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Assessing Abraham Lincoln

February 11, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST

RAY SUAREZ: Lincoln was born 191 years ago to a poor and struggling family in Kentucky beginning a surprising journey to the White House. A look now at one of our country’s greatest Presidents whose imprint to the country has endured through the decades. We explore why with NewsHour regulars — presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both of whom are currently writing about Lincoln; journalist Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Harold Holzer, an authority on the Civil War and Lincoln — he’s the vice president for communications at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Well, Michael, this is one of the most written about men in world history and American history.

Is there anything new to say about Lincoln?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you’re absolutely right– 17,000 volumes, I think, in the English language alone. I think more than Jesus Christ, who was the runner-up. But there is — always new things to say about Lincoln. One reason is that we’re always getting new information. One example now is that there’s a project going from courthouse to courthouse in Illinois, getting pieces of paper that were connected to Abraham Lincoln’s legal practices, and we’re discovering a lot of things about those years.

But the more important thing is that Lincoln changes for every generation. In 1960, for instance, at the time of the Cold War, John Kennedy opened his debates with Richard Nixon by saying in 1860 the question was whether this country could survive half slave and half free. Now the question is whether the world will survive half free and half free. Five years later in the middle of the civil rights struggle, he was an inspiration for a lot of the people who were fighting for civil rights. So a figure like Lincoln always lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Doris, you are also planning to add to that pile of 17,000 volumes. What is there new to say about our 16th president?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It is embarrassing. I know I’m going to have answer that question over the over couple years: “Why another book on Lincoln?” I think part of it is that historians find him so companionable, and you’re living with somebody so large. If you’re going to be spending years of your life on something, the Civil War and Lincoln are subjects so worthy of respect.

What I’m so interested in really is Lincoln as a politician, especially in the last decade when the whole vocation of being a politician seems to have been degraded in the American public mind. We sometimes think of Lincoln as the statesman, which he was, as a principled man, which he was, as that beautiful statue, the most powerful statue in Washington. But underneath it, he was a brilliant politician.

I mean, think about this man who was able to bring into his cabinet all of his rivals, men who thought they should have gotten the nomination– Seward and Chase and Bates– and somehow bring them in. He understood how to deal with them, how to compromise without compromising principle, how to take mistakes and accept them for himself rather than blaming others. And yet he had a reliance on his own judgment.

He listened to advice — all those qualities that you want in a public figure– political skills that actually were more masterful than these other characters, all of whom were so much better known, better educated, much more famous in a certain sense at that time than Lincoln. And I just find that fantastic, to know that a political leader with political skills is what brought us through that war. Because in the end, as John Kennedy said, politics is an honorable vocation, and Lincoln certainly proved that true.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Haynes, let’s talk a little bit more about Lincoln the politician. I’m wondering if he travels well or whether he’s so deeply rooted in the variables of his time, we can’t even think of him in the year 2000.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Ever since I’ve been a child, I had this fancy about suppose that you could have dinner with somebody, a great figure in history– Napoleon or Caesar or whatever it might be, and the American Presidents, and all the rest. The one that’s most interesting is Lincoln– Lincoln the man, Lincoln the politician, Lincoln the leader, Lincoln the paradox. I mean, here’s this guy, gangly, humble, awkward, ugly even, called the ape baboon of the prairie — Doris, talking about the politician. How would he do today?

He had a squeaky, reedy voice. Would he do well on television? Would he play well with that beard and awkward frame and so forth? I think that’s the fascinating part of it. And here he had… Talk about hatred today, negative politics, he had it all. I mean, he was talked about his father, comes from this poor family, his mother was illegitimate. False… He had a manic depressive personality. He was up and down and all this. He was coarse, and he was powerful the way George Washington was.

The “rail splitter” was more than a myth, he really had the strength. But I think he was, as Doris said, a brilliant figure who knew people, and he could get to their heart. That’s what the art of politics is. How do you reach someone out there? And he had that capacity, always apparently. You go back and look at the rhetoric, my experts here, I want to read you… Will you sign the book for me while I…

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Got written.

HAYNES JOHNSON: But seriously, I mean, the fascination of this guy. Put him in contemporary terms today, think about him on television, on the stage with our people today. Think about him dealing with hatred. He had the wife, the difficulty with Mary Todd Lincoln. It wasn’t a great marriage, to be sure — a lot of tragedy in the family. And yet he endures because we kind of understand him. He can ring the bell in a way that still is more than just words on marble.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Howard Holzer is here to help me make it safe for bearded guys to be on television in the year 2000. (Laughter) How should we teach Lincoln so that he doesn’t become the remote figure on Mt. Rushmore, so that he’s not a plaster saint — that we, even as we go forward in history, still hold on to enough of him to make him flesh and blood and still interesting?

HAROLD HOLZER: Well, I think we remember the essentials. And I think all of what we’ve heard for the last few minutes is absolutely true. His political skills were extraordinary. His speaking skills, reedy voice notwithstanding, the communication skills were extraordinary.

And what we remember, what we need to remember is his essential commitment to fighting for democracy, his commitment to exemplifying the American dream. As he said to a group of soldiers who marched past the White House late in the war: “I represent the fact that any one of your father’s sons can come and live in this big White House.” That was what Lincoln was preserving, the guarantee that there is no resort from ballots to bullets, the idea of an all- embracing American family with equal opportunity for all.

Those are the big ideas that I think remain important in the curriculum of national memory. At the same time, Lincoln is, as the others have mentioned, an extraordinarily multifaceted figure. We’ve heard, for example, just this evening’s mention of the fact that he was humble.

And yet publicly humbled, perhaps, but no less a solon of the Senate than Charles Sumner recalled on his first meeting with Lincoln that he came prepared to dominate the new President, to take advantage of him perhaps, to impart his wisdom on Lincoln, and he left his first White House meeting saying he’d never met anyone with that degree of intellectual arrogance. Lincoln, in the end, had dominated Charles Sumner. They became fast friends, but there was no underestimating this extraordinary man.

RAY SUAREZ: We’ve been talking so much in the last couple of weeks about computers in this country. I’m wondering if the work of historians isn’t a little bit like debugging a program that once something wrong, a phony story, or a twisted interview, gets into the record, that people like you who work in subsequent generations end up having to either root it out of the code or unfortunately end up doomed to repeat it. Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I’ve got a big job about that because I’m writing this book on Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, which really began when I was seven years old and went down to the Lincoln home in Springfield, and to the Lincoln tomb. And I remember saying I was from Illinois where Lincoln was a religion. I remember seeing on the wall a plaque saying that said the son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was not buried in the tomb, but was buried in Arlington, Virginia.

And I can remember Illinois chauvinists saying, “wasn’t Illinois good enough for him?”

But it sort of got me thinking “what would life have been like in this country had Lincoln lived beyond 1865?” And also, “who was to blame?” And there are all sorts of stories that have grown up around the assassination, some true, some false. It’s a little bit like the Kennedy assassination. 191 years after Abraham Lincoln’s birth, there’s still a great fog.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Doris, you’re writing a lot about the marriage of the Lincolns, and Haynes mentioned earlier that it wasn’t a good marriage, but is something coming out of your research that makes you reconsider?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, actually I started out thinking that the inner world of the marriage would be the focus, but as it turned out, unlike my book on Franklin and Eleanor where Eleanor could carry the subject because she is where you wanted her to be in the narrative, Mary Todd Lincoln’s sadness, especially after the death of their little boy Willie in 1862, meant that she really wasn’t a figure in the public life of the Civil War.

So I realized that a large part of his emotional psychic and time was spent with Seward, Stanson, Chase, and Wells, these other characters around him. And in the 19th century, relationships between men and men took on a huge meaning because the relationships with the women were so different because women were often cordoned off from the world of politics. So I find that that’s where a lot of the time goes, the story telling, the sitting around together at night, figuring out what to do. So it’s ended up being more of a store about his relationship with these guys and how he came to dominate them.

Much as Harold just said he dominated Sumner he ended up dominating all these people so much so that even Seward, on the eve of the nomination in 1860, is waiting in Auburn, New York, for the canon to be brought to the House to say that he’s been nominated President. Everyone thought he should have been it, and he ends up respecting Lincoln enormously. So it is that men-men power, emotion-driven stuff that I’m finding really interesting. Your question is true, though, however. It was a very difficult marriage.

She was terrific in lots of ways. She was feisty, she was smart, she was more suited for him than a lot of others would have, but so much sadness in their les, so much depression. And she never pulled out of the death of that little kid.

RAY SUAREZ: Harold Holzer, does the fact that we still argue about Abraham Lincoln today keep him alive for us in a certain way– I mean, debates over the confederate flag, whether he was truly an abolitionist or not?

HAROLD HOLZER: As long as Lincoln is an ideal, I think he will be someone who is… whose example is aspired to and whose shortcomings are the subject of controversy. We hear that again with new controversy and new assertions over his sincerity as a liberator.

There is a great deal of talk in the Lincoln community these days about a new article in “Ebony” Magazine, suggesting that not only was Lincoln a recalcitrant emancipator, but that he was in fact with his document trying to achieve the reverse of emancipation. That will very much be in our dialogue as long as our… the story of racial equality in this country is not complete.

Much is expected of Lincoln as an example — perhaps the myths that grew up out of the assassination of Lincoln as a Moses were exaggerated to the degree that we expect perfection from him throughout his lifetime. And we hear again during the 2000 race about people whose views evolved as did Lincoln’s. Can we accept that about Lincoln?

Can we respect the fact that he matured from 1855 to 1865? It’s very difficult, but he is… he remains astonishingly the national touchstone, the subject of debate, the subject of admiration, and the example for presidents, for candidates. He is still cited in the debates today.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Haynes, I was just going to mention that all the candidates have chosen to align themselves with Lincoln. What do you make of that?

HAYNES JOHNSON: You know, it’s fascinating. Years ago I wrote a column for the “Post” about the debates when… And I didn’t realize… I wondered what it would have been like if it’d been Lincoln-Douglas debates, these great debates that set the standard. And I found, in the Library of Congress, there is actually a stenographic record of those debates. And you know, you come at that very surprise, you think it won’t be any good. It will be old, awkward, 110 years… 130, 140 years ago. And the language there is so contemporary, the eloquence, the sharpness, the wit. Both of them were great, but that’s what we’d like to see today as Americans is this kind of really give-and-take on a stage, going at each other. Put no moderator in there, let the guys go at each other, and that would be a marvelous thing. And Lincoln remains the absolute exemplar in that category.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, happy Lincoln’s Birthday to you all. Thanks a lot.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Happy Lincoln’s Birthday.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You, too.

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