Yes, President Barack Obama deserves some criticism for not attending celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. You can’t spend as much time as this president has over the years identifying with Lincoln without having to deal with questions about why you refuse to attend the sesquicentennial of the most important speech in American history. One of the more absurd arguments (not surprisingly) comes from a FOX News interview with a Wall Street Journal columnist, who actually argues that given the president’s popularity right now it was probably the right decision not to attend. Participation would have just added coal to the fire.
It would be interesting to have poll numbers for Lincoln’s popularity in November 1863. If we follow this argument to it logical conclusion, it is likely that Lincoln himself should have stayed away from Gettysburg altogether. Can you imagine a president so unpopular and still have the nerve to show up at a battlefield in the middle of a civil war to dedicate a new cemetery?
Even more curious, however, is the criticism coming mainly (again, not surprisingly) from conservative news media and bloggers that the president left out the phrase “under God” in his reading of the Gettysburg Address for a project produced by Ken Burns. How many times during his presidency has Obama referenced “under God” in one of his speeches, but somehow in this specific case he decided to intentionally edit a speech of 272 words that many Americans have memorized. One of my students even passed on this news yesterday in class. “Mr. Levin, why would the president do that?”
At first I thought she was kidding. I asked for the source and inquired as to whether anything had been mentioned about the fact that there are different versions of the speech. Later in the afternoon I decided to follow up and noticed that the story had gone viral. Of course, what these news outlets and bloggers missed entirely was that Ken Burns asked the president to read the first draft or “Nicolay version” of the speech, which does not include the phrase, “under God.” In fact, it’s not even clear that Lincoln uttered those words at Gettysburg. Perhaps these people should be inquiring as to why Lincoln left the phrase out of his first draft.
Ultimately, such an accusation fits perfectly into the, “He’s Not One of Us” argument.
Here is a wonderful interactive exhibit that explores the different versions of the address. Yesterday the White House released the president’s handwritten reflections about the Gettysburg Address. Finally, for those of you looking for a good book that explores how the Gettysburg Address has been interpreted, commemorated, and remembered over the years I highly recommend Jared Peatman’s new book, The Long Shadow of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.