Monday, February 20, 2006

Of, By and For

Presidents' Day. I remember when we had two school days off as a kid -- one for Washington and one for Lincoln. Now someone got efficient and combined them.

About eight months ago I was in South Dakota, cruising through The Badlands. It is the place that the rocky and mountainous part of the West begins to taper off and begins, slowly, its transformative and inevitable crawl into lowlands, across farmlands and plains to the East. At various points on that journey I had bemoaned the disappearance of so many Mom and Pop motels, and so many "Roadside Attractions". Where had they all gone, the Lazy J Motels, The Dew Drop Inns, The Shady Rests? They had become historical artifacts like the Famous Three-Headed-Snake which one could see for a mere 25 cents, the petting zoos attached to gas stations, the large painted concrete statues of cowboys and dinosaurs and blue oxen standing at the roadside as lures to gas stations of restaurants.

But I digress.

Back to the Badlands of South Dakota, where I was driving. There it was, appearing in the mist -- a 25 foot high white bust of Abraham Lincoln, at the entryway to something called "President's Park", a park in which there is a 25 foot high bust for every US President. Now there is a place to celebrate Presidents' Day, that amalgamated efficiency that takes all the distinctness away from Washington and Lincoln.

I never had much of a sense of George Washington, but I like Lincoln - that sad-eyed champion of freedom. I don't want to celebrate his day cheaply or as part of something else. I want this day to matter, to instruct us, to build upon what is fine and good in America. So today I turn away from the hype and the roadside attractions, and plunge my heart into the words of Abraham Lincoln - spoken in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863. Please, I askyou to read them aloud softly to yourself as you follow along:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


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