On Tuesday, just 65 miles from the White House, thousands will gather at the battlefield where 150 years ago the sacrifice and bloodshed and deaths of warring Americans were immortalized by the words of President Abraham Lincoln. Fifty-one thousand casualties were counted when the fighting ceased in 1863, including 8,000 deaths, a toll that Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, pledged the nation “can never forget.”
But among the thousands in attendance will not be President Obama. For reasons not spelled out by the White House, he is staying in Washington. Instead of going to Gettysburg, he will go to the Four Seasons Hotel to address The Wall Street Journal CEO Council’s annual meeting and talk about the economy. In his place, he has dispatched little-known Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to the ceremonies. She will be joined there by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
Obama is by no means the first president wary of giving a speech where every word will be compared to the most famous piece of oratory in American history. Many of his predecessors in the White House have balked at speaking in Gettysburg and had to be talked out of initial refusals. They understood that no matter what they would say, it would fall short of the spare 272 words delivered by Lincoln, who needed only two minutes to dedicate a cemetery where less than five months earlier 165,000 soldiers had clashed. That battle determined the outcome of the Civil War; Lincoln’s address clarified the meaning of the war and redefined what it meant to be an American.
But Obama, unlike his predecessors, stuck to his decision not to go to such an anniversary commemoration. His decision is doubly surprising because he has so often tied himself to his fellow Illinoisan Lincoln. Obama announced his candidacy in 2007 near Lincoln’s law office in Springfield, Ill. Both in 2009 and 2013, he took the oath of office with his hand on Lincoln’s Bible. And in 2009, he replicated Lincoln’s 1861 route from Philadelphia to Washington for the Inauguration.
There are differing counts of how many of the 28 presidents after Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg. CNN reports that 24 have gone. The Gettysburg Times reports that every 20th-century president made the pilgrimage except for Bill Clinton. Woodrow Wilson spoke at the 50th anniversary in 1913. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the 75th in 1938. Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson all took separate trips there in the 100th-anniversary year of 1963. But not all went willingly, and all tried to avoid speech comparisons with Lincoln.
In his new biography of Wilson, A. Scott Berg writes that the president declined the invitation to go to the 50th-anniversary ceremonies. He reconsidered only after a warning from a Pennsylvania congressman that there would be recriminations if he stayed away. “Both blue and gray are to be there,” Wilson wrote in a letter explaining what he was told. He said that his absence would be resented. “It would be suggested that he is a Southerner and out of sympathy with the occasion. In short it would be more than a passing mistake; it would amount to a serious blunder.”
When Wilson arrived there, he quickly saw he was right to reconsider. Congress had appropriated more than $2 million to transport Civil War veterans to Gettysburg and to feed and house them for what was called a three-day “Peace Jubilee.” More than 50,000 veterans came, “wearing uniforms and decorations and waving flags.” They looked, wrote Berg, to Wilson for inspiration. But Wilson, famed for his oratorical skills, delivered one of his flatter speeches. He spoke of reconciliation, never mentioning race or slavery, never suggesting which side was right. “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms,” said Wilson, “enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten….”
At the next big anniversary, the 75th in 1938, there were fewer veterans alive when Roosevelt spoke. Like Wilson, Roosevelt did not speak of race or the reasons for the war. Instead, speaking as war clouds gathered in Europe, he talked of peace and the importance of his own New Deal programs. Unveiling a new monument, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, FDR praised the “veterans of the blue and the gray” before him.
It was not until the 100th anniversary that a memorable and historic speech was given at Gettysburg. It was not, though, by the former president—Eisenhower—who spoke at the official ceremonies. And it was not by the current president—Kennedy—who made only an unannounced visit with no speech. Instead, it was by a future president—Vice President Johnson. Like Wilson before him, LBJ had turned down the invitation to speak at Gettysburg on Memorial Day 1963. His staff refused to send in his refusal, though, and continued to press him on the history he could make as the grandson of a confederate soldier. It was the right time, they told him, to use this speech to raise the banner of civil rights and provide an answer to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
The result was one of Johnson’s more important speeches, one that signaled the coming of civil rights legislation when Johnson would assume the presidency upon the assassination of Kennedy. “One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin,” said Johnson. “The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience’.”
He added, “Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg 100 years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate. To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough.” But while urging white America to understand black impatience, he urged blacks to understand the importance of acting within the law. He concluded, “The Negro says, ‘Now.’ Others say, ‘Never.’ The voice of responsible Americans—the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here—their voices say, ‘Together.’ There is no other way.”
Even as accomplished an orator as Obama would have had a daunting challenge to follow the simple eloquence of Lincoln or the portentous oratory of Johnson. But he did not accept that challenge. The disappointment of some has been keen. The York Daily Record called his decision “unacceptable.” The paper’s editorial board wrote that the nation’s first African-American president should be there on Tuesday. “President Obama could have used this occasion to offer words of healing and reconciliation—as his Illinois forefather once did.” Conservative author Steven F. Hayward was more biting in an article in Forbes, contending that the president is showing “diffidence or disdain for American icons.”
The White House is offering no explanation, though. Asked Monday about the president’s absence, press secretary Jay Carney said simply, “I don’t have any scheduling updates to provide to you.” He added, “Obviously, that address and that moment in time is seminal in our history. I think that all Americans across the country will have the opportunity to think about those words and that address.” But as to why the president is staying away? “I don’t have anything more for you.”