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Historians See Parallels Between Lincoln and Obama


President Barack Obama has often said that one of his heroes is America's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

President Obama has made no secret of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, often invoking his name and his memory. Mr. Obama kicked off his presidential campaign two years ago at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois where Mr. Lincoln gave his famous "House Divided" speech.

When Barack Obama took the oath of office last month, he put his hand on the same Bible Abraham Lincoln used to swear his oath.

Wednesday, Mr. Obama attended a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington, where President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. He told the crowd that even in the middle of the American Civil War, Lincoln insisted on finishing the U.S. Capitol building as a symbol of unity.

"It is this sense of unity that is so much a part of Lincoln's legacy," Mr. Obama said. "For despite all that divided us - north and south, black and white - he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people."

Acclaimed presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says she believes Mr. Obama feels a genuine connection to Abraham Lincoln.

"There does seem to be this connection, certainly in Obama's heart and mind, between the mentor that he would like to believe Lincoln is; and you cannot have a better mentor," Goodwin said.

Former Senator George McGovern, who is also a historian, agrees that the similarities between the two men run deeper than them both being tall, skinny Illinois politicians of modest origins.

"I think both Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama have large egos," McGovern said. "That is not a criticism, it is is almost required by anybody running for the presidency."

McGovern claimed the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, but lost the election in a landslide to former President Richard Nixon. He said for both Mr. Lincoln, and Mr. Obama, the large ego is combined with humility, and that the two have other traits in common.

"Both of these men are strong people, I think both had keen intellects, I think both had a driving ambition to exceed," McGovern said.

Historians say Mr. Lincoln suffered from what would be recognized today as severe depression.

George McGovern related this story about Mr. Lincoln.

"He said to one of his fellow legislators one day that he no longer carried a knife for fear he would slash his wrist or his throat in one of these spells of despondency," he said. "He talked a lot about suicide in his younger days."

McGovern says the profound sadness of Mr. Lincoln is one trait Mr. Obama does not seem to share, but that the current president does seem to have a remarkable ability to keep calm in turbulent times.

Historian Goodwin says Abraham Lincoln's tremendous inner strength made him able to hold the country together at its time of greatest peril, the civil war.

"I think what it is that we see when we look into his life story, is somebody who triumphs again and again over adversity," Goodwin said. "Ernest Hemingway once wrote 'everyone is broken by life, but afterwards many are strong in the broken places.'"

In her book Team of Rivals, Goodwin describes how Abraham Lincoln made the decision to bring into his cabinet all of his chief opponents for the Republican nomination, insisting the country needed the strongest minds available. She says Barack Obama is emulating his hero is this respect.

"He remembered what Lincoln had done by being willing to surround himself with these powerful people, and he put in Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Joe Biden as vice president, three Republicans into his top circle," Goodwin said.

Some analysts and historians caution that it is too early for any comparisons between Mr. Obama and Mr. Lincoln, since Mr. Obama has been in the White House for less than a month, and his leadership skills have yet to be tested. But George McGovern says he believes Abraham Lincoln would be delighted to see Mr. Obama in the White House.

"Even though Lincoln was a Republican, and Barack is a Democrat, I have no doubt who Lincoln would have voted for in 2008," McGovern said. "And I think he would rejoice to see that a Black man is now holding the highest office in the land. I have no doubt about that."

President Obama paid tribute to Mr. Lincoln at the U.S. Capitol, saying he feels special gratitude to the man who in many ways made his own story possible. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ordering slaves to be freed in the southern states that did not recognize his authority as president. The move eventually led to the abolition of slavery in the United States.

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