at the 75th in 1938. Dwight Eis­en­hower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyn­don John­son all took sep­ar­ate trips there in the 100th-an­niversary year of 1963. But not all went will­ingly, and all tried to avoid speech com­par­is­ons with Lin­coln.

In his new bio­graphy of Wilson, A. Scott Berg writes that the pres­id­ent de­clined the in­vit­a­tion to go to the 50th-an­niversary ce­re­mon­ies. He re­con­sidered only after a warn­ing from a Pennsylvania con­gress­man that there would be re­crim­in­a­tions if he stayed away. “Both blue and gray are to be there,” Wilson wrote in a let­ter ex­plain­ing what he was told. He said that his ab­sence would be re­sen­ted. “It would be sug­ges­ted that he is a South­ern­er and out of sym­pathy with the oc­ca­sion. In short it would be more than a passing mis­take; it would amount to a ser­i­ous blun­der.”

When Wilson ar­rived there, he quickly saw he was right to re­con­sider. Con­gress had ap­pro­pri­ated more than $2 mil­lion to trans­port Civil War vet­er­ans to Gettys­burg and to feed and house them for what was called a three-day “Peace Ju­bilee.” More than 50,000 vet­er­ans came, “wear­ing uni­forms and dec­or­a­tions and wav­ing flags.” They looked, wrote Berg, to Wilson for in­spir­a­tion. But Wilson, famed for his ora­tor­ic­al skills, de­livered one of his flat­ter speeches. He spoke of re­con­cili­ation, nev­er men­tion­ing race or slavery, nev­er sug­gest­ing which side was right. “We have found one an­oth­er again as broth­ers and com­rades in arms,” said Wilson, “en­emies no longer, gen­er­ous friends rather, our battles long past, the quar­rel for­got­ten….”

At the next big an­niversary, the 75th in 1938, there were few­er vet­er­ans alive when Roosevelt spoke. Like Wilson, Roosevelt did not speak of race or the reas­ons for the war. In­stead, speak­ing as war clouds gathered in Europe, he talked of peace and the im­port­ance of his own New Deal pro­grams. Un­veil­ing a new monu­ment, the Etern­al Light Peace Me­mori­al, FDR praised the “vet­er­ans of the blue and the gray” be­fore him.

It was not un­til the 100th an­niversary that a mem­or­able and his­tor­ic speech was giv­en at Gettys­burg. It was not, though, by the former pres­id­ent—Eis­en­hower—who spoke at the of­fi­cial ce­re­mon­ies. And it was not by the cur­rent pres­id­ent—Kennedy—who made only an un­an­nounced vis­it with no speech. In­stead, it was by a fu­ture pres­id­ent—Vice Pres­id­ent John­son. Like Wilson be­fore him, LBJ had turned down the in­vit­a­tion to speak at Gettys­burg on Me­mori­al Day 1963. His staff re­fused to send in his re­fus­al, though, and con­tin­ued to press him on the his­tory he could make as the grand­son of a con­fed­er­ate sol­dier. It was the right time, they told him, to use this speech to raise the ban­ner of civil rights and provide an an­swer to Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr.’s fam­ous “Let­ter From a Birm­ing­ham Jail.”

The res­ult was one of John­son’s more im­port­ant speeches, one that signaled the com­ing of civil rights le­gis­la­tion when John­son would as­sume the pres­id­ency upon the as­sas­sin­a­tion of Kennedy. “One hun­dred years ago, the slave was freed. One hun­dred years later, the Negro re­mains in bond­age to the col­or of his skin,” said John­son. “The Negro today asks justice. We do not an­swer him—we do not an­swer those who lie be­neath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by ask­ing, ‘Pa­tience’.”

He ad­ded, “Our na­tion found its soul in hon­or on these fields of Gettys­burg 100 years ago. We must not lose that soul in dis­hon­or now on the fields of hate. To ask for pa­tience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already giv­en enough.” But while ur­ging white Amer­ica to un­der­stand black im­pa­tience, he urged blacks to un­der­stand the im­port­ance of act­ing with­in the law. He con­cluded, “The Negro says, ‘Now.’ Oth­ers say, ‘Nev­er.’ The voice of re­spons­ible Amer­ic­ans—the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here—their voices say, ‘To­geth­er.’ There is no oth­er way.”

Even as ac­com­plished an orator as Obama would have had a daunt­ing chal­lenge to fol­low the simple elo­quence of Lin­coln or the portent­ous oratory of John­son. But he did not ac­cept that chal­lenge. The dis­ap­point­ment of some has been keen. The York Daily Re­cord called his de­cision “un­ac­cept­able.” The pa­per’s ed­it­or­i­al board wrote that the na­tion’s first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent should be there on Tues­day. “Pres­id­ent Obama could have used this oc­ca­sion to of­fer words of heal­ing and re­con­cili­ation—as his Illinois fore­fath­er once did.” Con­ser­vat­ive au­thor Steven F. Hay­ward was more bit­ing in an art­icle in For­bes, con­tend­ing that the pres­id­ent is show­ing “dif­fid­ence or dis­dain for Amer­ic­an icons.”

The White House is of­fer­ing no ex­plan­a­tion, though. Asked Monday about the pres­id­ent’s ab­sence, press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney said simply, “I don’t have any schedul­ing up­dates to provide to you.” He ad­ded, “Ob­vi­ously, that ad­dress and that mo­ment in time is sem­in­al in our his­tory. I think that all Amer­ic­ans across the coun­try will have the op­por­tun­ity to think about those words and that ad­dress.” But as to why the pres­id­ent is stay­ing away? “I don’t have any­thing more for you.”

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