Barack Obama’s calls for Unity and Hope echo great speakers of the past: Lincoln, Kennedy and Walt Whitman

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I Sing the Candidate Electric

By Michael Robertson

Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples

By now, the comparisons of Barack Obama to John F. Kennedy have become routine: the youth, the charisma, the idealism, the eloquence. But there is another great American small-d democrat with whom Obama shares even more resemblances: Walt Whitman.

The Walt Whitman most Americans are familiar with may not seem to have much in common with a youthful African-American politician. In the popular imagination Whitman is the Good Gray Poet, a benign figure with one of those big only-in-the-19th-century beards, author of the tamely patriotic verses “I Hear America Singing” and “O Captain! My Captain!”

But the real Walt Whitman was a deeply political poet with a radical agenda: to unite all Americans in loving comradeship, regardless of wealth or gender or race or sexuality. When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, the United States was on the verge of fracturing apart. In his poetic masterpiece “Song of Myself,” Whitman cast himself as a larger-than-life Great Unifier with the power to reconcile opposites. “I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, / Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,” he wrote. At a time when the states were bitterly divided, he boasted that he was “one of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same, / A Southerner soon as a Northerner.”

Whitman had unlimited faith in the poet’s role in a democracy, believing that great poems could serve to bind the American nation. At the same time, he recognized the power of oratory. “O the orator’s joys!” he wrote in one poem:

To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice out from the ribs and throat,

To make people rage, weep, hate, desire, with yourself,

To lead America—to quell America with a great tongue.

Whitman himself had a weak, high-pitched voice, but he admired the great orators of his era—none more than Abraham Lincoln. He thrilled to Lincoln’s closing words in the First Inaugural Address, when the new President, as if echoing the poet, placed loving comradeship at the heart of American democracy. “We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln stressed to the Southerners in his audience. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Whitman was inspired by the President’s belief, so close to his own, that the American people had within them untapped potential for forgiveness and transformation, that in a moment of crisis they could summon what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Were he alive now, Whitman would be equally inspired by Barack Obama’s calls for unity and hope. After eight years of the politics of fear, of preemptive war and of a shallow conservatism based on aversion to change, Obama has dared to appeal to the better angels of our nature. In the same way that Whitman regarded every reader as a “camerado” who could travel with him the open road to a better future, that Lincoln believed the country could transcend divisions of North and South, and that Kennedy appealed to our desire for selfless service, Obama believes that Americans have the capacity to unite and change. He trusts that we can work together to overcome our differences and address our most urgent challenges: the United States’ dismal reputation abroad, which contributes to the spread of terrorism; environmental degradation that will require all of us to make radical changes in our everyday lives; economic injustices and racial divisions that undermine democracy.

It was only after his death that Lincoln was widely acknowledged as our greatest President, and it took decades for Whitman’s poetic pre-eminence to be established. But Barack Obama is already widely regarded as the most exciting presidential candidate since 1960. Come November, he may have the chance to carry on the legacy of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, to implement their common belief that the American people have within them a noble idealism and immense possibilities for transformative change.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples.