Sweetness and Steel: Lincoln, Obama, Angelou

Posted by Charlie Finn at

There were superficial reasons—when he thundered on the political scene at the Democratic Convention in 2004 and then rode on the wave of that thunder to his election in 2008—to compare Barack Obama with Abraham Lincoln. There was the Illinois connection, for instance, and the gifted orator connection, and the “new birth of freedom” connection. Add to these the evident high esteem, even reverence, held by Obama for that towering mentor of his spirit, and it is easy to link the two of them. But what about things deeper than the surface?

A sobering intimation arose in me, in the wake of the euphoria following Obama’s election, that if the similarities between him and Lincoln did, in fact, go deeper, then it would most clearly be revealed if adversity, not smooth sailing, is what he would meet, if failure, not success, is what he would have to deal with. For it was the manner in which Lincoln met adversity and failure which taught us the most.

It is safe to say, six years later, that adversity indeed is what Obama has faced, along with the failure to achieve much that he had hoped to achieve. We now know with dismaying clarity how white-hot is the determination of a sizable minority that this President utterly fail, that his major healthcare achievement be gutted and that his every new proposal be obstructed.

The point here is not to argue politics and policies. The point is to bring the memory of Abraham Lincoln to bear on the present presidency, to see what it might tell us about the character of Barack Obama.

If anyone knew adversity from the beginning of his presidency, it was Abraham Lincoln. Even before he took office, seven Deep South states had seceded because he had been elected. Though he would not, because constitutionally he could not, touch slavery where it already existed, he made it clear, as did the Republican platform he ran on, that he would do everything in his power to prevent its extension. And then on the very day he was sworn in, he received a telegram about the crisis brewing at Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor that could inaugurate civil war. Adversity from the start, and few, if any, pleased.

Listen to Frederick Douglass, himself one of Lincoln’s harshest early critics:

“Reproaches came thick and thin upon him from within and from without, and from opposite quarters. He was assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders...Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Another of his early critics from the Left, Harriet Beecher Stowe, at first lamented Lincoln’s tardiness, coldness, dullness and indifference, but over time came to see deeper.

“Lincoln is a strong man, but his strength is of a peculiar kind...It is the strength not so much of a stone buttress as of a wire cable. It is a strength swaying to every influence, yielding on this side and on that to popular needs, yet tenaciously and inflexibly bound to carry its great end.”

Fast forward to Barack Obama. While his most vituperative critics are on the Right, the Left has hardly been kind to him when he has compromised on so much, delayed acting on so much, seemingly vacillated on so much. Assailed from both sides certainly fits, as does wire cable, swaying and yielding this way and that, yet tenaciously holding to the great end of a more just and compassionate nation.

But we haven’t yet touched what to me is the biggest thing, the thing that reveals character at its deepest. Breadth of vision and strength of will are indeed essential, but so too are capacity for empathy and kindness of heart. We go back to Abraham Lincoln for perhaps the purest expression.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all...What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing...As I have not felt, so I have not expressed any harsh sentiment towards our southern brethren. I have constantly declared, as I really believed, the only difference between them and us, is the difference of circumstances. I have meant to assail the motives of no party, or individual; and if I have, in any instance (of which I am not conscious) departed from my purpose, I regret it.”

He didn’t just talk it, he lived it. No wonder Abraham Lincoln is loved by so many.

And no wonder many of us still stand back amazed at Barack Obama, yes, partially for his vision that our country must return to being of the people and not of the corporations, and yes, partially for what he has managed to achieve despite entrenched opposition, but equally for how he is responding to his failures, for how he is not responding in malice to the unrelenting disparagement heaped upon him. Will he continue to live according to the values which Lincoln not only espoused but lived? We of course don’t know, as disillusionment has been known to spring like a brigand from the bush. But if six years of testing have not found Obama wanting, if he has neither returned rancor for rancor nor stopped tenaciously fighting for what he believes, we may have here, I submit to your consideration, the real McCoy, meaning a worthy carrier of the spirit of Abraham Lincoln.

Even though Maya Angelou addressed the following to her sisters, may each of us, in her or his heart, hear the exhortation from this phenomenal woman, who has just left us but whose spirit will never leave us, never to disown either our sweetness or our steel.

“Women should be tough, tender, laugh as much as possible, and live long lives. The struggle for equality continues unabated, and the woman warrior who is armed with wit and courage will be among the first to celebrate victory...You keep your sweetness always but inside that sweetness is a ball of steel.”

May your brothers as well as sisters be listening, Maya. May Barack Obama be listening. May each citizen not only of America but of Earth be listening for the sake of the only family. In our darker moments may we neither give up nor lash out. May we hold to sweetness without relinquishing the wire cable, the steel ball. May we listen to Abraham Lincoln from the wings urging us to allow ourselves once again to be touched by the better angels of our nature.


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