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RAY SUAREZ: Who was Abraham Lincoln, the public and the private man? Just what is it about this former president that makes him such a compelling and intriguing figure to so many, even today?
With us to shed some light on Lincoln is David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Lincoln biographer. He’s a professor emeritus of American History at Harvard University.
Professor Donald, so much American History has happened since that day in Ford’s Theater. The country became a globe-straddling world power, two world wars, a Depression. Why is it essential to understand Abraham Lincoln today?
DAVID HERBERT DONALD: I think it is because Lincoln set the tone that America has followed and should follow ever since. That is the dedication to republican principles, the dedication to equality, the dedication to upholding the Declaration of Independence. These are the things he stood for, and as long as we remember them, we are still on the right track.
RAY SUAREZ: When you look at the dozens of men who’ve held the office, why is it that Lincoln after all this time is still so present in pop culture, in political cartooning, in commercial products, in jokes that people tell even?
DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Well, let’s think of the other possibilities. Could you think of making sort of a big museum about Millard Fillmore, for example, or James A. Garfield? Lincoln occupies such a strategic place in American history. Washington got the country off to a start, but it was Lincoln who saved the union, and that saving of the union coupled with the emancipation of the slaves meant that his name was going to last forever.
And when you add to that that he was able to express his views in language that no other American president — indeed hardly anyone else ever– was able to equal. There’s no other president who is so quotable, whose words resonate down until today. This is something you cannot say of other American presidents, and this is why he lives on in American memory.
RAY SUAREZ: One of the things that Richard Norton Smith told me when I visited him in Springfield was that he wanted to rescue Lincoln from the fate of George Washington, whom you mentioned earlier, from becoming a white marble statue. He wanted a Lincoln who is still a flesh-and-blood human being. Is that an important task for you and do you think we’ve gotten there in time?
DAVID HERBERT DONALD: I think this is an important task, and unlike John Simon, I think the museum is going about it in a very interesting, imaginative way. We have to remember that young people today are brought up basically in a visual kind of world where they see cartoons, they see movies. They don’t read a great deal.
And to bring young people into a museum where they look at a document, even a great document like the Gettysburg Address, it doesn’t mean much to them. But if they can somehow or other connected to their own experience, make it feel as though they were there, I think this is a most worthwhile thing. This is at the end of such experience. This should be the beginning. But I think it’s a wonderful beginning.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you think it’s important for a modern audience to learn not only about the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, but also about the personal tragedies of the Lincoln family, the difficulties that he had growing up, the self-made nature of his career as a lawyer, those sort of personal details that are different from the monuments that you see?
DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Surely. Because Lincoln’s experience gives nearly all of us hope no matter how humble our beginnings that one can rise, one can be successful, one can indeed lead a happy, enormously profitable life and one that’s invaluable to the country as a whole, and when you add to this that Lincoln in doing all of this had that marvelous sense of humor. Very few American presidents, very few political leaders of any sort have a sense of humor. Lincoln was a very funny man.
And though people were outraged by it at times, he could make stories that would immediately hit the point, they would tell exactly what he wanted to do. Lincoln’s mastery of the anecdote has never been equaled. He was so adept at this. A man would come into his office in the White House — anybody could walk into the White House in those days — and he would come in with some grievance, he wanted something that had to be done, and Lincoln would look at him and say, “Now, you know, that reminds me of a little story that I heard back in the days when I was in Indiana in my youth.” And he would tell this story, his face bursting into an enormous smile that reached from ear to ear, those magnificent teeth all showing.
He would laugh in his own high-pitched voice, he would slap his thigh and he would tell the story and laugh at his own story and when it was over, he’d get up and say, “Oh, Mr. Jones, that was very nice to see you. Thank you for coming by.” And escort him to the door and Mr. Jones would never know what happened. Lincoln had made a tool of humor as well as enjoying it immensely. This is something very few political figures have ever been able to do.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Donald, thanks for joining us today.
DAVID HERBERT DONALD: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be here.