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.
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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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