“[She was] suspicious of overwrought sentiments or overblown claims,
content with common sense”.
– Barack Obama on Mrs. Madelyn Dunham,
the grandmother who raised him as her own.
With only thirteen days to go to the presidential election, Senator Barack Obama’s has departed the campaign trail to fly to his ailing grandmother ‘s bedside in Hawaii. This is unprecedented in modern times. And rather revealing of Obama’s priorities and how deeply he now needs his shrinking family. His father is gone, his mother is gone. His grandfather is gone. And now the woman who raised him may not live to see him inaugurated as president.
Journalists have been calling me at a pretty steady pace to ask for comparisons and I can only offer a pittance. I shared with a New York Times reporter the story of William Howard Taft. In 1907, while he was gearing up for his campaign the following year, his mother lay dying in Ohio. President Theodore Roosevelt, looking to give the likely GOP nominee a little help, tapped Taft for a good will trip around the world. Taft was ready to turn it down but his mother wrote, “Never before has a Taft neglected a public duty for a private need.”
He went on the trip, she died in his absence and he became president. Obama and his brilliant handlers could have easily arranged the same kind of note from the ailing grandmother. But they didn’t.
A more poignant comparison would be that of Abraham Lincoln. Obama is going to see the grandmother who raised him. Lincoln was going to see the stepmother who raised him. Obama is going before the election. Lincoln went right after. Obama is risking his abundant lead, tempting fate. Lincoln was giving up precious time which could have been used to organize his cabinet and new administration and maybe even avert a terrible war.
Obama is travelling to faraway Hawaii, many time zones and far from the Ohio River Valley where this election will be won. Lincoln was traveling to such a remote part of Illinois that even the trains couldn’t get there. It took a horse and buggy and then a donkey.
Lincoln wanted to touch his roots. To see the old woman who had taken him into her arms that day when his father finally returned from his exile. For six months, nine year old, Abe Lincoln and his sister had been abandoned to their fate, alone in the woods. It had been a terrifying time. The children had slept in corn husks, sharing a cabin with rats, walking a mile every morning through bear infested woods just to get their daily water.
And then his father, Thomas Lincoln, returned suddenly with a new wife and new children. Young Lincoln ignored the father who had abandoned him and ran to the strange woman and buried himself in her skirts. It was love at first sight. The stepmother, Sarah Lincoln, described him as “ filthy,” telling a Chicago reporter that it has taken her hours to scrub the dirt off of him. But she had loved him as her own and raised him and fought for his right to go to school and learn and had given him his first library of six books which he had practically memorized.
Years later, with his father dead, Abraham Lincoln was the new president elect. He let his wife go shopping in the city for inaugural finery while he made the arduous trek back into the woods of Illinois to find the old woman who had made him what he was.
During the visit, Sarah Lincoln clung to him, weeping, saying that she had had a dream and he was going to die in Washington, that she would never see him again. He told her to take consolation in her faith. He had come back to her, probably just to touch her hand and face and see someone who loved him for who he was as a person and not for what he would do or what he represented.
Senator Barack Obama, on the verge of something momentous in our history, is probably making his own journey for the same reasons. And it may be a good thing, that at this moment, he would lay aside his ambitions to visit this dying woman. One day she will be gone and there will be so many questions he will want to ask her but try as he will he probably cannot think of them now. He will likely just touch her hand and touch her face. The hand and face of someone who wiped his fevered brow and cleaned up his vomit and washed his dirty clothes and comforted him when he awakened in the night. Someone who truly loves him for who he is and not for what he represents or what he will do.
When we see Lincoln, we see the tall, forlorn man silhouetted in the White House window. But he only lived four years of his life in Washington. He lived fourteen years in a one room log cabin in Indiana. That is the person he likely saw in the mirror. And we will be reading and learning for years to come who Barack Obama sees, when he looks into the mirror.
A little more than four years after Lincoln’s visit to that remote Illinois cabin, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington, D. C. And a several days after the assassination, a messenger finally reached the cabin to bring Sarah Lincoln the sad tidings that the boy she had scrubbed clean that day long ago was now dead. Stoic and without comment, Sarah nodded to the messenger. She had seen it coming.