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TIME Magazine - What I See in Lincoln's Eyes

Op-Ed

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Location: Washington, DC

By Barack Obama

He never won Illinois' Senate seat. But in many ways, he paved the way for me.

My favorite portrait of Lincoln comes from the end of his life. In it, Lincoln's face is as finely lined as a pressed flower. He appears frail, almost broken; his eyes, averted from the camera's lens, seem to contain a heartbreaking melancholy, as if he sees before him what the nation had so recently endured.

It would be a sorrowful picture except for the fact that Lincoln's mouth is turned ever so slightly into a smile. The smile doesn't negate the sorrow. But it alters tragedy into grace. It's as if this rough-faced, aging man has cast his gaze toward eternity and yet still cherishes his memories--of an imperfect world and its fleeting, sometimes terrible beauty. On trying days, the portrait, a reproduction of which hangs in my office, soothes me; it always asks me questions.

What is it about this man that can move us so profoundly? Some of it has to do with Lincoln's humble beginnings, which often speak to our own. When I moved to Illinois 20 years ago to work as a community organizer, I had no money in my pockets and didn't know a single soul. During my first six years in the state legislature, Democrats were in the minority, and I couldn't get a bill heard, much less passed. In my first race for Congress, I had my head handed to me. So when I, a black man with a funny name, born in Hawaii of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, announced my candidacy for the U.S. Senate, it was hard to imagine a less likely scenario than that I would win--except, perhaps, for the one that allowed a child born in the backwoods of Kentucky with less than a year of formal education to end up as Illinois' greatest citizen and our nation's greatest President.

In Lincoln's rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat--in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles. He also reminded me of a larger, fundamental element of American life--the enduring belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams.

A connected idea attracts us to Lincoln: as we remake ourselves, we remake our surroundings. He didn't just talk or write or theorize. He split rail, fired rifles, tried cases and pushed for new bridges and roads and waterways. In his sheer energy, Lincoln captures a hunger in us to build and to innovate. It's a quality that can get us in trouble; we may be blind at times to the costs of progress. And yet, when I travel to other parts of the world, I remember that it is precisely such energy that sets us apart, a sense that there are no limits to the heights our nation might reach.

Still, as I look at his picture, it is the man and not the icon that speaks to me. I cannot swallow whole the view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. As a law professor and civil rights lawyer and as an African American, I am fully aware of his limited views on race. Anyone who actually reads the Emancipation Proclamation knows it was more a military document than a clarion call for justice. Scholars tell us too that Lincoln wasn't immune from political considerations and that his temperament could be indecisive and morose.

But it is precisely those imperfections--and the painful self-awareness of those failings etched in every crease of his face and reflected in those haunted eyes--that make him so compelling. For when the time came to confront the greatest moral challenge this nation has ever faced, this all too human man did not pass the challenge on to future generations. He neither demonized the fathers and sons who did battle on the other side nor sought to diminish the terrible costs of his war. In the midst of slavery's dark storm and the complexities of governing a house divided, he somehow kept his moral compass pointed firm and true.

What I marvel at, what gives me such hope, is that this man could overcome depression, self-doubt and the constraints of biography and not only act decisively but retain his humanity. Like a figure from the Old Testament, he wandered the earth, making mistakes, loving his family but causing them pain, despairing over the course of events, trying to divine God's will. He did not know how things would turn out, but he did his best.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at the commencement at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. I stood in view of the spot where Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held one of their famous debates during their race for the U.S. Senate. The only way for Lincoln to get onto the podium was to squeeze his lanky frame through a window, whereupon he reportedly remarked, "At last I have finally gone through college." Waiting for the soon-to-be graduates to assemble, I thought that even as Lincoln lost that Senate race, his arguments that day would result, centuries later, in my occupying the same seat that he coveted. He may not have dreamed of that exact outcome. But I like to believe he would have appreciated the irony. Humor, ambiguity, complexity, compassion--all were part of his character. And as Lincoln called once upon the better angels of our nature, I believe that he is calling still, across the ages, to summon some measure of that character, the American character, in each of us today.


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