Obama Biographer Stands by Comparison of Newtown Speech to Gettysburg

US President Barack Obama speaks at a memorial service for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 16, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Obama will address the memorial for the twenty-six people, 20 of them children, who were killed when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary and began a shooting spree.
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama's speech last night in Newtown, Connecticut, was instantly praised as a classic, the kind of sweeping rhetorical accomplishment a nation in need of some comfort craved. New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, typically a level-headed observer of the Oval Office, called it possibly "the finest speech Obama has ever given," while Spike Lee hailed the remarks as "one of the greatest presidential speeches in the history of the U.S." Former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett wrote, "This is a rending, beautiful, tragic speech by President Obama and hopefully it's a turning point."

But none went so far as David Maraniss, author of this year's biography Barack Obama: The Story, who declared, "People will long remember what Barack Obama said in Newtown ... his Gettysburg address ... " And Maraniss meant it.

The sentiment was retweeted more than 500 times, but it was also met with skepticism: "Won't he have to follow words with actions before we can make that comparison?" one person asked. "Bold. Time will tell," said another. Asked this afternoon if he stood by the grand pronouncement with some distance in the light of day, Maraniss told Intelligencer, "Of course I stand by it!"

"It does not mean that Obama is Lincoln, nor that the Newtown address will become ingrained in American history in the way Gettysburg was," he cautioned, "but what it does mean is: He defined a grave moment with simple and powerful thoughts that worked on several levels at once, both particular and universal. He infused his speech with philosophical ideas rarely considered publicly by politicians, lending his words an unusual emotional and intellectual weight."

Whether or not it sparks the legislative change many are calling for, "It was by far the most memorable speech of his presidency," said Maraniss, who suggested that only Obama's speech on race as a presidential candidate could compare. "My hunch is that he will be remembered by it and by what follows."