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How Abraham Lincoln Shaped American Politics, Popular Culture

February 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
On this Presidents' Day, Hari Sreenivasan and historian Richard Norton Smith discuss President Lincoln's influence on American politics and popular culture as they tour the Ford's Theatre's new Center for Education and Leadership dedicated to the president.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, on this Presidents Day holiday, a fresh take on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

Hari toured the new Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership here in Washington, D.C., with historian Richard Norton Smith.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Walking into the new theater center is like taking a step back in time to the cobblestone streets of Washington on April 16, 1855, the day after President Abraham Lincoln’s death.

Newspaper headlines announcing the president’s death cover the walls of the new exhibit, which opened today in a building across the street from Ford’s Theatre, where the president was assassinated.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, scholar in residence, George Mason University: You walk to the third floor and you come to this more thematic, less chronological treatment of the posthumous Lincoln, or in some ways the living Lincoln.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who helped design the center, says its mission is to examine how Lincoln has influenced Americans great and small since his death.

In part, that influence is symbolized by the 34-foot-high book tower that connects the center’s three floors. It’s made of aluminum and represents some of the roughly 15,000 works written about Lincoln.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The story didn’t end on April 15. In some ways, the story begins, the story of what we want Lincoln to be, which Lincoln are we talking about, the evolution of the posthumous Lincoln. It’s like a mirror held up to the evolution of the country itself.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I mean,it’s almost like his words are — and possibly his life is a poem to be constantly reinterpreted. I mean, over your shoulder are two very different presidents using his words.


And nowhere has Lincoln’s posthumous influence been greater than on the presidency itself. And the classic example of how everyone needs to, as one historian says, get right with Lincoln, we have Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt, Ike from the right, FDR from the left, each of them admiring Lincoln.

And there’s a quote, a famous quote there about the role of government. Talk about something contemporary. Well, both Eisenhower and FDR regarded it as their favorite Lincoln quote. In fact, Barack Obama quoted from the same passage in his State of the Union address.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed, that government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You can take away from Lincoln almost anything that you want.

Presidents in wartime, embattled presidents, unpopular presidents, they all look to Lincoln. He’s their patron saint, because no president was more embattled or more unpopular than Lincoln was during his presidency. We think he was born on Mount Rushmore. Not so.

Theodore Roosevelt hung his picture in the president’s office and said, whenever I have a major decision to make, I always ask myself what Lincoln would do. Woodrow Wilson, who was a son of the South, who remembered seeing Jefferson Davis in chains being led past him at the end of the war nevertheless developed something of a hero worship for Lincoln.

Richard Nixon as a 12-year-old was given a portrait of Lincoln that he hung over his bed. Nixon also justified what would later be seen as abuses of power by comparing America in the Vietnam era to the country during the Civil War.

So, over and over again, Lincoln is always there if you want to cite him to justify the expansion of presidential power, particularly in wartime.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why do you think it is that people keep coming back to Lincoln to study and to write and rewrite?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It’s a great question. He’s not Washington or Jefferson, about whom scholars obviously continue to write, but who seem more remote.

Lincoln seems more accessible to us. In many ways, Lincoln is one of us — a number of reasons for that. First of all, he had a sense of humor, which does more than anything to humanize people. He had an unhappy marriage, which makes him somehow accessible. He had children. He experienced tragedy.

The events of Lincoln’s life and how he dealt with them and the personal growth, that makes Lincoln very nearly timeless.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lincoln is an icon that we see so much in pop culture today. And give us some examples of how Lincoln is so used.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, used and, arguably, abused.

I mean, there are probably — I’m sure there are viewers out this who when they think of Lincoln, they think of the, depending on their ages, Raymond Massey, or Henry Fonda, or Hal Holbrook, or Gregory Peck or others who have played Lincoln in the movies.

ACTOR: Furthermore, it’s well-known that, the more a man speaks, the less he’s understood.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Lincoln has in fact been used, almost from days of his assassination, to sell products. We have Lincoln Logs. For a younger generation, “Ted and Bill’s Excellent Adventure” includes Lincoln.

ACTOR: Party on, dudes!


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: He is just one of those figures, if you’re selling a product, is synonymous with integrity, whether it’s an automobile or insurance or a remedy for sleep deprivation.


RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Honest Abe. You know, everyone wants Lincoln on their side. Almost everyone can devise a rationale to justify that.

And we go on debating who he is, what he really believed, and how it influences our politics and our culture to this day.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And that story is not over.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: That story is far from over.

We deliberately wanted an unfinished quality about this museum, about the story that we’re telling here, because the one thing we know is the last word about Lincoln will never be written, and the next generation and the generation after that will discover and interpret Lincoln for themselves, just as we have.

And, in doing so, they’re really looking in the mirror. And they’re asking themselves, what kind of people do we want to be, what kind of country do we want to have?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Richard Norton Smith, thanks so much for your time.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Thanks for your interest.