In a call for unity in the face of national grief, Hillary Clinton said Wednesday the country must heal after the killing of five Dallas police officers and two recent police shootings of black men, delivering remarks in the same chamber in Springfield Illinois where Abraham Lincoln famously declared that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Clinton’s remarks were a labored attempt to address deep racial divisions facing the country. In the last week, police were filmed killing two black men, one in Louisiana and a second in Minnesota, and five police officers died in a mass shooting in Dallas.
“Despite our best efforts and highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished,” Clinton told her audience. “I believe that our future peace and prosperity depends on whether we meet this moment with honesty and courage.”
Standing in the Springfield, Illinois Old State Capitol Building where Abraham Lincoln stood on June 16, 1858, her speech was rich with carefully planned historical parallels. She spoke at an elaborate wood podium in the Capitol rotunda, encircled by Corinthian Greek columns and in front of a portrait of George Washington.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free,” Lincoln said nearly 160 years ago. “It will become all one thing or all the other.”
Clinton’s speech harkened directly back to Lincoln’s speech nearly 160 years ago, when he stood in near the same spot and denounced slavery in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Senator Stephen Douglas.
“The challenges we face today do not approach those of Lincoln’s day. Not even close. We should be very clear about that,” Clinton said. “In times like these, we need a President who can help pull us together, not split us apart.”
Clinton’s remarks on Tuesday were another chance for her to try and show she can repair feelings of discord and confusion, filling a key role as the country’s president. But it was also a speech driven by a pressing general election need to target Donald Trump, which was at the center of much of of the speech.
“This man is the nominee of the Party of Lincoln. We’re watching it become the Party of Trump,” Clinton said. “Donald Trump’s campaign adds up to an ugly, dangerous message to America.”
Then-Sen. Obama also symbolically launched his campaign in Springfield in front of the Old State Capitol, and he, too, referenced Lincoln, calling on his listeners in February 2007 to build a “more perfect union.” For Clinton, the speech was a careful assembling of historical heroes.
The former Secretary of State is not known as an orator, like President Obama. She spent much of her campaigns in both 2008 and this year against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rejecting the notion that a great speech makes a great president. “Now, I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified,'” Clinton said in 2008 in a jab at Obama. “The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”
But as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton has been forced repeatedly to grapple with tragedy and address it on the campaign trail. After the shooting in an Orlando gay night club, Clinton called on Americans to “stand together” in the face of violence, and after the killing of nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, Clinton said that America was still struggling to address race.
With the country wracked by repeated spasms of violence, Clinton’s role has often been to play uniter and sympathizer. On Tuesday, she said that Americans can both call for police reform and respect the police, and that mourners can remember Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, as well as the slain cops in Dallas.
The day after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton, the former of secretary of state also pointed to economic turmoil and unease. Drug abuse in America, Clinton said, “is about something deeper: a sense of dislocation, a pessimism about whether America still holds anything for them or cares about them at all.”
For those watching Clinton in the audience, however, the prospects of uniting the country after so many spasms of violence seemed distant.
John Allen, a retired Springfield resident and Clinton supporter, pointed at her slogan plastered on the podium. “‘Stronger Together,'” he read. “Man, that kind of rings hollow.”
“There must be a catchier slogan,” Allen said. “I think people think that yeah, we would be stronger together. But we’re so far apart that just to have a slogan—there’s an awful lot of work that’s going to have to be had to build that.”
In one of the more surprising moments of her speech, Clinton said that she, too, was sometimes responsible for divisions in a “hotly fought political campaign.”
“I cannot claim that my words and actions haven’t sometimes fueled the partisanship that often stands in the way of our progress,” Clinton said. “I’ve got to do better.”
Tuesday was a chance for Clinton to invoke a revered figure in the Republican Party and contrast him with its nominee today, Donald Trump. Lincoln is a perennial northstar for candidates of both parties: in February, Bernie Sanders delivered a speech in Exeter, New Hampshire at the same building where Lincoln campaigned for president.
Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan also point to the 16th president, saying “this is the party of Lincoln and Reagan and Jack Kemp.” Ryan mentioned the two favorite Republican presidents as an example to Trump, who GOP leaders say has repeatedly acted out of line with party principles.
For Clinton, that may explain her decision to travel all the way to Springfield for her speech.
“Previous generations have had to overcome terrible challenges and nobody more so than Abraham Lincoln. But in the end, if we do the work we will cease to be divided,” Clinton said. “We will in fact be indivisible with liberty and justice, and we will remain in President Lincoln’s words, ‘the last best hope of Earth.’”
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