It may be little more than a blip on Washington's radar screen, but President Obama's decision to be a no-show at an upcoming ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has touched off a firestorm in Pennsylvania.
Local newspapers Thursday excoriated the president, a noted admirer of the 16th president, for skipping the historic occasion.
A journalist at Harrisburg's Patriot News said Mr. Obama doesn't have "the stones" to attend; York's Daily Record newspaper called the decision "unacceptable" and said "Mr. Obama's retreat from Gettysburg will linger long and bitter."
The Gettysburg Times reported that local officials in and around the town have spent months preparing — in vain — for a potential visit from Mr. Obama, who twice carried Pennsylvania in the presidential election (by 11 percentage points in 2008 and five in 2012).
Instead, the White House will send Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to the Nov. 19 event, which will be held at the Soldiers' National Cemetery.
She will be joined as keynote speaker by renowned historian James McPherson.
The Gettysburg National Military Park seemed disappointed with the choice of Ms. Jewell rather than the president.
"President Obama will not attend and the Secretary of the Interior will represent the administration," the park pointed out in the second sentence of its release.
White House press secretary Jay Carney wouldn't give an explanation Thursday for why Mr. Obama declined the request.
"I think that is an enormously significant event in our history, and I think Americans will take the appropriate time to consider the speech that was delivered there. I would simply say that I have no updates on the president's schedule," Mr. Carney said. "I think all Americans will share and marvel in the remembrance of that important date in our history."
Twenty-four presidents have visited Gettysburg since the summer of 1863, when the town gained its notoriety after the bloody three-day battle that turned the tide of the Civil War.
President Kennedy was invited to speak at the 1963 ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the speech, but opted to travel to Dallas instead, where he was fatally shot a few days later.
Although Kennedy's presence 50 years ago would have been significant, a visit by Mr. Obama would carry extra weight for several reasons.
Numerous Pennsylvania publications have pointed out how important it would be to have Mr. Obama, the nation's first black commander in chief, speak in Gettysburg and remind Americans how far the nation has come since the dark days of the Civil War.
For Mr. Obama personally, the invitation seemingly would have been too good to pass up.
It would have offered the president an opportunity to give a triumphant speech celebrating American values — the type of speech that rallied voters during his presidential run — and would have allowed Mr. Obama to pay personal tribute to fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Obama speaks often about his admiration for the 16th president. He even used the Lincoln Bible for both of his inauguration ceremonies, in 2009 and early this year.
By rejecting the invitation, the president has personally offended some in the Keystone State.
Writing for the Patriot News, journalist Donald Gilliland called Mr. Obama's decision "nothing less than a profile in cowardice."
"In the end, Barack Obama simply didn't have the stones. It's sad. And telling. History will note that Lincoln's legacy did not live up to the challenge," he wrote.
In an editorial, the York Daily Record said the president clearly "is uninterested or unwilling" to visit and called that "deeply disappointing."
"Symbolism matters," the paper wrote Thursday. "President Obama could have used this occasion to offer words of healing and reconciliation — as his Illinois forefather once did. Instead, he is sending us a little-known Cabinet member to do the job of a president, of a statesman, of an orator. Unacceptable. President Obama's retreat from Gettysburg will linger long and bitter. We beg him to reconsider."
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