Saturday, February 12, 2005

Lincoln and Bush

Lincoln and Bush

Posted 00:19am (Mla time) Feb 12, 2005
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the February 12, 2005 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

I REMEMBER Feb. 12 because our teachers during the American regime in this country would not let us forget it. That was when President Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809. Every year when I was in grade school, we celebrated this red-letter day with programs honoring the great man.

We were frequently reminded of the virtues of Honest Abe, who freed the slaves and saved the Union. We were thrilled when as a young lawyer he defended an innocent man whom a witness swore to have seen committing a murder by the light of the moon. Lincoln proved that there was no moon on the night in question.

Later in high school, we learned another of his remarkable talents. He was an excellent writer. He was the author of the Gettysburg Address, which was a favorite subject in our oratorical contests that were more popular then than basketball. We were moved by his letter to Mrs. Bixby, a widow who had lost her five sons in the Civil War, where he wrote:

"I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom."

I have an old volume that says Lincoln's brief remarks at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg were not well received. Possibly, the audience was still preparing to hear him and was perplexed when it realized that the president had finished and returned to his seat. There was only a smattering of applause.

Lincoln himself must have thought that his speech was a failure, but he was soon disabused. Some reporters who had taken notes (no tapes or copies for the press then) had written favorable accounts of the program. The renowned orator, Edward Everett Horton, who was the principal speaker at the ceremonies, said that what he had tried to say in two hours, Lincoln had said in two minutes. Interest in the speech grew and soon the Gettysburg Address had become a classic.

An unexpected tribute came when the Gettysburg Address and the Bixby letter were prescribed for study at Oxford "as perfect specimens of English composition." They might also have included the concluding paragraph of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, where he said to the Confederacy:

"I am loath to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield; and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angel of our nature."

It is said that when a well-known English jurist was asked to name the greatest British orator of the 19th century, he replied: "Lincoln, the American."

Coming now to the present time, let us talk of George W. Bush, who recently began his second term as President of the United States.

The Inquirer reported that when he delivered his State of the Union Address before the US Congress last week, he was applauded 61 times during his 53-minute speech. The Republican Party solons were President Dubya's claque while the Democratic legislators sat silent.

I was listening to him on TV but turned to another channel because I could not stand the way the majority partisans in the audience were reacting to their Lord and Master. They were hanging on his every word as if it came from heaven above. Almost every sentence he uttered received a standing and prolonged ovation from his loyal supporters. They stood up and clapped, then sat down, then had to stand up again for applause, and so on. This went on repeatedly ad nauseam.

His admirers must have suffered sore muscles and creaking joints by the way they exhibited their almost slavish support for everything Dubya said. Even Hitler did not receive such abject adulation although he was definitely a much more forceful (and coercive) speaker. It was unbelievable to witness such an unseemly spectacle in the supposed land of the free.

The speech itself as written (and as delivered with the aid of a teleprompter) was acceptable except to the outnumbered Democrats and the more discerning independent critics. Kerry might have done better, and without the over-use of the word "freedom." In any event, there is no question that Bush's State of the Union Address was a far cry from the Gettysburg Address.

Incidentally, Bush is a graduate of Yale while Lincoln had no more than six months of formal schooling in the backwoods of Kentucky. Ghostwriters drafted Dubya's speech but the Gettysburg Address as preserved in the Library of Congress is in Lincoln's own handwriting. Comparison is odious, of course, but it is obvious in this case.


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