Echoes of Lincoln

The Baltimore Sun

Abraham Lincoln will hover over Tuesday's presidential inauguration in ways big and small. The lofty official theme, "A New Birth of Freedom," comes from a famous Lincoln speech. And since Honest Abe liked all things apple, dessert at the luncheon after Barack Obama's swearing-in will be an apple cinnamon sponge cake.

The Lincoln theme resonates on numerous levels, say organizers and scholars. Like Lincoln, Obama got his start in the Illinois Legislature. Both gained renown as orators. The nation was, and is, facing perilous times. And as the first black American assumes the presidency, whom better to recall than the man whose Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 laid the groundwork for the end to slavery?

Fitting as the Lincoln theme may be, it was actually chosen months before the Nov. 4 election and just as Obama was emerging in June as the Democratic Party's nominee. A congressional committee picked it for one reason: Lincoln was born 200 years ago. No matter which candidate had won the election, this inauguration would have honored the 16th president in the bicentennial year of his birth.

"It's a happy coincidence that, with the selection and election of President-elect Obama, the theme is that much more appropriate," said Carole Florman, spokeswoman for the congressional committee overseeing inaugural events at the Capitol.

Obama himself has embraced Lincoln since launching his presidential bid in February 2007 at the old State House in Springfield, Ill. Obama has often quoted him. On Tuesday, Obama will be sworn in with the Bible used at Lincoln's 1861 inauguration.

The official inaugural theme, "A New Birth of Freedom," comes from Lincoln's brief but famous Gettysburg Address, delivered in 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a grand echo that, intended or not, reinforces the public's already high expectations.

"For the inaugural theme, I think it is good to have lofty images," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University expert on the media and the presidency. "I think you want to aim high. That's what we want, right? The public has a great deal of confidence because they see him as a person of hope."

She added: "I think all of us would like to see presidents aim high. Better Abraham Lincoln than James Buchanan."

Still, Robert Schmuhl, who teaches American studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., sees a potential risk.

"Despite the power of the symbolism and bipartisan admiration, there's a danger of over-identification or what you might call Lincoln envy," he said by e-mail from Ireland, where he is teaching. "It's better for the public to draw presidential parallels than for a president to try too hard to be perceived as a White House successor. Contemporary commentary and later history will make such judgments."

Florman, spokeswoman for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, said the theme is meant to inspire the nation, not to compare the incoming president with Lincoln: "I don't think it's 'Hey, and you better live up to the reputation of Lincoln.' "

A second inaugural committee - controlled by Obama and in charge of the parade and balls - chose as its theme "Renewing America's Promise." This privately funded committee has also wrapped itself in something of a Lincoln-esque cloak.

Tonight it will hold a star-studded concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The event, "We Are One," will feature readings of historical passages plus music from Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen and others. It will air on HBO from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The process that led to the Lincoln theme dates to February, when the bipartisan congressional team began planning. In the spring its chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, asked the Senate Historical Office for suggestions.

Since 1989, inaugurations have had a historical theme, said Donald Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian. That year's event celebrated the 200th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration, and George H.W. Bush was sworn in using Washington's Bible. There isn't always a presidential tie-in: In 2005 the theme honored the Lewis and Clark expedition two centuries after its trek to the Pacific Ocean.

The Lincoln theme, Ritchie said, would have made sense as well if Republican nominee John McCain had won. Lincoln was, after all, the first Republican president.

Beyond that, Ritchie said, every inauguration plays a reunifying role after a divisive election. "That is particularly important when you have a major crisis that the incoming president is going to face."

But he said Obama's election made it even more fitting given the "natural connection" he shares with Lincoln. When the new president addresses the throng gathered on the Mall, he will gaze toward the Lincoln Memorial, inscribed with Lincoln's second inaugural address and the conciliatory line, "With malice toward none; with charity for all."

Afterward Obama will attend the traditional post-inaugural luncheon in the Capitol. The menu will include pheasant, duck and seafood stew, all foods Lincoln reportedly enjoyed at some point.

That apple sponge cake will round out the feast. When it came to snacks or desserts, the inaugural committee says, Lincoln was a big fan of apple cake or just a simple apple.

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