By Mo Rocca
We revere the leadership of George Washington. We marvel at the intellect of Thomas Jefferson. But with Abraham Lincoln, there’s an altogether different feeling. Something stronger, deeper. I’d call it love.
How else to explain the 15,000-plus books written about the man? With the exception of Jesus Christ, that’s more than any historical figure in world history.
Hollywood, too, has long been enamored with Lincoln, from Henry Fonda as Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939 to Benjamin Walker as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 2012. (OK, that one didn’t work out so well, but may I recommend last year’s straight-to-video Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies? It’s actually pretty good.) Forrest Gump could’ve popped up at any monument. He chose the Lincoln Memorial.
Now comes the Steven Spielberg-directed Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the presisdent, opening nationwide Nov. 16. Why the love? You don’t see many major motion pictures about FDR, another president who led us through a terrible war. (The new Hyde Park on Hudson is the first outing since 1960’s Sunrise at Campobello.)
Opposite page, top: First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Francis B. Carpenter.
Opposite page, bottom: President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) meets with his Cabinet to discuss the planned attack on Fort Fisher.
We toss around the term “gravitas” to describe any politician striking a serious pose. Lincoln had ladles of gravitas. Artist Francis B. Carpenter, who lived in the White House in 1864, described Lincoln’s as “the saddest face I ever attempted to paint.” In photographs he wears the worry of a father who has, among other sorrows, lost two children. It’s hard not to love that face. That face feels our pain. That face knows how difficult life can be. That’s the face of someone willing to put nation over self. Oh, and also to abolish slavery and end the Civil War.
George Washington was father of this country at its birth. He sired us. No mean feat. But Lincoln was our father during our most reckless period—our rebellious teenage years. The easiest thing would have been to let the family break apart for good. (That’s why Lincoln’s predecessor James Buchanan is known as the Deadbeat Dad of presidents.) But Lincoln stuck it out and took a bullet for us.
Honest Abe is our beacon of moral rectitude, our heroic martyr for equality, our picture of what a statesman should be. In this age of fairly universal mistrust—sorry, I meant disgust with politicians—is it any wonder we love him for it?
“One of the things that makes Lincoln so sort of miraculous is, and this is odd in any human being, but maybe even more odd in a successful politician, is he’s really lacking in a kind of ego,” says Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter of the Spielberg film. “This is somebody who felt no need to sort of curate his own vanity.”
A commander in chief during wartime, he remained almost unimaginably humane in public and private. Two stories about Lincoln that have always moved me:
In 1864, two years after Lincoln’s beloved son Willie had died at age 11, a fire broke out in the White House stables. Lincoln rushed to the burning building and began to break the doors with his hands in a desperate effort to save two ponies inside. It was too late. Later, Lincoln’s son Tad explained that the ponies had belonged to him and his brother Willie; that his father couldn’t bear to see this reminder of his dead son die, too.
A year later, on one of the final days of the Civil War, Lincoln took a legendary walk through Richmond only 40 hours after Jefferson Davis had fled. Historian Jay Winik describes the scene in his brilliant book April 1865: “Leaving their squalid houses and their tar-paper shacks, an impenetrable cordon of newly freed blacks followed Lincoln down the rubble-strewn streets, starting with a handful and swelling into a thousand. ‘Bless the Lord!’ they shouted. ‘The great Messiah!’… Moved, Lincoln ignored his bodyguards and waded deeper into the thickening flock. One black man, overcome by emotion, dropped to his knees, prompting the president to conduct a curbside colloquium on the meaning of emancipation. ‘Don’t kneel to me,’ said the president. ‘That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will enjoy hereafter.’ ”
As Kushner puts it, “Everybody who’s ever written about him has talked about his extraordinary approachability. That sense of somebody who has relational capacity is always endearing and attractive.”
Left: Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln.
Take, for example, Lincoln’s willingness to accept grooming advice from an 11-year-old girl: in 1860, he received a letter from Grace Bedell suggesting he grow a beard to “look a great deal better.” A year later, when he met Bedell on his way to Washington, he gave her a hearty kiss to thank her for the input.
A COMPLICATED LEGACY
Perhaps it is Lincoln’s ability to be both with us and above us that makes him transcendent. He’s the classic up-from-poverty hero, easier to relate to than a ruling-class elite like JFK or a superhuman like Teddy Roosevelt, who accomplished more in a day than most of us get done in a year. (Bull Moose? More like Red Bull Moose!)
But for all his plainspoken, folksy appeal (he was, after all, born in a one-room log cabin), Lincoln also knew when an occasion called for solemnity. Compare, for example, the humility of his Gettysburg Address with the thumbs-up near giddiness of George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech—delivered, it should be noted, on an aircraft carrier called the USS
Abraham Lincoln. Or how about the opening of his Second Inaugural address, which he promises to keep short because “little that is new could be presented”? Hard to imagine that holding back Bill Clinton.
The Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural are just the two best-known Lincoln speeches. In 1856, Lincoln gave a speech at an Illinois convention so eloquent and mesmerizing, the reporters there forgot to take notes of what he was saying. This is known as Lincoln’s “Lost Speech.”
Other presidents have delivered great speeches. But Lincoln wrote his. Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen referred to him as the best speechwriter of all time. Not for nothing do thousands of schoolchildren across the country memorize his words every year. (At least I hope they still do.) Lincoln’s speeches endure not only because their author was a master storyteller and brilliant rhetorician, but also because they’re mercifully brief.
For a long time, of course, Lincoln’s name evoked the opposite of love. When Harry Truman’s mother came from Missouri to stay in the White House, she reportedly was offered the Lincoln Bedroom. Her response: “What, sleep in the bed THAT MAN used?”
Above: Lincoln with Gen. George McClellan (in front of Lincoln) and other Union officers at McClellan’s headquarters after the battle of Antietam in October 1862.
Even now, feelings in some parts of the country are … complicated.
“I grew up in the Deep South,” says Kushner. “Many people in my hometown have surprised me since I’ve started working on this [movie] by telling me they literally won’t carry a $5 bill in their wallet.” Kushner isn’t surprised. “When I was in high school, I campaigned for George McGovern and talked to people at a Ku Klux Klan rally who were voting for McGovern because they simply were never going to vote Republican.”
As the kids say, haters gotta hate. The rest of us don’t just love him, we need him. We yearn for his honesty and righteousness, yes, but also for his ability to get things done. In this age of an essentially stalemated government, we long for a Lincoln to come set things right.
“More than anything else,” says Kushner, “he was a master strategist and tactician. He made a lot of decisions that had the kind of moral complexity that political decisions frequently have. He was not addicted to a kind of personal purity. He was really, really good at wheeling and dealing and compromising.”
“People feel a deeper emotional attachment to Lincoln than perhaps any other president. In part, his life story, the trail of losses and failures before he reached the presidency.”
When something like 99.99 percent of Americans have had it with Congress, it’s worth asking how “compromise” became such a dirty word in politics. (That other .01 percent are members of Congress.)
But would Lincoln even be electable in today’s America, the United States of Us Weekly? Some say that with his higher-pitched voice and gawky carriage he’d never make it on the public stage.
“I have to believe that even in today’s political system Lincoln would survive,” says Good-win. “Perhaps the beard would have to go—and indeed he looked much sexier without it—but… his debating skills would be unparalleled, his communication abilities beyond match. The hat would have to go too, of course, which might present problems for him since he kept his notes for speeches in the inside brim!”
Abraham Lincoln 16th President of the United States
“Honest Abe,” a country lawyer from Springfield, Ill., preserved the Union and ended the Civil War. He was assassinated April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Tommy Lee Jones
Conflicts over the pace of war and abolition eroded away support that the fiery Stevens once gave the moderate Lincoln. Stevens outlived Lincoln by only three years.
Mary Todd Lincoln First Lady
Lincoln’s wealthy and well-educated wife suffered from depression and other ailments, which were compounded by the deaths of her husband and three of their sons. She died at age 63 in 1882.
William Seward Secretary of State
Part of the “Team of Rivals,” Seward survived an attack the same night Lincoln was killed. He recovered and continued serving as secretary of state under Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.
Robert Todd Lincoln
Served as a captain on Gen. Grant’s staff during the war. A lawyer by trade, he served in future presidential administrations, including secretary of war under James Garfield.
Ulysses S. Grant
General-in-Chief of the Union Army
Grant accepted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. His success on the battlefield led him to the White House, where he served as the 18th president.
Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln.
Inaugural portrait by Mathew Brady.
If you read the Wikipedia entries for actress Sally Field and former first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, you won’t notice much overlap. Southern California-bred Field surfed her way into America’s heart as a bubbly, 18-year-old Gidget. Mary Todd was born into a Kentucky family torn apart by the Civil War, lost three of her four children, witnessed her husband’s murder and was eventually committed to a mental institution. Yet the two-time Oscar-winning Field—who still looks like she just came in from riding a wave—found plenty to identify with and admire in portraying the complex woman behind America’s most beloved president.
MO ROCCA: Were you interested in the life of Mary Todd Lincoln before you took on this role?
SALLY FIELD: Yes. Many years ago I worked with Julie Harris, who is a breathtaking actor [and had played Mary Todd on stage], and she had said to me that I should play Mary at one point. [Years later] I read Team of Rivals, and when I heard that Steven [Spielberg] was interested in doing it, my ears perked up. I’d been tracking Mary all along …
ROCCA: “Tracking” her?
FIELD: As an actor, especially if you’re female, you’re always looking for the roles that are good to play. I can’t be 6 feet tall; I can’t be a big sexy woman. I’m 5’2″ and I have a little pug nose—I have to own my physicality. She was small like me and I identify with that, because sometimes, when you’re really little, it makes you ticked off! [laughs]
ROCCA: Mary was ticked off a lot, apparently. Do you think she was mentally ill?
FIELD: I go with the opinions of people who really studied her—that she might have had a borderline personality, but it was really augmented by the times.
She was extremely intelligent and very well educated for the times, and she was brought up in a very political family. [Yet] women of the era weren’t even allowed to run in the yard with their children! They were just stuck doing nothing. And if you had a degree of intelligence and hunger to be alive you went mad! You had nowhere to put it.
ROCCA: Sounds like she put a lot of those energies into her husband’s career …
FIELD: She found Lincoln when he was a know-nothing lawyer who spoke well, and she honed him. She taught him and coached him. And yes, he was brilliant, there’s no question. But she found him. She supported him when he would get terribly, terribly depressed. He became her identity, because women weren’t allowed to have any identity whatsoever.
ROCCA: Have you ever gone this far outside yourself to play someone?
FIELD: Every important role that I’ve had, and I haven’t really had very many—for whatever reason—has always been on the page tremendously outside of myself. Norma Rae wasn’t something I understood at all. I had never lived in a small Southern town or worked in a mill. Sybil [Field’s Emmy-winning performance as a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder] wasn’t anything I had real awareness of. I think it’s just being human. As an actor you find the places in us all, [where] we are the same. But I had to put on weight for [Lincoln]! That was an interesting dilemma—to not be young and to be putting on the weight!
Lincoln speaking at Cooper Union; Mo Rocca stands by the Lincoln statue in Union Square, just a few blocks from Cooper Union.
In New York City on Feb. 27, 1860, Republican primary candidate for president Abraham Lincoln, who had been a relative unknown, became a real contender for his party’s nomination. Lincoln was from the Western state of Illinois and had no formal education, and many newspapers at the time often misspelled his first name as “Avram.” But after this speech, which decried the spread of slavery but assured the South he would not abolish it where it already existed, he surpassed his better-known rivals to become the party nominee for president in May of that year. The speech was delivered before 1,500 New Yorkers in the newly built Great Hall of Cooper Union.