SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - In its day, the Old State Capitol and its neighborhood were home base for little known prairie lawyer Abraham Lincoln, a spot where he honed his famed oratorical skills as an attorney and politician.
On Saturday, it will be the site of the expected presidential announcement of Sen. Barack Obama, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of his Illinois forebear nearly a century and a half after Lincoln’s longshot journey to the White House.
The venue is weighted with historical significance, the site of the “House Divided” speech in which Lincoln pronounced it impossible for freedom and slavery to co-exist in the Union. Obama, a Democrat, is widely seen as the most viable African-American contender ever to seek either major party’s nomination for president, a landmark in the evolution of racial politics that some see as a victory in itself.
“Tomorrow . . . in Springfield, Ill.,” Obama declared in a video released Friday on his campaign website, “we begin a great journey - a journey to take our country back and fundamentally change the nature of our politics.”
But while the backdrop is meant to suggest a sense of destiny, there is also a savvy political edge to it as well. As the freshman senator prepares to battle criticism of his limited national experience, he launches his bid with an implicit nod to the similarity of his own resume to that of the pre-presidential Lincoln’s - as a lawyer and a member of the state legislature.
And Springfield, in the heart of the Corn Belt, is miles away from the Chicago political backstage that delivered Obama to the spotlight in the first place. Unlike that urban setting, it evokes images of Lincoln’s rough-hewn prairie, of unglamorous work at the grassroots level.
“Lincoln came out of the wilderness, figuratively and politically, and to some degree the same can be said of Obama,” said Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian and former director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library here. “Somebody who looked at his resume in 1860 might well have questioned the experience he had, particularly given the perilous times that were ahead. But he had a genius for advocacy. He had a voice.”
There’s a certain risk in drawing parallels between oneself and great figures of history, even when doing so subtly. Invoking the memory of such a revered American ancestor sets the bar for success almost impossibly high, said Andy McKenna, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
“There’s a great danger in elevating yourself to such a significant historical comparison,” said McKenna. “To be an effective leader, you need humility. I don’t think you ever would have seen Abraham Lincoln compare himself to the great leaders who preceded him.”
And, to be sure, the times are so fundamentally different, and communications so transformed, that it is not really possible to burst onto the national consciousness as Lincoln did.
But one old friend and mentor of Obama says there’s no reason to gloss over the poignant moment.
“Seven score and seven years ago, this state gave the country a great president,” said Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, Obama’s fellow Chicago Democrat and for years the highest-ranking black state lawmaker. “I think that’s worth pointing out to everyone.”
Generations later, Springfield still proudly calls itself the “place that Lincoln loved.” The average resident has an above-average knowledge of Lincoln and Civil War history, if only that derived from childhood class trips to the Lincoln home, Lincoln tomb, Lincoln law offices or the reconstructed frontier village at nearby New Salem.
Those sites are carefully tended, and local and state leaders devote considerable resources to the cause of preserving the Lincoln story that began here in 1837.
When Lincoln was first elected to the state legislature, it met in downstate Vandalia, but Lincoln helped move the seat of state government to Springfield.
He studied law while he was here and was granted a license to practice, later setting up his offices in Springfield and riding the circuit to represent clients in courthouses around Illinois.
An early address to a local lyceum - a toastmasters’ club of its day - showed him to be a stiff and formal speaker, but practicing law and politics in Springfield honed his skills. Outside of Springfield, as he made initial forays into national politics, he was often derided as inarticulate.
Lincoln conducted research in the state library in what is now known as the Old State Capitol. He argued before the Illinois Supreme Court in that same building. His law offices were just steps away from the Statehouse.
“It was here that he was introduced to some of the brightest minds in the state,” said Tom Schwartz, the Illinois state historian. “He came to be known as a very promising and capable individual.”
To the extent that Obama hopes to evoke memories of Lincoln’s Springfield years, he likely isn’t thinking of the latter part of his legislative career when a spell of depression supposedly interfered with Lincoln’s work in the legislature.
But the enduring memory of Lincoln’s time in Springfield was of a gifted speaker and popular lawmaker elected to four terms.
During the first part of his eight years in the Illinois Senate, Obama labored in the Democratic minority, which gave him little opportunity to pass laws or have much influence in legislative action. But President Jones and his Democrats took over control in 2003, and Jones began to put Obama in charge of important committee work.
Ultimately, Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed scores of Obama’s bills into law, according to an analysis done by the Tribune in 2004.
Representing a heavily Democratic district on Chicago’s South Side, Obama proved to be one of the more liberal members of the Senate, fighting for gun control and death penalty reform. At one point, he proposed universal health care.
But he also earned a reputation for reaching out to Republicans and other opponents to win diverse support for his proposals.
Some of Obama’s colleagues said they are planning to attend one of his announcements over the weekend. His tour begins in Springfield on Saturday morning, winds through several cities in Iowa and then ends up in Chicago for a rally on Sunday.
In Springfield on Friday, hotels were filing up, restaurants were crowded and friends were planning pre-parties at local bars. Members of a group called “Draft Obama,” which began circulating an Internet petition months ago urging the senator to run for president, said they would hold a tailgate party at the Old State Capitol plaza starting early Saturday.
McKenna and a group of fellow Republicans were among those planning to travel to Springfield to offer their own perspective on the event.
“You have to ask if someone running for office is ready to make those tough decisions, to stand for something he knows is right even though it could diminish his popularity,” said McKenna. “That’s what makes a great leader.”