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Good morning, it’s Monday, November 19, 2018. On this date 155 years ago, Abraham Lincoln took to the speakers’ platform in Gettysburg. He was there, months after the most decisive battle of the Civil War, to pay homage to the “brave men, living and dead,” who consecrated that battlefield. They had done so by fighting for the “unfinished work” of the American experiment.

In exalting their sacrifice -- the commander-in-chief said they were fighting for “a new birth of freedom” -- Lincoln was extolling only Union troops, not the Southern rebels who’d marched north into those Pennsylvania fields.

Subsequent presidents who made the pilgrimage to Gettysburg would strike a more inclusive tone. But they, too, were rallying their countrymen in the cause of freedom, as we’ll explore in a moment.

First, I’d direct you to our front page, which aggregates an array of columns and stories spanning the political spectrum. We also offer an array original material from our own reporters and contributors this morning, including the following:

* * *

Jim Acosta and the Hubris of Celebrity Journalism. Frank Miele offers his take on the latest dust-up between the CNN reporter and the White House.

Trump and Race: Suspicious Minds. In a column, I consider the blame the president has received for taking actions his critics previously demanded from him -- or wanted his predecessors to take.

Bloomberg Eyes 2020, But Would Dems Warm to Him? Adele Malpass explores the former New York mayor’s interest in a presidential bid, and whether his new party affiliation would fly with primary voters.

So, Was It A Wave? Sean Trende assesses the Democrats’ midterm victories.

Palm Beach Went for Coloring Books Over Voting Machine Upgrades. In RealClearInvestigations, Steve Miller reports on how the Florida county spent election-integrity funds.

Army Innovation in a World of Change. In RealClearDefense, Clarence J. Henderson highlights leadership’s engagement with entrepreneurs to maintain the military's technological edge.

Video-Gaming’s Unregulated Billion-Dollar Bonanza. In RealClearMarkets, Yates Wilburn argues that the industry is proof that when government stays out of the way, free markets enable the best and brightest among us to thrive and innovate.

Why a Super-Bacterium Doesn’t Take Over the Oceans. Ross Pomeroy explains in RealClearScience.

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Five years ago, on the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Associated Press writer Hillel Italie described Lincoln’s famous  speech as “a sacred American text” so ingrained in the fabric of our culture that the phrases “four score and seven years ago” and “of the people, by the people, for the people” are as familiar as any song lyric or poetic verse.

It’s also an elusive text, Italie added. Although memorized by millions of American schoolchildren through the ages, no definitive text of it exists, and it was widely misquoted by newspapers at the time. (Please don’t mention that to President Trump; it will only encourage him.) Moreover, Lincoln’s brief speech has proved a hard act to follow. Being compared to Lincoln is something few of his successors even risked: Barack Obama didn’t attend the moving 150th anniversary ceremony and Donald Trump didn’t go to Gettysburg for this weekend’s ceremonies for the 155th observation.

Asked about this reluctance, Lincoln historian Harold Holzer told Italie that he guessed the rhetorical bar seems too high, even for presidents such as Obama and Bill Clinton, who prided themselves on their oratorical skills. I was struck by this observation, and remember it five years later, because early in Clinton’s presidency another acclaimed American scholar used the same metaphor with me, as I’ll explain momentarily. First, I’d note that some presidents did make the pilgrimage to Gettysburg.

Woodrow Wilson went there for the 50th anniversary of the famous battle, but reluctantly, and only after it was pointed out to him that failing to show up at an event perceived as a healing milestone between the Union and the Old Confederacy would trigger inferences that Wilson, a Southerner, didn’t want to convey.

Congress had appropriated $2 million (real money back then) to pay the freight of all the Civil War veterans who trekked to Gettysburg for the occasion. Some 50,000 made the journey, the highlight of the commemoration coming when the living remnants of Pickett’s Charge -- grizzled Virginians in their 70s -- reached across a stone wall to shake the hands of the aged Union defenders.

Wilson’s notably ineloquent speech was not a highlight. (“Who stands ready to act again and always in the spirit of this day of reunion and hope and patriotic fervor?” he asked the puzzled veterans.)

Twenty-five years later, at the 75th reunion, Franklin Roosevelt dedicated a new memorial at the site. As war clouds gathered in Europe, FDR had reasons of his own to emphasize the unity theme preferred by the organizers as he lauded the fallen dead. “All of them we honor,” FDR said in 1938, “not asking under which flag they fought then [and] thankful that they stand together under one flag now.”

By the time of the centennial observations in 1963, just paying homage to the bravery on both sides was no longer enough. Approaching the 100th anniversary of the battle, a future U.S. president would go even further and mention the Americans not even present at the battle, but for whom the war was being waged. On Memorial Day, John F. Kennedy (who had toured the battlefield in March) dispatched his vice president to speak there. Lyndon Johnson’s remarks were pointedly different in tone than Wilson's or Roosevelt’s had been.

 “One hundred years ago, the slave was freed,” Johnson said. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”

It was during the presidency of a subsequent Southern Democrat that I queried William Lee Miller, the brilliant and now deceased University of Virginia scholar, about presidential eloquence. We were discussing Bill Clinton when Professor Miller said that as far as he was concerned, to be considered truly eloquent a president had to do one of two things: say something no one has said before, or state something in such a stirring fashion that it gets Americans to look at an old problem in a new way. Few presidents even attempt it.

“It’s a high bar,” Bill told me. “It was put there by Lincoln.” 

Carl M. Cannon 
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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