The myths collide, bearing friction between the legends the nation lives by: Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, John F. Kennedy at Dallas and Barack Obama somewhere, maybe on a golf course, dreaming of Obamacare one last time before it implodes. Like all myths, they don’t bear close examination. They must be taken on faith.
Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, magnificent as the rhetoric that would inspire generations of Americans, was commemorated on the battlefield where he delivered it 150 years ago, and scholars continue to argue the arcane particulars of how the famous speech came about.
The myth of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot died with him in Dallas only 50 years ago, and the enduring argument is not about his legacy but over the particulars of who killed him. Most of the men who devoted their working days to polishing the myth and keeping it bright and shining are dead and gone now. The few polishers left among us seem reconciled to the tarnish around the edges of the myth. Constant scrubbing merely reveals the tarnish beneath the tarnish.
Barack Obama himself has the task of tending the myth of the Chicago messiah, and it’s the myth whose days are clearly numbered. Mr. Obama declined an invitation to make remarks at the Gettysburg commemoration, perhaps because he didn’t want to share the occasion with another president, particularly a dead one who stirs “the mystic chords of memory” in the way that he suspects he never will.
Lincoln reduced his remarks at Gettysburg to 272 words, each one of them cut like a hard, blue diamond and set in place with a jeweler’s eye. Mr. Obama, celebrated as a great orator by those who cannot fully appreciate an orator’s poetry because they’ve never heard the real thing, cannot clear his throat in 272 words. He knew he might suffer a comparison, so his contribution to the occasion was a video recitation of the speech, in which he eliminated Lincoln’s invocation of God lest it make atheists break out in a 10-day itch.
Lincoln’s speech is remembered for the sheer poetry of the words, each one fraught with meaning that comes down untarnished through the years. The place where it was delivered speaks volumes about the times and the people to whom it was addressed. He delivered it without a teleprompter, without amplification and without even a good night’s sleep after a grueling 110-mile ride from Washington requiring changing trains twice over six hours.
The next morning, the battlefield reeked still of the rotting flesh of men and horses, five months after Robert E. Lee led his bruised Army of Northern Virginia back across the Potomac to safety. Bluebottle flies still searched the battlefield for what was left of horses and the occasional poorly buried soldier, with scraps of fluttering blue and gray cloth giving poignant testimony to the soil soaked by persistent November rains. Gen. George Gordon Meade, the commander of the Union army, not only had not followed the Confederates after three days of fighting, but hurried out of Pennsylvania terrified that it was Lee who was giving chase. “I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield,” Meade telegraphed Washington. (The wicked flee when none pursueth.)
The poetry of the Gettysburg Address would be admired later. It was enough on the day that the crowd of 15,000 could see and listen to the man. The myth of Abe the ardent abolitionist, of Lincoln the champion of civil rights for blacks, of the Great Emancipator who freed all the slaves, would be burnished later. Lincoln without the tears and the poetry was a clever politician first, the Lyndon Johnson of his day. He did what he could. He preserved the union, no small feat, though with a little patience he might have done it without a war.
John F. Kennedy was a man of poetry, too, though it was poetry mostly written by others. But he spoke the words well. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” was the stuff of legend. But he left a political party that considers such instruction mere bunk. His Democratic successors are only interested in a welfare state that will be fun while it lasts. The prudent among us are learning Chinese.
Lincoln’s work was mostly done when John Wilkes Booth fired the fatal shot. Kennedy left with work to do, including Vietnam, that would have rendered Camelot a silly woman’s fantasy. Death made them both larger in death. Mr. Obama still needs work on his putting if he ever breaks par. Myths are what politics are made of.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.