At the next big anniversary, the 75th in 1938, there were fewer veterans alive when Roosevelt spoke. Like Wilson, Roosevelt did not speak of race or the reasons for the war. Instead, speaking as war clouds gathered in Europe, he talked of peace and the importance of his own New Deal programs. Unveiling a new monument, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, FDR praised the "veterans of the blue and the gray" before him.
It was not until the 100th anniversary that a memorable and historic speech was given at Gettysburg. It was not, though, by the former president--Eisenhower--who spoke at the official ceremonies. And it was not by the current president--Kennedy--who made only an unannounced visit with no speech. Instead, it was by a future president--Vice President Johnson. Like Wilson before him, LBJ had turned down the invitation to speak at Gettysburg on Memorial Day 1963. His staff refused to send in his refusal, though, and continued to press him on the history he could make as the grandson of a confederate soldier. It was the right time, they told him, to use this speech to raise the banner of civil rights and provide an answer to Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
The result was one of Johnson's more important speeches, one that signaled the coming of civil rights legislation when Johnson would assume the presidency upon the assassination of Kennedy. "One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin," said Johnson. "The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him--we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil--when we reply to the Negro by asking, 'Patience'."
He added, "Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg 100 years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate. To ask for patience from the Negro is to ask him to give more of what he has already given enough." But while urging white America to understand black impatience, he urged blacks to understand the importance of acting within the law. He concluded, "The Negro says, 'Now.' Others say, 'Never.' The voice of responsible Americans--the voice of those who died here and the great man who spoke here--their voices say, 'Together.' There is no other way."
Even as accomplished an orator as Obama would have had a daunting challenge to follow the simple eloquence of Lincoln or the portentous oratory of Johnson. But he did not accept that challenge. The disappointment of some has been keen. The York Daily Record called his decision "unacceptable." The paper's editorial board wrote that the nation's first African-American president should be there on Tuesday. "President Obama could have used this occasion to offer words of healing and reconciliation--as his Illinois forefather once did." Conservative author Steven F. Hayward was more biting in an article in Forbes, contending that the president is showing "diffidence or disdain for American icons."
The White House is offering no explanation, though. Asked Monday about the president's absence, press secretary Jay Carney said simply, "I don't have any scheduling updates to provide to you." He added, "Obviously, that address and that moment in time is seminal in our history. I think that all Americans across the country will have the opportunity to think about those words and that address." But as to why the president is staying away? "I don't have anything more for you."