Saturday, January 17, 2009

In ways great and small, 44 is very big on 16.

From the first speech he gave as a candidate to the first meal he will eat as president, Barack Obama has courted comparisons to fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln, another gangly lawyer and one-term congressman who entered the White House at a time of extreme national peril.

Mr. Obama’s entire inaugural celebration constitutes a massive homage to Lincoln, considered one of the country’s greatest presidents and the most eloquent chief executive ever. In yet one more harmonic convergence, Mr. Obama begins his presidency 200 years after Lincoln’s birth in 1809 in Kentucky, and the year will be flooded with scholarly and popular celebrations of Lincoln’s bicentennial.

Some might shy away from using Lincoln as a measuring stick, but Mr. Obama appears to relish the parallels. He wrote in a 2005 essay in Time magazine after his election to the Senate that he kept a portrait of Lincoln always on his desk.

“On trying days the portrait soothes me. It always asks me questions,” he wrote.

Lincoln was a Republican, and Mr. Obama a Democrat, but there is a kind of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” quality to the parallels and coincidences between the two. Both got their political start in the Illinois state legislature, where both served seven years.

Mr. Obama cited Lincoln in the January 2007 speech announcing his candidacy, and quoted him again in his victory address in Chicago the night he was elected president in November. Both men upset a powerful New York senator - William Seward in Lincoln’s case; Hillary Rodham Clinton in Mr. Obama’s - to win their party’s nomination. Mr. Obama’s postelection personnel choices, including Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state, have been endlessly compared to Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals” Cabinet, including Mr. Seward as secretary of state.

The official theme of Mr. Obama’s inauguration is “A New Birth of Freedom,” a phrase taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

The train trip taking Mr. Obama from Philadelphia to Washington to be sworn in Tuesday tracks the final leg of Lincoln’s own train trip from Springfield to Washington for his first inauguration in 1861. Unlike Lincoln, though, Mr. Obama’s entourage stopped in Wilmington, Del., to pick up Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family. And unlike Mr. Obama, Lincoln did not stop in Baltimore, because of fears he might be targeted for assassination by pro-slavery elements in the city.

At Tuesday’s inaugural ceremony, first lady Michelle Obama will hold the Bible used by Lincoln in his first inauguration in March 1861 while her husband takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Mr. Obama will be the first president to take his oath on the 1,280-page Bible printed in 1853 since that day.

The soaring quality of Mr. Lincoln’s rhetoric, both in the close to his first inaugural address and in his brief but masterful second inaugural address, have clearly been on the president-elect’s mind as he prepares his own speech. Mr. Obama and his family visited the Lincoln Memorial shortly after returning to Washington earlier this month to prepare for his swearing-in ceremony, where the entire text of the second inaugural address, with its appeal for “malice toward none and charity for all,” is inscribed on the wall beside the seated statue of Lincoln.

While Mr. Obama has repeatedly welcomed the Lincoln references, he conceded he was “intimidated” when studying Lincoln’s words.

“I’m not sure whether that has been wise,” he said last week in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“Every time you read that second inaugural, you start getting intimidated, especially because it is very short. There is really a genius to Lincoln that is not going to be matched.”

The Obama homage to Lincoln will not stop with the speech.

After the address, Mr. Obama will go to the traditional luncheon with congressional leaders inside the Capitol before going to review the inauguration parade.

According to the Congressional Inaugural Committee, the group will dine on replicas of Mr. Lincoln’s White House china. The painting selected to hang behind the new president at the head table is “View of Yosemite Valley” by 19th-century landscape painter Thomas Hill. It was Lincoln who signed the grant in 1864 setting aside the land that became Yosemite National Park.

The menu itself, put together by Arlington-based Design Cuisine, is said to be inspired by Lincoln’s fondness for “simple foods, including root vegetables and wild game,” according to the congressional organizers. “For dessert or a snack, nothing pleased [Lincoln] more than a fresh apple or an apple cake.”

Mr. Obama’s fare will be considerably more highfalutin, including seafood stew, a “brace of American birds (pheasant and duck),” and apple-cinnamon sponge cake and sweet cream glace, washed down with some vintage California wines.

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