Measured by the impact of the language and imagery employed, Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address in 1865 – "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right…" – stands as the most powerful of the 55 delivered between the founding of the republic and the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration.
Of course, the resonance of Lincoln's words came from the circumstances under which he delivered them. The Civil War, at last, was over, and as they mourned their dead sons and brothers, Americans wondered if and how their country could ever be one again. There was a yearning for a confident president who could tell the people that the future would be better than the past – and who could make them believe it.
What we'll never know is how the momentum from Lincoln's historic speech, which came on the heels of a landslide reelection victory in 1864, would have shaped his second term. Lincoln had deep popular support and considerable political capital, but just over a month after the speech, he was murdered.
But maybe, in a roundabout way, we're about to find out what could have happened otherwise.
It's extremely common for politicians to end up styling themselves after one or two of their favorite leaders from history. Sometimes their choice of role model is apt; sometimes it's self-delusional. George W. Bush's Churchill complex clearly falls into the second category, while John McCain's infatuation with Teddy Roosevelt, the courageous war hero who relished picking fights with a stodgy Republican establishment, seems a lot more realistic.
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