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When history speaks: Lincoln's three lessons for an Obama second term

By Tom Foreman, CNN
updated 7:52 AM EST, Tue November 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New "Lincoln" film offers opportunities, advice for Barack Obama
  • Obama is avid admirer of the 16th president
  • A professor offers three lessons for Obama from Lincoln

(CNN) -- Critics are already gushing over Steven Spielberg's new "Lincoln" as a potential Oscar contender. Much of the praise centers on how the film makes the larger-than-life president at once heroic and human.

By all accounts, it deftly explores both his personal and political wisdom through scenes like the one in which Daniel Day Lewis, who plays Honest Abe, cites ancient mathematical theory in an assessment of humanity: "It's a self-evident truth that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other."

But even as moviegoers line up for tickets, some in Washington may well wonder what one special fan of Lincoln might take away from a screening.

President Barack Obama is a self-professed, lifelong admirer of the 16th president, who is by many accounts the most popular and influential of all chief executives in American history.

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Shortly before taking office in 2009, the Obama family made an unannounced late night visit to the Lincoln Memorial and since, the 44th president has stopped by again. Mr. Obama took his oath on the same Bible Lincoln used for his inauguration in 1861; a small volume sheathed in stained red velvet with gilt edges. He has frequently been spotted reading about Lincoln and he's fond of quoting the rail-splitter in his speeches, most notably during the recent Democratic National Convention.

"I'm far more mindful of my own failings," he told the convention crowd, "knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"

Some Lincolnophiles have since suggested he actually misquoted Lincoln in that instance, but the point remains: Obama is a big Lincoln fan.

So what advice might Lincoln have for Obama as he heads toward a second term? In the land of Lincoln, at Illinois Wesleyan University, Professor Robert Bray is one of the nation's leading Lincoln scholars.

He suggests that Lincoln Lesson One might be: Make your enemies into friends.

Bray notes that Lincoln had an enormous talent for turning around even his fiercest opponents. "He was able to keep his eye on the prize," Bray says, "which means he was able to disassociate himself from personal attacks." No matter how cruelly his foes savaged him, Lincoln repeatedly rose above the fray, using humor and warmth to disarm his enemies and refocus everyone on the agenda at hand.

Instances of his temper showing, Bray notes, were rare.

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Lincoln Lesson Two: Be firm, but play nice. Lincoln was no pushover. Despite his legendarily laconic style, Bray says Lincoln had a single-minded ability to steadily exert political pressure on others, inexorably pushing them toward the action he wanted, or rather he felt the nation needed. And yet, he did so in a way that left others feeling unthreatened. "He could talk without anger," Bray says. "He could talk without heat to his political opponents."

Lincoln Lesson Three: Take the long view. Lincoln clearly saw the future in a way that many of his contemporaries could not. He imagined not merely the end of slavery, but also the repercussions that would follow for freed African Americans, southern citizens, and northerners as well. He knew resolution might take many years, and yet he tried to point the politics of the day in the proper direction. "He believed firmly, I think, that if we put our heads to it and we put our wills to it, the American people could be that shining example of equality for the world," Bray says.

Bray is the first to say that there is so much more about Lincoln, noting the volumes of work about him.

At Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, workers constructed a 34-foot tall tower of books to represent all the titles published about Lincoln; more than 15,000 in all, according to their count.

It is unlikely that Obama has read them all and it is not known when or if he'll see the new Lincoln movie, but undoubtedly, Abe still has plenty of lessons for our times ... honestly.

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