In The Making of the President 1964, Theodore White compared the death of John F. Kennedy to the death of Moses on Mount Nebo. Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery into freedom, put up with their kvetching and complaining for 40 years, only to be stopped short of the Promised Land. With Kennedy stopped short of his dream, Johnson would be his Joshua.
"It was as if Kennedy, a younger Moses, had led an elder Joshua to the heights of Mount Nebo and there shown him the promised land which he himself would never enter but which Joshua would make his own."
This week a similar analogy was tossed about following the death of John's younger brother. Ted Kennedy was called the Moses of Health Care.
"Sen. Ted Kennedy and Moses had a shared destiny," wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Like the flawed patriarch who led his people to the Promised Land but never set foot inside it, Mr. Kennedy died last week having led the nation toward universal health-care coverage that he would not live to see."
The Kennedys were not alone. This analogy with Moses was used frequently on the death of George Washington in 1799, in which two-thirds of the eulogies compared the "first conductor of the Jewish nation" to the "leader and father of the American nation." It was the single-most commonly cited comparison on the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. As Henry Ward Beecher said, "Again a great leader of the people has passed through toil, sorrow, battle, and war, and come near to the promised land of peace, into which he might not pass over."
And of course Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted the same passage in his speech the night before he was assassinated. "I've been to the mountaintop. And I've looked over. I've seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land."
For Barack Obama, who has compared himself to Joshua, the consistency of this analogy from Washington to Bush is a stark reminder that he picks up the fight that Ted Kennedy pioneered that failure is, indeed, an option. Even the greatest leaders often fall short of their dreams.
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