Harold Holzer

Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln as Presidents-Elect

VTR Date: November 7, 2008

Harold Holzer draws comparisons.


GUEST: Harold Holzer
VTR: 11/07/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And when I learned that prolific Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, Co-chairman of the United States Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, was soon to publish still another book on perhaps America’s greatest President … this one about Lincoln as President-Elect, Abraham Lincoln And The Great Secession Winter 1860-1861… I quickly invited my historian friend to come back to The Open Mind.

But I also suggested that we not record our conversation about what in praising Harold Holzer’s “superb narrative skill” Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin calls “the most turbulent and critical presidential transition in American history” not until we learned just who Americans would, this very week, choose as our newest President-Elect.

That way, I thought we might more appropriately and directly tease from Abraham Lincoln’s arduous transition experiences a century and a half ago the lessons his newest Presidential successor might best learn today.

Three days ago, of course – by both very substantial Electoral College and popular votes – we Americans elected still another extraordinary Illinois statesman as President of the United States.

And today I would first ask my guest what he believes Barack Obama might most importantly learn from Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential transition … granted that Lincoln had to wait so much longer than President-Elect Barack Obama must now wait before actually assuming the powers of the Presidency. Harold, welcome. What are the lessons?

HOLZER: Thank you, it’s great to be back. Well, there are several lessons. One of them, I think, we’ll see reiterated by President-Elect Obama in the days to come and that’s not to shift on the core beliefs that got you elected.

Lincoln was under enormous pressure to compromise on slavery extension in order to prevent further secession of states and end the, the secession crisis. He wouldn’t do it. He said he would rather be hanged, he would rather that the tug come now than later. And he was adamant about not allowing others to, to, to enact compromises which would bind him.

So, if … I don’t think the Senator is contemplating entering Washington and saying, “I changed my mind about Iraq, I’m not interested in health plans or health care”. That’s the kind of thing, number one.

HEFFNER: Yet, but fact also is that we hear more and more about Barack Obama having learned political lessons as being a person who, as he said himself, would stand together with both sides, would bring all sides together. Don’t you think that must lead … didn’t it in Lincoln’s instance …

HOLZER: Yeah, Lincoln …

HEFFNER: … lead to important compromises?

HOLZER: Not on the core issues that got him there. That had been published in the platform that, believe it or not, was widely and closely read in its time.

HEFFNER: In those days.

HOLZER: They read the platform. Have we read, have we read either platform in 2008 … I confess I haven’t. I don’t know even know where to get it, but it was published in broadsides and pamphlets and Lincoln said no extension of slavery under any circumstances and he, and he, and he stuck to it.

But on a subtler message for … not to be presumptuous … to President-Elect Obama and I notice that after talking about this a little bit in the book and elsewhere, he’s shifted on something that I think was very wise.

You remember that President Bush invited the winner, whoever it was, to the World Economic Summit that’s taking place at the end of November. And this week, right after his election, President-Elect Obama’s aides sent word that he would not attend. Very wise, I think.

At least according to the Lincoln lesson. Which is don’t get embroiled in your predecessors lame duck efforts to solve the crises that, that inspired voters to change Administrations, or change courses.

HEFFNER: Was Lincoln very much personally challenged in terms of that decision? Knowing the importance of what was happening to the nation during those many months at that time?

HOLZER: Very challenged, indeed. People begged him to speak out … to conciliate the South. To … there was a rump peace convention, called in Washington with a former President, John Tyler … an accidental President to be sure, but a former President named … not as Chairman of the Convention, but as President of the Convention.

So in a way he had two Presidents he was contending with. The lame duck incumbent Democrat James Buchanan and John Tyler, President of the Peace Convention, drafting Constitutional Amendments that would have extended slavery west in complete violation of Lincoln’s pledges and would have enacted guarantees that Congress would never interfere with slavery … ever. And Lincoln had to, behind the scenes … make sure that these compromise efforts were thwarted. Because he did not want to be bound by lame duck efforts to, to solve the secession crisis. And lame ducks will always try, in the last gasps of their administration to make the decisions and solve the problems that have eluded them for so long.

HEFFNER: Did Franklin Roosevelt provide any lessons, too? I, I think about what you just said and I think about FDR’s unwillingness to be sucked in by the old Administration. He didn’t want to take any responsibility for what Herbert Hoover was doing.

HOLZER: You know there’s a wonderful story in a book I know we both admire … Jonathan Alter’s book about the transition and the first 100 days of FDR’s administration.

In which President-Elect Roosevelt … also in March because it was a four month transition then, too … visits the White House and Hoover importunes him to sign on to a joint measure to declare a bank holiday. Which Roosevelt ultimately does. But he doesn’t want to be encumbered with a Democrat/Republican joint ukase … he says “no”. He looks up and he says, “Those drapes are lovely, I think Eleanor will want to keep those drapes.” And Hoover is so furious he never says another word to FDR, even in the car ride to the Inaugural … they never speak until FDR later hires him for the war effort.

HEFFNER: Did Lincoln have to pay a political price or a price of any kind for his unwillingness to become involved in the previous administration?

HOLZER: Maybe more than a political price. As did the nation. I mean Lincoln was elected to inhibit the extension of slavery … by standing fast on that. As he put it, “I’m holding fast as with a chain of steel”. Pretty tough, pretty tough description of his position.

By doing that he hastened the secession of a few more states. Seven states altogether left the Union before his Inaugural. Stimulated the creation of an alternative government. Another President was elected in another part of the country, before he left for Washington … Jefferson Davis.

There were two inaugural journeys at the same time. Lincoln from Springfield to Washington. Davis from Mississippi to Montgomery, Alabama. And the price ultimately paid was that, as Lincoln put it, the tug did come now rather than later … were 600,000 lives worth the effort to, to keep the promise of the Declaration of Independence that had not been kept for the first four score and five years? I mean history has to make that judgment and it’s a, it’s a tough call.

We just came through a Presidential election where that decision was actually debated on, on … in one of the Presidential debates. Ron Paul … of blessed memory … said Lincoln was wrong, he should have let the South secede and he should never have fought a civil war to free the slaves. That’s an example of overarching executive power. So it’s still a matter of discussion.

HEFFNER: Well, you say it’s a matter of discussion. Let me ask you … not whether you think that Lincoln made the right decision in terms of what eventually became emancipation …


HEFFNER: … but in terms of all those other items that you mentioned. The delay …


HEFFNER: … the unwillingness to take real action early on did mean the solidification of secession. Did mean the building of an army.


HEFFNER: Didn’t mean that we were in a worse position … militarily when March came.

HOLZER: Right. But on the other hand … and you’re absolutely right. Let’s not look at it back through the prism of what happened later, retrospectively and celebrate emancipation.

At that moment Lincoln had won … unlike Senator Obama … he’d won 39% of the popular vote … a majority of the electoral vote … all of the votes were cast in the North. He got no support in the South … either was never on the ballot or got one and two percent in Virginia and Missouri … just nowhere. Lost fifty to one. If he had spoken out to conciliate the South, he would have lost the support of the abolitionist base that voted for him, and the Northern Democrats who had opposed him as well, but who’s support he now needed to create a coalition. And he was doing that with his Cabinet selection. Creating a coalition government of former Democrats and former Whigs. So, had he spoken out to conciliate the South, he probably would have lost the support he, he needed in the North.

And the other problem … the very real political problem that Lincoln faced is that, unlike this last election, which was so beautifully and relievedly decisive, so that we don’t have to sweat through Missouri, for example … can you imagine it … that Missouri being in, in … not decided in these first 48 hours when we’re talking … if we were waiting for Missouri for a few hundred votes to decide this election.

Lincoln was worried that a month after his … the, the election day … the electors meeting in state capitals around the country on December 5th might not adhere to their responsibilities to vote for the candidate that they had been pledged to.

What if the Southern states just didn’t call their electoral meetings? What if they decided if we … and this would have been a good strategy. What if we just don’t cast our votes … then he won’t have a quorum in … and maybe it won’t be legal. Maybe we can still through this thing to the House of Representatives.

And then when Lincoln was warned about the dangers that awaited him on Inauguration Day … so many assassination threats came to him … drawings, effigies, letters, threats … assurances of security … lack of assurances of security. But Lincoln very wisely said, that’s not the point of danger. The point of danger is the actual reading of the electoral votes … the so-called “Convocation of the Electoral College”, which was all done by mail, actually, in February. He was worried that that would be disrupted as well. And throw the entire process into chaos. So this, this position he took of masterly inactivity, as it was called, was more masterly than it was inactive.

HEFFNER: Well, when you use that wonderful phrase again … masterly inactivity … as I read Lincoln, President-Elect I couldn’t help but feeling about him once again that sense of cool, cool command, and I thought again about what has been said and written about our new President-Elect … a coolness and I wonder if you see that as a parallel, too?

HOLZER: I absolutely do. I don’t buy the big ears comparison …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

HOLZER: … Senator Obama likes to make that. But, yeah, the coolness under pressure. The inspirational oratory. There are certainly comparisons. One big difference is that Senator Obama continues to speak to us, every day. It’s, it’s a rare day when we don’t hear either an off-cuff phrase or a full blown speech after speech after speech.

Lincoln had been virtually … well, he’d been all but silent since his, his, his milestone appearance in … right here in New York City … the last subject we spoke about on this show …

HEFFNER: Because the last book you wrote …

HOLZER: Right. Also the last speech he gave. February 27th, 18…

HEFFNER: Cooper Union, yes?

HOLZER: Yes. At Cooper Union … the place still stands, the auditorium is still there, a little bit changed. And from that moment on … silence … because it was part to the political culture in those days that candidates did not speak in their own behalf. And Lincoln was silent through the nominating convention in May and then from May to November. And then from November to February. He made a few off-the-cuff remarks, but the only real speech he gave was the day he left Springfield, and even that was extemporaneous and had to be rewritten in the railroad train. He wanted people to wait for his Inaugural Address and he was busy crafting it.

There’s another comparison that I find interesting. Senator Obama made this very heartening, ultimately tragic visit to his grandmother … the woman who was not his mother, but raised him. And she did not live to see him elected, although I hope she knew that he would be.

After his election, Lincoln decided to make one more visit to the woman who raised him … who was not his natural mother … his stepmother. He took three trains in the dead of winter and visited Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, the woman who had been brought into his life and told his Dad, let him read, don’t make him work all the time, this is a special boy.

And they hugged and embraced. He was obviously worried, she was … she was close to 80 … that he would never see her again … that she would predecease him, obviously. And she looked at him and said, “I’m never going to see you again … they’ll kill you.”


HOLZER: Another tragic story. But very … eerily similar.

HEFFNER: Let us turn to the other, to the … other lessons that the President-Elect might learn. First place … this question of the transition period being so incredibly long. I, I’m amused today, three days after Barack Obama is elected our next President, there’s all that talk about this “awfully long transition period”.

HOLZER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: What are we going to do? What price must me pay?

HOLZER: I know.

HEFFNER: When Lincoln’s transition from November … early in November to March 4th was so extraordinary.

HOLZER: You know that was a relic of the days before a uniform popular vote … the first Tuesday after the first Monday … when, when the electors would just sort of amble into Washington in February … as they did for, for Adams and Jefferson … and vote and then a few weeks later, the fellow who’s usually in residence in Washington would stroll over to the capitol and take the oath.

Much had changed except for that incredibly long and dangerous time. And there had been a few dangerous transitions, but not like this one. So you definitely had four months with Lincoln agonizing, wanting desperately to get it over with. Saying to friends, “I wish it was … I wish I could be President now, this is killing me.”

HEFFNER: We made the change …


HEFFNER: Franklin Roosevelt’s March 4th, 1933 Inaugural was the last March Inaugural. So we can make those changes. Do you think the … by any chance that the situation we’re in now, which is fiscal …


HEFFNER: … mostly economic, mostly … it certainly doesn’t have to do with secession and disunion … may lead to another change in Inauguration Day. We could be like most civilized people and choose our leader and the next day …

HOLZER: Well …

HEFFNER: … he is the leader.

HOLZER: I, I think there has … I think it’s a really good point and I think … although I do think that history shows us that the Republic survives during these interregnums and that as bad as it looks, as all of our 401(k)s become 301(k)s and 201(k)s …

HEFFNER: Don’t talk that way, Harold.

HOLZER: I … well … I hope it’s still a 201(k) as we speak. We’ll survive. On the other hand, I think there should be a happy medium between the six weeks and the 10 Downing Street “get out” model …


HOLZER: … in, in England.


HOLZER: Why should there be a …


HOLZER: … because I think we’re in the age of instant communication, of the blogesphere … of 24 hour news … we needn’t wait six weeks.

HEFFNER: No, no, no. I mean it the other way.

HOLZER: Oh, why not overnight?

HEFFNER: Why not overnight? For the very reasons you …

HOLZER: You what … it would require changing the way the Congress convenes as well. I just think that doing it on New Year’s Day, with a new Congress also sworn in on … you know, if it’s a Sunday, you do it on the 2nd. That would be reasonable.

It would give a month for the, the person to create, to name his Cabinet, create a White House team, give … you know, do the decent thing … to get, to get the sitting President to hire enough U-hauls to get out of town. I think overnight is maybe a bit much. We need a little bit of breathing room in this country.

But I think six weeks probably now seems as unreasonable as, as four months did to Abraham Lincoln.

HEFFNER: Shall we go for the six weeks now and then maybe leave it up to …

HOLZER: I think …

HEFFNER: … those who come after us to do something otherwise?

HOLZER: I think it’s not a bad idea for this man who will probably be a two term President, one would think, because he’s building support in states where we wouldn’t … I mean … we, we don’t know, of course … not a bad idea for him to do among the many legislative changes that he’s promising to enact with this sympathetic Congress.

I think he’s got other things on his plate. But we’ll see. We’re only is … as we speak … the first few days of the transition. I, I hope we can get through this. But the attention is unprecedented.

Lincoln thought he had astonishing coverage and, and, and brutal coverage and close scrutiny with a few journalists hanging on to him. He allowed an opposition newspaperman to embed himself in his office for about four months, from The New York Herald, which had supported his rival Stephen Douglas. In those days newspapers were even more openly partisan than they are today.

I thought that was a rather bold decision on … it, it’s the equivalent of Senator Obama calling up Sean Hannity and saying, “Why don’t you hang out with me for a few weeks?”, and …

HEFFNER: Let’s not encourage that.

HOLZER: (Laughter) Lincoln was self-confident enough to do it. I think that’s another lesson to, to a President-Elect … don’t, don’t protect yourself in a bubble right away. Let people have access to you … and, and in … have the confidence and he certainly deserves to have the confidence and should have the confidence to know that he will pass muster no matter who interrogates him.

HEFFNER: What were the personal qualities of the one man from Illinois that you find in the other man from Illinois?

HOLZER: An extraordinary capacity for work. This just boundless energy and health … which was Lincoln’s greatest attribute because he never tired and I’ve never seen Senator Obama look tired … miss an appointment, have a sore throat. Remember all the recent candidates … Clinton, Dole …


HOLZER: Who ended their … Nixon … who ended their campaigns speaking in a whisper because their throats just went. This fellow is … has really got the physical attributes to hang on. He’s in great shape as was Abraham Lincoln. One chopped wood … the other … and played handball … the other plays basketball. You need that strength. You need tolerance. You need humor. You need an understanding of history.

Senator Obama has shown an astonishing understanding of Lincoln. Just as Lincoln cared deeply about the example of the nation’s Founders and what part of their promise we had fulfilled and what part we had not fulfilled.

Senator Obama shows the same interest in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration about unfinished work. And in his victory statement in Grant Park in Chicago … I was absolutely blown away by the fact that President-Elect Obama said, “Lincoln faced a much worse crisis than we do”. Very smart reassuring thing to say.

But also let’s remember what he said, “Passion may have strained, but cannot break the bonds of affection that bind us. We are not enemies. We’re friends.” Those were the words from Lincoln’s First Inaugural. He didn’t write them, Seward did … but Lincoln edited them beautifully. But we won’t … it’s too many details, but it was just … it was heartening.

HEFFNER: I wondered if you were going to say that.


HEFFNER: Make that point. But … talking about the … the wonderful capacity both men have to give expression to such seminal ideas.

Ask you a question … in my Documentary History of the Untied States, I have Lincoln’s First Inaugural. I have Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, I have the Gettysburg Address. What has … if you were to pick documents … if you were to pick speeches that the present President-Elect has offered, assuming that his First Inaugural …


HEFFNER: … will be of the quality of his other utterings. What do you think stands out?

HOLZER: The speech on race at Constitution Hall …

HEFFNER: You do.

HOLZER: … in Philadelphia. But even more so, for me, who was just getting to know him at the time, the speech that introduced his candidacy because …and it’s a perfect arc for him and embraces Lincoln. He announced his candidacy on the steps of the old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln had said, we have a house divided and it can’t, it can’t go on that way. “A house divided against itself”, quoting scripture, “cannot stand”, will cease to be divided. We’ll become either all slave or all free.

And here was the, the exemplar of the fulfillment of … the potential of that time …fulfillment of unfinished work making a speech about the future and about how the past inspirits the future. Again, calling on Lincoln. And I think that one will live. It should live. In the bitter cold on, on … in February 2007 …and extraordinary moment.

HEFFNER: Well, if when you pick up the 8th Edition of the Documentary History …

HOLZER: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … and it’s there … it will be thanks to you. Are there other … we have a couple minutes left … are there other things that you feel strongly about that surface out of the transition period that you have written about here so brilliantly? With the transition period we find ourselves in now?

HOLZER: Well, don’t take your hometown to Washington? I know that …

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

HOLZER: Lincoln had a lot of pressure on him to take the friends he knew, he didn’t know many people in Washington, to assemble a team, or at least a Cabinet out of Illinois buddies. They put enormous pressure on him and he said, “no”.

Now I don’t know what it means that Senator Obama has identified a Chicago guy …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

HOLZER: But we’ll see. Jimmy Carter made this mistake. He filled his “kitchen” Cabinet with Georgians, and we know what happened. It’s … it can insulate you. Ahmmm …

HEFFNER: Doris Kearns Goodwin, of course, has shown us how Lincoln did just exactly the opposite.

HOLZER: Exactly. And I think Senator Obama will do the other thing Lincoln did … for the Cabinet … which is seek the best and the brightest and the most experienced. And diversity is important.

Lincoln took geographical diversity and political roots diversity very seriously. Former Democrats, former Whigs, Pennsylvania, New York, the South, at least the border states.

Today we care about ethnic diversity and gender diversity. I … it’s going to be important that the President-Elect achieve that balance while getting the best people to do these, these crucial jobs in these challenging times. And I think that’s another Lincoln example.

And one more … I know there’s a lot of pressure on Senator Obama to keep his most important campaign pledge, which is buy that puppy for his kids. Lincoln, Lincoln’s boys wanted him to take Fido to Washington. And Lincoln said, “It’s not fair, it’s a long trip.” And I think he must have known they’d do better in, in Washington and when the boys got to Washington, tearfully having given up their mangy dog … they got goats, turkeys, kittens, rabbits and ponies. There are better pets in Washington … so I think he should cool and wait until they get to DC, cause the choice of dogs will be encyclopedic.

HEFFNER: Harold, you know, I agree with you on so much … you’ve just mentioned the one thing on which I take issue with you.

HOLZER: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: The dog should have been taken. Harold, I, I’m so grateful for you … for the book in the first place … Lincoln’s … that, that great winter of discontent … Lincoln as President-elect. I hope … I must say that everybody reads it. And we’ve given them time now to read it during the interregnum itself, during the transition period. Thank you so much for joining me here.

HOLZER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.