The Great Inspirer

At midnight a few days after his nomination for president in 1952, Adlai Stevenson sneaked out of the Illinois governor's mansion in Springfield and walked the few blocks to Abraham Lincoln's home. After ascertaining that no one had seen him, he was let in by the caretaker and sat down for an hour in Lincoln's rocking chair. Afterward, while walking home, he later told a friend, he felt a "deep calm" as he faced the prospect of serving as president of the United States.

It is no surprise that President-elect Barack Obama says he has been rereading the words of Lincoln; the 16th president has been a source of solace—and guidance—for American leaders for well more than a century. Like Stevenson, whose ancestor had been a Lincoln campaign manager, Theodore Roosevelt had listened to tales of his family ties to the great man since he was a child: his father had worked in Lincoln's government and escorted the president and Mary to church.

Roosevelt hung a Lincoln portrait above the fireplace of his White House office, intoning that he aspired—"so far as one who is not a great man can model himself upon one who was"—to do "what Lincoln would have done." Eager to expand his own authority, he pointed to Lincoln's seizure of unprecedented power during the Civil War, insisting that he belonged to the "Lincoln-Jackson school" of presidential might.

However, Roosevelt sometimes privately derided the faith in the people's wisdom that was such a hallmark of Lincoln. Fearing "the tyranny of the mob," TR felt that Americans were best ruled by well-born, elegantly schooled presidents like himself. He told his sister that 51 percent of the time, the people's voice may be the "voice of God," but the rest of the time it was "the voice of the devil … or a fool."

Much of Franklin Roosevelt's interest in Lincoln focused on how he could steal the first Republican president from the pantheon of Republican icons for political exploitation by Democrats. He said the Republicans had broken their ties to Lincoln by becoming the party of big business. He did not explain how the racism of Southern Democratic senators or his opposition to an anti-lynching bill equipped his own party to claim the Great Emancipator.

As a Missouri Democrat with Confederate forebears, Harry Truman grew up in a household where Lincoln was poison. His mother remembered how Union soldiers had burned the family barn, taking "everything loose that they could carry." When she came to visit her son as president, she told a relative, "You tell Harry if he tries to put me in Lincoln's bed, I'll sleep on the floor!"

But Truman saw in Lincoln what he wanted to see. For him, Lincoln had the "guts" to do "the right thing" against "a great big opposition." He noted that had Lincoln been more timid, "we would have been divided into half a dozen countries."

For other presidents, Lincoln has been an inexhaustible quote machine. In an Oval Office speech in April 1974, Richard Nixon reminded the nation that his first Republican predecessor had said, "If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything." This was to justify his conduct in the Watergate scandal.

In 1992 Ronald Reagan told the Republican convention, "You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich." Reagan could not know that his speechwriters had unwittingly saddled him with a well-circulated counterfeit Lincoln quotation. (The words were actually written by a conservative preacher decades after Lincoln's death.)

During his struggles for civil and voting rights, Lyndon Johnson might have been expected to seek inspiration from the Great Emancipator—but, alas, history was not LBJ's forte. Amazingly enough, during one of his famous tape-recorded telephone calls in 1964, Johnson told a friend: "Remember this—Lincoln went back to Springfield, Mo., after he was president … He said there wasn't one person in it that would speak to him."

Too few presidents have steeped themselves not just in Lincoln's words, but his deeds, which is why Obama's acquaintance with the great man is so compelling—especially since, like President-elect Lincoln, Obama will take office at a perilous time. Obama knows that he will have to make excruciating choices and, just like Franklin Roosevelt, for this he can find succor in Lincoln. In the summer of 1940, as Hitler marched through Europe, FDR was poring through Carl Sandburg's newly published history of Lincoln as war leader.

During an off-the-record White House meeting, a young man upbraided Roosevelt for ditching New Deal reforms to prepare Americans for war. Roosevelt said: "Young man, I think you are very sincere. Have you read Carl Sandburg's 'Lincoln'? … Lincoln was one of the unfortunate people called a 'politician' … He was sad because he couldn't get it all at once. And nobody can!"