Essay: Of Kennedys and Kings _ and Lincolns, too

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He spoke about posterity, and for it. But in looking forward at his finest hour, Barack Obama never forgot to look back.

In a victory speech stirring not only for its content but for its journey into American yesterdays, the president-elect - lionized and derided through the campaign for his speaking abilities - managed to bask in party triumph even as he summoned his constituents-in-waiting to service and hope.

The line between political speeches and presidential ones is usually axiomatic: They're political, or they're presidential. What Obama delivered Tuesday night was something in between - an eloquent agenda built for the 21st century but crackling with the 1960s.

He invoked John F. Kennedy's inaugural challenges: "To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you."

He evoked Martin Luther King's dream: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you: We, as a people, will get there."

And, explicitly, he quoted Abraham Lincoln: "We are not enemies, but friends."

Beyond the content, there was the delivery. In cadence and meter, Obama sounded more like a preacher than he has in months. His words contained history's weight and ballast. The measured, disciplined oratory of the fall campaign yielded, in his hands, to sheer energy and enthusiasm - because he allowed it to.

Many among us decry our age as ahistorical and say we do not understand our own past. But if Obama's victory speech is any indication, the tone of the presidency may, for the first time in a while, present an antidote.

For his oratorical journey through history, Obama chose a 106-year-old woman named Ann Nixon Cooper, who voted in Atlanta. Decade by decade, event by event, he took us through America with her, from her birth "just a generation past slavery" through depression, war, civil rights, the moon landing and right up to the moment on Tuesday when "she touched her finger to a screen and cast her vote."

Ours is a visual age. We travel through a landscape of images and music and quick-cut video, see American history through a glass, darkly, if we see it at all. The genius of Obama's speech was that it transcended the historical platitudes so common to political oratory and made yesterday fresh - and relevant to tomorrow.

"America, we have come so far. We have seen so much," Obama said. "But there is so much more to do."

The language was about what lies ahead, as it must be from the candidate of change. Still, it was difficult to miss the message from the man whom we chose to lead us through uncertain waters: In America, where nostalgia sometimes seems to replace history, we forget the past at our own peril.