History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Mark Twain’s mordant epigram seems to ring truer than ever in these trying times, and not just because the gory meltdown on Wall Street has gotten everyone talking as if the Great Depression might turn out to be déjà vu all over again. Consider the more uplifting phenomenon of our preternaturally unflappable president-elect appealing to the better angels of our natures by invoking the aura of Abraham Lincoln early and often. Asked in his first post-election press conference whom he’s been reading to prepare to take office, Obama replied, without skipping a beat: Lincoln. Prodded in subsequent sit-down interviews about which of his predecessors were most on his mind, Obama has responded on cue: Lincoln. And even if he were inclined to play down his Lincoln fixation, the Beltway punditocracy wouldn’t hear of it: the harmonic convergences between a pair of lanky lawyers from Illinois renowned for unmatched eloquence on the stump are not to be denied, and you’d have to be completely tone-deaf to what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” to be unmoved by the poetic justice of country’s first African-American president channeling the spirit of the iconic chief executive who signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation.
Let it also be noted that in this case poetic justice isn’t just a shopworn trope. Both Lincoln and Obama actually dabbled in poetry back when they were, to borrow one of Obama’s rare mixed metaphors, still “green behind the ears.” This is perhaps a more revealing character trait in a postmodern solon than it was for a public servant in a day and age when Longfellow’s epic poems were runaway bestsellers. Now, in the heyday of the 24/7 news cycle, it’s no surprise that a biographical nugget like this about Obama has come to light. Early in the Democratic primary campaign, two poems Obama published in Occidental College’s undergraduate literary journal were duly unearthed and bruited about by the press. Someone even had the bright idea of asking Yale literary potentate Harold Bloom to weigh in on their merits. Bloom pronounced them not half-bad, opining that as a college student, Obama’s poetry already showed far more promise than the bardic effusions of politicos like former Defense Secretary William Cohen (“who keep publishing terrible poetry”) and former President Jimmy Carter (“in my judgment literally the worst poet in the United States”).