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Ken Burns Compares Obama to Lincoln

New Hampshire resident Ken Burns praises Obama.

By Alec MacGillis
CONCORD, N.H. -- If Barack Obama does win the Democratic presidential nomination, don't be surprised if there is a 10-part black-and-white documentary television series with a an alternately lugubrious and folksy soundtrack chronicling it all a few years from now. Filmmaker Ken Burns -- maker of the "Civil War," "Baseball" and other series -- today jumped into the fray to endorse Obama, hailing him for his "moral courage" and "unironic posture" and comparing him at one point to another Illinois politician Burns knows a bit about, Abraham Lincoln.

"While others find themselves mired in their past actions, he is presenting a vision for the future that is not only possible but essential to our survival as a nation," Burns said, in a conference call with reporters that took on a loftier tone than is typical of most endorsements. "We need someone who is authentic, someone who will inevitably make mistakes just like every president going back to George Washington, but someone who is themselves and authentic....Someone who is able to dream, someone who is able to suggest a future that isn't so completely tied to the past."

Burns, who lives in Walpole, N.H., and supported Al Gore and John Kerry in the past two New Hampshire primaries, said he was planning to remain officially neutral this time around but was "compelled" to come out for Obama after being upset by what he saw as the negative turn taken by the campaign of Hillary Clinton last week, when a Clinton adviser in New Hampshire raised questions about Obama's past drug use and Clinton noted in her favor that she would have "no surprises" as a Democratic nominee. "I'm really disappointed in the tone the campaign has taken on their part," said Burns, who noted that he has been friendly with the Clintons for several decades. "I'm sure she's getting some bad advice and will clean up her act."

A reporter asked Burns whether his praise for Obama's appealing to voters' "better angels" instead of their "baser" instincts was undermined by the Obama campaign's mailing of a flier in New Hampshire this week criticizing Clinton for her attacks on his health care plan. Burns said he was not aware of the flier, and Dayton Duncan, a New Hampshire author supporting Obama who was also on the call, said the flier was a legitimate rebuttal to an unfair attack.

To rebut concerns about Obama's lack of experience -- which were raised explicitly by Bill Clinton last week -- Burns noted that Lincoln had come into the White House with much less Washington experience than other leading politicians of the 1850s. With the country in such a perilous state at the time, he said, one might have thought it needed an "old pro" like William Seward, when in fact, Burns said, "what the country really needed was a wiry, relatively inexperienced" person, Abe Lincoln. In this regard, he argued, history may be repeating itself.

By Web Politics Editor  |  December 18, 2007; 3:41 PM ET
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Watched The War, a Burns production, and I was impressed with its' depth and breadth of the affects of WWII. Much more than I ever knew. Looking back it revealed the truth about some mysteries. It needed to be shown.

Ken Burns is entitled to endorse and vote for any candidate he believes is qualified. But does he have an ulterior motive such as a desire to make a movie about the first black man running for president? Does this story need to be made for future generations who query unsolved mysteries of cause. Maybe, but it would be a story worth seeing for my generation too. I would welcome understanding the why/cause/contributions to my own feelings.

Posted by: lindafranke1952 | December 20, 2007 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to Alec MacGillis. Anyone who uses the word "lugubrious" in a piece in the context of national political coverage otherwise dedicated to the "horse race" deserves credit for at least returning a bit of literacy to the contest.

Posted by: Martinedwinandersen | December 19, 2007 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Why does the post continue to let the Clinton's lies go unchallenged?

WaPo ate up the lie that Hillary is the "most experienced", and are now letting them get away with calling themselves the most electable when the general election polls show that is just not true?

Obama is more electable than Hillary.

Posted by: julieds | December 19, 2007 2:27 PM | Report abuse

It is very heartening to see someone with the deep historic knowledge and talent recognise Barack Obama for what he is. Ken Burns is a well a very studied , talented, transcriber if history. He backs his opinions up with evidence and leaves little to assumption.

Posted by: eSPO1 | December 19, 2007 1:05 PM | Report abuse

visonar7, you need glasses. Lincoln never owned slaves. His wife's Kentucky relatives (a slave state) did. Some of her relatives fought for the Confederacy, too, but that was not at all uncommon in a CIVIL WAR, where families and communities were split by competing loyalties.

Odd way to smear Obama by smearing Burns, though. Gave me a giggle at what the other candidates trot out as supporters.

Posted by: dwstanfield | December 19, 2007 9:18 AM | Report abuse

contrary to popular belief - Lincoln did not snort cocaine

still i prefer the snorter to the bizatch.

Posted by: nosubstituteforvictory | December 19, 2007 6:21 AM | Report abuse

Does Ken realize Abe Lincoln owned slaves....and had a huge tobacco plantation....he may have been born in that little log cabin...but he was just another rich slave owner to become president. He wanted to contain slavery in the south......Abe Lincoln was a bit mis-represented as honest up on historian Thomas Fleming books,

Posted by: visionar7 | December 19, 2007 3:48 AM | Report abuse

Does Ken realize Abe Lincoln owned slaves....and had a huge tobacco plantation....he may have been born in that little log cabin...but he was just another rich slave owner to become president. He wanted to contain slavery in the south......Abe Lincoln was a bit mis-represented as honest up on historian Thomas Fleming books,

Posted by: visionar7 | December 19, 2007 3:46 AM | Report abuse

Ken Burns is not a historian, he is a movie maker. Nevertheless, he has the right to endorse Obama or any other candidate. But he hurts his credibility when tries to make the case that Obama and Lincoln have similar levels of political experience.

Lincoln was more experienced than Burns gives him credit for. He had served in the House and had participated in the creation of the new Republican Party. he was also a advocate of abolition. His debates with Stephen Douglas made him a national figure so he is hardly this inexperienced outsider as Burns describes him.

Obama served in the Illinois state senate and in the U.S. Senate. He started running for president almost after he was elected and did not have the lengthy background in politics as Lincoln did.

This is not to say that just because Obama is inexperienced, he could not be a good president. But Burns is really stretching it when he compares him to Lincoln.

Posted by: danielhancock | December 19, 2007 1:35 AM | Report abuse

An interesting comparison. Obama shows courage supporting foreign policy objectives that don't mandate military action. By sponsoring the Global Poverty Act with Hagel and Cantwell, he is taking steps to support the UN Millennium Goals. According to the Borgen Project, only 19 billion dollars will end world hunger. For perspective, the US Military budget this year was 540 billion.

Posted by: clnygard | December 19, 2007 1:11 AM | Report abuse

First, Ken Burns is not a historian. His last documentary had many historical errors; it also was racist against Mexicans and Latinos. Indeed, Burns has a history of racism toward Latinos and then making flippant remarks about them. Second, the absurd nature of the presidential campaigns makes you think. Obama in accpeting this endorsement risks alienating many Latino voters who have not been too happy about his lack of courage in defense of the rights of undocumented immigrants. In pointing this out I am in no way endorsing any other candidate -- none of the major candidates has shown much courage when it come to this. But Ken Burns is the last straw. Burns is arrogant and does not do his homework.

Posted by: racuna | December 18, 2007 11:23 PM | Report abuse

To revise my 7:09 comment, I offer Michael Steele as a substitute on my Paul ticket in place of J.C. Watts.

Michael Steele, the former Republican Lt. Gov. of Maryland, lost the 2006 US Senate election to Benjamin Cardin. This precisely imitates Lincoln's loss of Senate Election to Douglas two years before ascending to the national ticket in 1860.

Steele reflects in reverse Lincoln's youth. Lincoln was born and raised in the frontier far from the capital city. Steele was born, raised, and educated in Washington, D.C.(I am coincidentally also an alumnus of his high school alma mater, so there is some school pride flowing here).

Steele mimics Lincoln in that he became a lawyer after foregoing his first choice of vocation.

Steele is the antipole again to Lincoln who was primarily self-educated. He is a graduate of two fine universities, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown.

Steele would ascend to the national ticket with no elected service in Washington. This is less than Lincoln's single two year term in Congress.

Lincoln is famous for his metaphorical "House Divided" theme of his election debates. Steele, again, in reverse significance, has a metaphorical "oreo cookie" incident in the history of his election debates.

Adding Steele to the Paul ticket, puts two individuals on the Republican ticket who both have uncanny parallels to Lincoln's example.

The strongest parallel is that they are both Republicans as was Lincoln.

It has been 145 years since Lincoln's emancipation of African Americans. It is about time for both parties to nominate articulate African American leaders to their national tickets. However, I think Lincoln's ghost will be rooting for his old party.

Posted by: Scrooge | December 18, 2007 11:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure only a tiny fraction of the PBS market cares what Ken Burns thinks.

And, I'll bet if Obama was actually asked questions by someone who knows what they're talking about every one of those people would know never to trust Ken Burns' judgment again:

(Note, of course, that similar comments apply to Hillary and the other Dems.)

Posted by: LonewackoDotCom | December 18, 2007 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Ken Burns is a historian. He sees clearly through this thinly veiled ugliness that's permeating this campaign.

If this same kind of campaign was being waged by the Republicans, the so-called holier than thou Democrats would be screaming bloody murder. You'd have a difficult time withstanding the outcry.

Case in point, when the Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon Jr. wrote an article recently about Obama, he got an earful, rightly so.

Today, the silence is deafening.

I remember when some of this same stuff was being discussed in some right wing blogs, etc., CNN went out and debunked it. You heard from the Democrats, from lots of corners calling the right media out for their distortions.

Oh, friends, where are ye now? The hypocrisy stinks to the high heaven.

Ken Burns knows ugliness when he sees it. He's didn't spend all his energy researching history for naught.

Posted by: askpeabody | December 18, 2007 10:33 PM | Report abuse

phutton, cesley, I read your posts with interest. It amazes me that republicans can see what the people in Obama's own party simply don't.
Falling for the spin and not researching, many democrats romanticize the 90s as something that simply never was.
They don't see that Obama is already uniting democrats, independents and republicans in this primary. That his message is something many people of all parties long for and know he is not just talking but, is a man who has done this all his life.
The republicans who are listening to Obama know we need to be united to address the problems facing us and that we need a complete break with the legacy of the past 20 years for this to happen.
I see some democrats finally wake up to reality and that someone who inspires such intense dislike cannot possibly govern.
It takes someone who inspires and galvanize people to be better.

Posted by: vwcat | December 18, 2007 9:44 PM | Report abuse

RyanAi's suggestion that negative reports should be equally divided among all candidates is absurd, but not unlike what happens. It is customary for the media to present two ideas as equally valid even if one is well reasoned and the other ludicrous. Or two events as equally noteworthy, even if one was attended by thousands and the other by five or six. Take, for example, Obama's events with Oprah. The press presented Hillary's appearances with the silent Chelsea as though they were somehow competing with Obama's events, with little mention that Obama was drawing 200 times as many people. You'd think that would be noteworthy.

I'm weary of the Clintons. I was always a supporter and fan of Bill; but the idea that I would support his wife for POTUS because I voted for him is just preposterous. Bill's devotion to his wife would have been more appropriately displayed by keeping his trousers zipped, than in now lobbying for her. One gets the feeling the latter is a consequence of his having failed at the former. Whatever the case, I have never liked less to listen to him.

Michelle Obama for first lady!
John Edwards for Attorney General.

Posted by: AgathaX | December 18, 2007 9:29 PM | Report abuse

I disagree respectfully with Mr. Burns.

I see a more direct parallel between Lincoln and Paul.

Lincoln arose from what was then the wilderness fringe of the nation at his birth.

Paul arises from the wilderness fringe of the political landscape.

Lincoln served one term in congress, and confronted one major issue. Paul has served ten terms in congress and has at least 10 major national issues to quell.

Lincoln and Paul have both spent significant time at Gettysburg. Lincoln for a few brief minutes, and Paul for four years at Gettysburg College.

Burns is a great describer of the American Past. I counter with a great forecast of the American future. No brag, just fact.

Judge the following for yourself.

My fantasy election is Ron Paul vs. Barack Obama. To complete my fantasy draft selection for my opposing teams I choose my VP candidates.

Paul's VP should be J.C. Watts of Oklahoma. If a Texas Longhorn congressman can team up with an Oklahoma Sooner congressman, the lions will soon be laying down with lambs! World peace can't be far off.

Obama's VP should be Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. An Illinois Illini senator paired with an Ohio Buckeye congressman is like a friendship between cats and dogs! This further bodes well for world peace.

It is the Big 12 Conference versus the Big 10 Conference in the Presidential Championship Series (PCS).

Both teams are comprised of an articulate African American and a champion of the Constitution. Talent wise the teams are very evenly matched.

The Big 12 pair has the best quarterback, but the Big 10 have prettier cheerleaders.

Support for Big 12 pair comes from seven states. Support for the Big 10 tandem tallies eight states.

I give the edge to the team with the better quarterback, Paul and Watts.

Better get your ballots now. This is one election that is going to be SOLD OUT!

The polls will have to be open from 12 AM to 12 PM on election day, just like they had to open the infield at Pimlico for the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral to accomodate the record crowd.

Newsrooms will have to bring in cots and throat therapists to rest and recuperate the talking heads until the final returns are in and the election is decided. The MSM will continue post election analysis for months afterwards, even past the Inauguration.

Schools and workplaces will be empty as the citizens anxiously await the official results to be posted on the internet at the Drudge Report.

This scenario combines two feature's of America's competitive culture, football and horseracing. And contrast's an historian's viewpoint with a dreamer's viewpoint.

Alexis de Tocqueville would bet the dreamer is right. "In times when the passions are beginning to take charge of the conduct of human affairs, one should pay less attention to what men of experience and common sense are thinking than to what is preoccupying the imagination of dreamers," he wrote.

Posted by: Scrooge | December 18, 2007 7:09 PM | Report abuse

No RyanAi, what are seen as smears are kindergate, the distortion of Obama's "present" votes, Clinton's whispering campaign that reached Novak, the campaign dicussing the internal muslim memo, Kerrey repeating the various muslim smears, and Shaheen's drug smear on the same day Clinton tried to play up her "no surprises" line.

That's the worst gutter politics I've ever seen compressed into a 2 week span, and I defy you to defend it.

Posted by: Nissl | December 18, 2007 6:59 PM | Report abuse

Once again another abominable piece of journalistic garbage by the biased media. There's an incredible dearth of articles criticizing Obama, while there's no end to the number of articles criticizing Clinton. While Clinton by no means is a saint, it is a bit unfair to frame articles for Obama postiviely and ones for Clinton negatively. Take for instance the article in the Post about Obama being the sole candidate not putting his hand over his heart during the national anthem, this was reported as "the Patriot Police" nab Obama. Imagine if Clinton was the only candidate not to place her hand over her heart, do you think the media would've framed the information in a similar fashion? Also, look at Obama's naive remarks regarding his years spent in Indonesia as child suggesting that such an experience somehow makes him better qualified to conduct foreign policy. Clinton rightfully attacked this remark. Under this logic, the best policymakers would come from other countries so we should elect more foreign-born individuals to office. And again, the media potrayed this as a cheap shot by the Clinton campaign.
It is unfair. Obama can freely attack Clinton and say that he is justly asserting a point. While any response on Clinton's part is seen as mudslinging. It should be the response of the people to learn the true facts and not be blinded by a biased media. Also, the major media outlets really should practice objective reporting. In regards to the upcoming election, the media's responsibility is to report the news, not attempt to dictate the outcome of the election.


On a more serious note, vote for the candidate that you really believe is better for America, and not because of some skewed reporting by unprofessional, unethical journalists.

Posted by: RyanAi | December 18, 2007 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Over coffee today with some died in the wool republican friends, they, like you, phutton 11 are beginning to rethink their long held believe that a Republican makes the best President at least for this election.

And that rethinking resulted in much the same outcome ~ Obama looking better and better as it becomes clearer the Republican party is not offering much hope for something new during these desperate times. As the only Democrat, I just let the conversation take it natural course ~ there wasn't anything I could add that would be more helpful to Obama than what was being said by these women as they questioned out loud what they would do come the election.

Thank you Ken Burns for coming out with the right message as to why we need Obama on the Democratic ticket and in the White House. We need more of your kind of reasoned voices to counteract the Clinton machine style rhetoric ~ it really gets old fast.


Posted by: cesley | December 18, 2007 6:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm a life long Republican, who isn't very enchanted with my selections this year. When I look at Mrs. Clinton I see a false pretender to the throne - her only real experience has been living with a past president. While Obama at least won his election to Congress fairly and on his own merits, I've been concerned about his lack of worldly experience. After reading Ken Burns comments, I'm starting to rethink about what we really need and Obama is starting to look a lot better. Maybe I can get past the fact that he's a democrat and actually vote for him. We desperately need someone and something new.

Posted by: phutton11 | December 18, 2007 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Burns has sound judgment.

Go, Obama, Go !

Posted by: vbalfour | December 18, 2007 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Ken knows dog whistle racism and political history better than most. Thank you Ken for your words and your courage. The politics and the debate need to be elevated in the US. The Bush / Clinton dynasty may finally be on its last legs.

Posted by: mgranius | December 18, 2007 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Milbank, 12/14 in this paper:
"The 46-year-old freshman senator from Illinois, trying to topple the 60-year-old front-runner, never once utters the words "Hillary" or "Clinton." But the target of his stump speech is unmistakable -- and his derision is brutal."

"(Ken Burns) was planning to remain officially neutral this time around but was "compelled" to come out for Obama after being upset by what he saw as the negative turn taken by the campaign of Hillary Clinton last week"

Perhaps, Mr Burns is not the astute observer of politics he believes himself to be.

Interesting Mr Milbank is the only WaPo reporter to mention this. I wonder if Mr MacGillis agrees and, if so, why he never mentions it in his coverage. People might get the wrong impression.

Posted by: zukermand | December 18, 2007 3:59 PM | Report abuse

"A reporter asked Burns whether his praise for Obama's appealing to voters' "better angels" instead of their "baser" instincts was undermined by the Obama campaign's mailing of a flier in New Hampshire this week criticizing Clinton for her attacks on his health care plan. Burns said he was not aware of the flier, and Dayton Duncan,"

I'm sure not. Neither was I. Curious, I wonder if Mr MacGillis would be kind enough to post a link to the Post's coverage of this Obama campaign mailing.

Posted by: zukermand | December 18, 2007 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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