For the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Ken Burns asked a number of prominent Americans to recite the Gettysburg Address on camera.
You may or may not know that there are five extant copies of the address in Lincoln’s hand—the so-called Nicolay, Hay, Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies (listed in chronological order of production). The Nicolay copy was the first draft of the speech, prepared before Lincoln delivered it. The Hay, Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies were prepared after he delivered it.
There are a variety of differences between these copies. For our purposes, the most important difference is that the first two copies omit the phrase, “under God”—as in, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—while the last three copies include it. Contemporaneous press reports of Lincoln’s speech include the phrase, “under God,” so it is almost certain that Lincoln included those words in his oral delivery, probably adding them extemporaneously. Moreover, the Bliss copy—the best known of the five and the one that hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House—is the only one that Lincoln signed.
In his video, President Barack Obama recited the Nicolay copy, omitting the phrase, “under God.”
The White House has explained that President Obama recited the Nicolay copy because Ken Burns asked him to do so. Strangely, President Obama seems to be the only person Ken Burns asked to recite the Nicolay copy.
Here’s a list of prominent Americans reciting the Gettysburg Address with the words under God in their recitation (the number in the brackets represents the approximate time code where the phrase appears):
Ken Burns himself (1:34), Matthew Barzun (1:25), Mike Beebe (1:31), James Billington (1:39), Wolf Blitzer (1:27), George W. Bush (1:35), Louis C. K. (1:45), Tom Carper (1:26), Jimmy Carter (1:35), Bob Casey (1:45), Bill Clinton (1:45), Stephen Colbert (2:12), Charlie Crist (1:34), Mario Cuomo (2:10), David Dinkins (1:41), Timothy Cardinal Dolan (1:33), Arne Duncan (1:27), Donna F. Edwards (1:29), Eric Foner (1:25), Eric Garcetti (1:43), Bill Gates (1:38), Gabby Giffords and Friends (1:43), Jim Gilmore (1:30), Whoopi Goldberg (1:48), David Gregory (1:35), Harold Holzer (1:32), Arianna Huffington (1:33), Gwen Ifill (1:36), Jon Jarvis (1:41), Sally Jewell (1:30), Heidi Heitcamp and John Hoeven (1:33), Tim Kaine (1:25), Jimmy Kimmel (1:15), Angus King (1:57), Vicki Lawrence (1:30), Ray Mabus (1:49), Rachel Maddow (1:25), Gregory Meeks (1:25), Alyssa Milano (2:13), Rita Moreno (2:04), Richard E. Neal (1:43), Bill Nelson (2:09), Conan O’Brien (1:33), Bill O’Reilly (1:29), Annise D. Parker (1:44), Nancy Pelosi (1:37), Mike Rawlings (1:52), Robin Roberts (1:44), Jay Rockefeller (1:41), Peter Rubinstein (1:49), Marco Rubio (1:28), David Saperstein (1:26), Bob Schieffer (1:34), Chuck Schumer (1:28), Jerry Steinfeld and Louis C. K. (3:50), Martha Stewart (1:30), Tom Steyer (1:34), U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (1:22), Uma Thurman (1:39), Nina Totenberg (1:34), Richard Trumka (1:38), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (1:28), and Randi Weingarten (2:13).
By my count, the ratio of “under God” to no “under God” in these speeches is 63:1.
So, why would Ken Burns ask President Obama—and evidently him alone—to recite the first draft of the Gettysburg Address, omitting the famous phrase, “under God”? More importantly, why would President Obama agree to do so?
Because I don’t have a conspiratorial mindset, I’m not inclined to give credence to conspiracy theories, e.g., Obama is a crypto-atheist who’s out to destroy the religious foundations of the American republic. But that leaves me with only two options: (1) Ken Burns has a dilettantish predilection for textual criticism, which he somehow foisted on the president of the United States. (2) President Obama is politically tone deaf to the implications of using an obscure version of a famous speech that omits the words under God.
As scandals go, Under-God-gate is small potatoes. Still, it’s reflective of the president’s (or his staff’s) political tone deafness and poor judgment.