By SEAN REDMILES
Tuesday, November 19 marked an important anniversary in the history of the United States; on that date 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg, Pa. to make a “few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery.
The words Lincoln spoken that day became known to history as the Gettysburg Address, and in just 10 sentences they gave meaning to the greatest struggle our nation ever faced and defined the principles of American democracy.
Without a doubt, the Gettysburg address is the most important speech in American history and thus deserves homage appropriate to its greatness. Past commemoration events achieved this by inviting the current president to attend and give a speech.
Since Lincoln, 24 of the 28 presidents spoke at the anniversary, including Woodrow Wilson at the 50th anniversary, Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 75th anniversary and Lyndon B. Johnson (vice-president at the time) at the 100th.
As the date for the 150th anniversary neared, the National Park Service, as expected, invited President Barrack Obama to visit the Battlefield and give a speech.
Given the president’s skill for oratory and self-professed reverence for Lincoln, his acceptance was considered a sure thing.
Instead, the president declined and in his place sent Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, claiming, “It just didn’t work schedule-wise.”
This decision by Obama is baffling and suggests an attitude that is concerning to Americans who desperately look to their president for leadership in trying times.
The message this refusal sends to the country is this: the president is tired.
Perhaps Obama is finally withering under the unbending criticism and intransigence from his political rivals of the last five years. Maybe the president decided that in the current political atmosphere it is safer for him to stay away from making a speech that people would inevitably compare to the brilliance of Lincoln’s words; certainly past presidents paused at the prospect of attempting to imitate Lincoln.
The most damning possibility of all is that Obama simply does not care about or understand the symbolism of the Gettysburg address.
The president’s refusal says to the American people that he believes his time is better spent dealing with the multiple problems of the country then in giving a history talk to Civil War buffs and park rangers.
If this is what he truly believes, then the president could not be more wrong.
By declining the invitation to speak at the 150th commemoration of the Gettysburg Address, president Obama missed a golden opportunity to do exactly what Lincoln did on November 19th, 1863: remind the nation that democracy is worth the struggle.
One of the two principles of the Gettysburg address is that the great experiment of American democracy could not be allowed to fail. “Now we are engaged in a great Civil War,” Lincoln said, “testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Lincoln understood that was the preservation of democracy in the world was at stake in the Civil War.
If the North allowed the South to successfully walk out on the democratic process, secede and end the Union, history and the world would look on democracy as a failure.
Though the country does not currently face a crisis on the scale of the Civil War, there is no doubt that in 2013 as much as in 1863 the nations of the globe look to the U.S. as a symbol and leader of democracy. Lately, our own, as well as the wider world’s, faith in our system seems to be shaken.
Congress is locked in perpetual battle of gridlock, partisanship and brinksmanship; compromise is thrown to the wayside as extremists on the left and right dig in for their agendas; and in the aftermath of an embarrassing and humiliating government shutdown, proponents of democracy in the world can only look on with apprehension at the course the country is taking.
During the trying times of the Civil War, Lincoln stood on a battlefield still soaked with the blood of thousands and proclaimed that American democracy was still worth the trial.
Obama missed his chance to stand before the American people and remind us that no matter what chaos comes out of Washington, D.C in the future, we should not lose faith in a system “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Perhaps the president really did have important scheduling issues, and none of the above possible reasons for his declination apply.
Maybe he is aware but does not care that he missed an opportunity.
Even if this is the case, his absence from the event is a tragedy because as America’s first black president he represents the triumph of Lincoln’s second principle in the Address, that the nation “shall have a new birth of freedom.”
President Obama’s refusal to attend the 150th Gettysburg Address commemoration signifies a presidency that has failed to effectively lead Americans for some time now.
We can only hope that the spirit of Lincoln will come to guide Obama in the coming years or else many, including this writer, will begin to look at 2016 with impatience.