Harold Holzer discusses Abraham Lincoln and how he came to be a subject of focus.
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GUEST: Harold Holzer
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND … and my guest today has authored, co-authored and edited more materials relating to Abraham Lincoln and what he calls the political culture of the Civil War than I could begin even just to list for you in our too-brief half hour together.
Harold Holzer has had many occupations over the years: journalist, political speech writer and press secretary, government official … he’s even worked in public television. And, of course, some years back he became the Chief Communications Officer of New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art, serving now as its Senior Vice President for External Affairs.
So, it must be in his spare time, therefore, that my guest has done so much with Abraham Lincoln … though I don’t know yet how to find in his writings the proverbial piece on Lincoln’s dog. Perhaps I ought to ask Mr. Holzer if we should expect something along those lines.
More seriously, however, I want to begin today by asking him what started him on this Abraham Lincoln path. I’ve wondered about that Harold so long, so often.
HOLZER: I wish I had a really dramatic story to tell about some vision. But in fact it was a New York City public school teacher, my fifth grade teacher, who decided to instruct us in the art of biographical writing … do a one page report on a figure in history who you shall choose out of a hat. And she had the hat …
HOLZER: And I picked Abraham Lincoln. And went to our school library, we were actually in a junior high school, so we had a substantial library for fifth graders, and found a wonderful book called, “The Lincoln Nobody Knows” by Richard Currant and it was off to the races. And it was off to the races. I was inspired by the book; I did my report and I never stopped.
HEFFNER: Now, when you re-tell that story, why don’t you eliminate the hat because the idea of your choosing someone for that task is so much nicer.
HOLZER: I think I should go back to the vision. That …
HEFFNER: The vision … okay.
HOLZER: … that would be the most dramatic. Right. Right.
HEFFNER: What, by the way, is that vision that you have now of Abraham Lincoln?
HOLZER: I think a person who understood the technological changes in image making which is the area that I specialized first, that’s what drew me into my specialty in the 70s and 80s. But I think above all, maybe the greatest writer of the nineteenth century in America, a person who re-crafted the American political dialectic, who created a new vocabulary in discourse to the public. And an ideal the likes of which we’ve never seen repeated in any public official.
HEFFNER: But what enabled Lincoln, the backwoodsman to do that?
HOLZER: It’s got to be … speaking of visions and, and things like that. It’s uncanny. Yes, he read the Bible, but so did many other people on the prairie. Yes, he read Aesop’s Fables and whatever he could get his hands on … the au currant book about George Washington by Parson Weems. But that didn’t create great literary style from anyone else. It was just a god-given gift honed by very, very hard work. A love of precision, whether it was legalistic precision in his original profession or mathematical precision, scientific precision because he read into those areas, algebra and geometry … Euclid, he read widely in those areas. He was interested in weather prediction, primitive forms of meteorology. So, just a unique combination of talent and drive and hard work resulted in a master craftsman.
HEFFNER: Was there a level of literacy in America at that time, to which we can attribute something of this?
HOLZER: It’s interesting. I’ve been asked that … flipped in a different way and I think when one looks at the letters that Civil War soldiers wrote home, I think one is often astounded at how beautiful they are or can be. They rise to a high level. But then you think, not all of those soldiers could write home. Those who wrote, wrote pretty well. And there was more demand for writing and more interest in it, I think. “How r u” with an “r” and a “u” on your e-mail is not exactly the kind of invitation to a grand response today.
HEFFNER: But now wait a minute. A moment ago you talked about, and very, very positively about Abraham Lincoln’s ability to take technology and make use of it.
HEFFNER: Let’s not be disparaging therefore about …
HOLZER: I was only disparaging about …
HEFFNER: … e-mail …
HOLZER: … the modern propensity to let technology supplant style.
HEFFNER: But then, what, what, what … no, I, I really don’t mean “what happened?” because I don’t want to make this a discourse on the evils of our times. I mean I can do that standing up alone.
HEFFNER: But how do we account for that level of literacy? You so wisely say not everyone wrote home.
HEFFNER: But the letters that have been preserved are models of literacy.
HOLZER: Well, think of the amusements and entertainments available to people in isolated communities throughout America in the early and mid-nineteenth century. There were no diversions and no entertainments. No amusements, no community amusements, obviously no organized sports. The only community amusement was frankly church and the annual county fair.
Other than that, people worked hard and read by candlelight. And more often than not they read the best sellers of their time, which are the still the best sellers on Amazon’s list … the fables, the bible, books about heroes like George Washington, heroes of the revolution … Jefferson and people read that because, frankly, they had nothing else to do and it was good for them at that time. Maybe we should have less to do and more to read.
HEFFNER: Well, you smile when you say that, but I, I’m sure … like me … you mean that.
HOLZER: I do, very much. I do. I think we’ve lost that art. We demand so much less. I, I recently read a review in The Wall Street Journal of a, of a current book about Presidential speech writing which said, incorrectly, and I actually corrected it in a letter … that why should we criticize modern Presidents, including President Kennedy, I believe that was the book it was referring to, for having speech writers, when even Lincoln had a speech writer and did not write his own Inaugural Address. Which was totally untrue.
HEFFNER: Where in the world would they have gotten that?
HOLZER: Well, there is … the final paragraph of his First Inaugural was drafted by New York’s own …
HEFFNER: To be …
HOLZER: … became Secretary of State, is William Seward. But Lincoln took a prosaic paragraph and turned it into poetry. So he was also a good re-write man.
HEFFNER: The … you know, Neil Postman’s book, the late Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death makes so much of the Lincoln-Douglas debates …
HEFFNER: … and of the Americans who stood there, or sat …
HEFFNER: And listened hour after hour after hour.
HOLZER: The most extraordinary things about those, not only did they stand in heat and chill and, and all sorts of weather because they started in August and went through October on the plains. Very often, when they were done, three hours at a stretch, people went on to hear other speeches nearby. They would say, “Let’s adjourn to the church where so and so is going to make a one hour speech.” Again, a period when there was no mass entertainment, no theater, no films, obviously. Not much to do at home and this was a rare opportunity for community involvement and to hear famous people; see them in the flesh.
And again, it was a good thing because it got more people involved in the political process and resulted in an 80 percent turnout in the year that Lincoln ran for President.
HEFFNER: You use that statistic, I guess it was in your … was it in Lincoln at Cooper Union … I’ve read, or looked through, you’ll forgive me, so many of your many, many volumes, but I guess it was at Lincoln at Cooper Union where you refer to that 80 percent.
HOLZER: 80 percent. And you … the polling place was not in your lobby.
HOLZER: You had to … it was not easy to get … people walked often. But there was, you know, liquor at the other end. There was … polling places … a tradition started by George Washington, I think, if you made it to the polls, you got a glass of corn whiskey.
HEFFNER: No matter how you voted?
HOLZER: Ahhhh …
HEFFNER: But then we didn’t worry about that …
HOLZER: Usually you got it if you were … voted for the right person, because people carried colored ballots and people knew who … the public at large … knew who you were voting for … it was exactly a secret. Anyway … part of the political culture you mentioned.
HEFFNER: I’m not saying you’re saying this, but it seems to me that the implication is never another Lincoln.
HOLZER: Never in quite the same form, I fear. We discourage people from speaking at length. The famous sound bites must be, above all, terse, catchy and quick. We certainly don’t encourage people who don’t look like film stars with perfectly coiffured hair to run for high office. I would like to think that Lincoln was so smart he would have adapted. But I don’t think we have the political culture now that encourages thoughtful discourse, prolonged deep discourse. We don’t have debates anymore, for example, we have Q and A sessions managed by reporters. And I’m always amused when they say, “There can be no reaction from the audience.”
HEFFNER: You know, I …
HOLZER: That was all that Lincoln was about is attracting that, that attention from the audience.
HEFFNER: Because he needed that, he didn’t have a … the means of buying up time.
HOLZER: (Laughter) No. He said, “I can’t run on the money basis.”
HEFFNER: He had to have the press coverage.
HOLZER: Yes. And, in fact, just the very … we were speaking a moment ago about technology and I’d forgotten one thing, but this reminds me … Lincoln welcomed the first stenographic reporting in the case of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It was a brilliant move.
Well, he thought of the debates in the first place, which was politically smart. This was smart from a public relations point of view because the debates were recorded word for word … that had never happened before. Transcribed, printed in the Republican and Democratic newspapers. And then Lincoln had the idea of putting them in an album and making a book out of them. And that book did … the Cooper Union speech … which you mentioned a moment ago, did the campaigning for him, while he stayed home on the back porch in 1860.
HEFFNER: Today we would have DVDs and the like. But you know a moment ago, you … you talked about the difference … in talking about the difference between the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the things we call debates today. Correct me if I’m wrong … when you say the press has pushed for the sort question and the short answer … what about the role of the parties?
HOLZER: Well, there’s … it’s such a “gotcha” mentality now, it seems to me .. this is using my other hat as a political … an old political press secretary … it seems that all the debates are based on who can be caught making some sort of a gaffe that will make headlines the next day. What stupid, untoward thing can be uttered that will destroy someone.
It’s not the way the debates were or were supposed to be. And I think it would be wonderful if some one would … and there are political leaders who have suggested that we go back to Lincoln Douglass debate formats.
Our mutual friend Mario Cuomo has advocated for Lincoln Douglass debates for years. And would be sensational in those debates …
HOLZER: … because he can, he has ideas and he can speak for more than a minute.
HEFFNER: But of course you say …
HOLZER: … not less than a minute, but more than a minute.
HEFFNER: All right. You say, “And he would be great”. You mean because he would be great, he would push for the Lincoln Douglass debates.
HOLZER: Yeah. And I think he could conduct himself in that kind of debate. The only other person I’ve ever heard ask for them is a national candidate who just passed away … Admiral Stockdale. Who said …
HEFFNER: Good god …
HOLZER: … in his debate … in his Vice Presidential debate …
HOLZER: … “We should have … these are silly questions, we should have Lincoln Douglass style debates.”
HEFFNER: You think as a political analyst … as a political press secretary … going back enough years in your career … do you think we’ll ever move to the proper use of this … of confrontations … of face to face confrontations?
HOLZER: I mean … ironically I think because of the interest in reality television which invites confrontation, competition there is a possibility that we can change formats to what precisely I’m almost afraid to conjecture … but I think the, the debates where … in which broadcasters … with all due respect … conduct the events and set the rules and ring a bell after a minute … may die out. I just can’t imagine what they’d be replaced by. Maybe, you know … three minutes, three minutes, three minutes, three minutes and let it go on and on and on. Maybe that’s an attractive alternative.
HEFFNER: Let’s go back to Lincoln himself.
HEFFNER: What do you think lies at the basis of our filiopietistic response to Lincoln. Why?
HOLZER: Well, the pietistic response was generated …
HEFFNER: The martyrdom?
HOLZER: By the … by his death. Absolutely. And the fact that … I mean he could not have conceived of a more appropriate death for a hero, who, you know, had freed people and not lived to enter the “promised land” and who died for the nation’s sins on Good Friday. Forget that he was in a theater when he might easily have been in church … on Good Friday.
He is the quintessential American success story. The log cabin to White House story was not originated by him, it was originated by Harrison, but Lincoln lived the American dream in such a convincing way, and articulated it so convincingly that he became the pioneer boy in everyone’s dreams of, of rising.
HEFFNER: Of course I find of him, and I always attribute my worship of Lincoln, that … what we titled this program today, taking a, a line from Lincoln … “I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views”.
The realism, the rationality, the what you’d like to be qualities of Lincoln seemed to me to be so overwhelming.
HOLZER: Yeah, aside from the … the all of , you know, the great sadness, the, the great humor …the first humorist President .. the sacrifice, the aging … you know the terrible toll the war took on him, there was also this very keen sense of politics and he was … his great historian named Lawanda Cox called it “the limits of the possible”. Lincoln knew the limits of the possible. He knew how difficult it was to lead an entire country to a point of view. And sometimes he did it more slowly than his contemporaries and critics would have liked. But he was successful in bringing public opinion along.
I mean the New York Times about which I’ve just written, and Lincoln had a very strange relationship because the Times was out there criticizing the President in the beginning as the nation began falling into uncharted waters in a civil war.
HEFFNER: Looking for leadership they … the Times said it didn’t find in Washington.
HOLZER: Exactly. There was not policy, they said. There was no leadership. All that we’ve heard about Lincoln is true, he’s a Westerner, he may have made a good … made an appearance here in New York at Cooper Union, but in effect he doesn’t have the skills that our guy, William Seward had. Or Salamon Chase, all of whom were absorbed into Lincoln’s political family and worked in the Administration. They were very, very rough on him and he had a tough time with the press. Which he handled, of course, without a Press Secretary.
HEFFNER: (Laughter) That’s … you’re not advocating something, now are you?
HOLZER: No, no, no. We have an informal association, a self-preservation association.
HEFFNER: At Cooper Union you seemed to feel that this was … the speech at Cooper Union was the, the … not if … if not the end all and the be-all, it was the beginning of all.
HOLZER: That’s a good way of putting it. It was a, a wonderful opportunity for him. He had never spoken in the East. He had great support for the Presidency in the West. He had to convince Easterners, many of whom were looking for a Western candidate because they knew the West would fall into the Republican camp. But wondered whether the Eastern Republicans would vote for … I’m sorry … they knew they’d win the West … but they, they needed more.
HOLZER: And Lincoln proved himself at Cooper Union with not quite a speech, but a lecture showing deep investigation into history. And legal analysis, Constitutional analysis of the views of the Founding Fathers on the right of the national government, too.
HEFFNER: And when I read that I wondered …
HEFFNER: … yeah … where did … how did he do this? Today there would be an office of research for this …
HEFFNER: … and for that … and for the other thing.
HOLZER: I have no idea. He … I mean he practice law during the day. He practiced state politics during the day. He had a family. He had no researchers and he went, basically, across the street from his office to the State Library and looked up the Congressional Record, the minutes of the, the Constitutional Convention and the various Constitutional Conventions in the states. He did an enormous amount of research, and then he wrote, you know, everything by hand, and this was a 7,500 word speech. Which he could not have written on the back of any envelope known to humankind, not that he ever did. But, I like to throw that in.
HEFFNER: What do you mean, “not that he ever did”. Are you dispelling myths?
HOLZER: Oh yes. That myth is not … he worked, he worked quite hard on all of his speeches, including the Gettysburg Address, wrote several drafts. He was also a terrible train writer. We have one example of what he wrote in a train …
HEFFNER: You mean you couldn’t have read it?
HOLZER: He started well, and then you can see the train is rocking more and more and then he gives it off to his secretary … John Nicholai and you see his handwriting.
HEFFNER: Harold, this is terrible.
HEFFNER: You start off with this Hat … picking Lincoln’s name out of a hat. And now you’re doing away with one of the greatest of myths.
HOLZER: It’s, it’s one of the stubbornest of myths. By the way I have to say one thing because I know … I have to get this right because someone will see and know that I’ve messed this up.
HOLZER: Yeah. An Easterner would win the East. But necessarily the West. So many Easterners wanted a Westerner to appeal to both sections. I don’t know if anyone has followed that, but I knew I had to get it right for the record.
HEFFNER: I’m glad you did. I was going to say it sounds like Kennedy and Johnson.
HOLZER: Yeah. It’s the same geographical policy.
HEFFNER: Nothing new under the stars.]
HOLZER: Well now they say it doesn’t count anymore. I’m not sure Clinton Gore were from a few blocks apart.
HEFFNER: You’re saying … right, right, right. I asked Mario Cuomo about this when we talked about one of your ventures together. I’ve often wondered about what Kenneth Stampp, the historian called the “Lincoln strategy at Sumter”. Do you think that he led us into that …
HOLZER: MmmHmm. This and the Pearl Harbor theory about whether they knew …
HOLZER: … well, you know, Lincoln had two comments during the election period leading up to his assuming the Presidency. And of course he said nothing between his election and inauguration and very little after his inaugural address. He said “The tug has to come.” And he said, “Another explosion will come.”
I don’t know if he believed that there would be a four year war precipitated by his stubbornness on re-supplying Fort Sumter. But I think he knew that it would … it would ignite some kind of explosion. But Lincoln also believed that the loyal residents, loyal that is to the Union in Southern states, particularly in Virginia would never allow cessation to continue. And that was one of his great miscalculations.
HEFFNER: Why? How did he miscalculate? How did he come to make that miscalculation?
HOLZER: He was, after all, a Southerner by birth who believed in the sanctity of the Constitution and the almost holy sacredness of the Union. And I think a man who believed in the better angels of our nature believed in the better angels of everyone’s nature.
And he believed that no one would rally against the American Union. Even when South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter and on the American flag.
HEFFNER: So that, that firm belief … that on his part … what he would do to preserve the Union above all else. Where does that, for you, put the question of his attitude toward slavery? And the Negro?
HOLZER: Two questions. He was a lifelong anti-slavery man. I don’t think there can be any doubt, but that he hated the institution. Not only … to be fair … not only for the cruelty it imposed on people of color, who were enslaved, but also on the spirit it created for free White people, as he put. Who he hoped would settle the Northwest, broaden the country with free White labor. I think Lincoln came more slowly to the idea that there could be a bi-racial equality, a broad bi-racial society.
HEFFNER: Did he ever come to that?
HOLZER: I think he died for it. He literally said, in his final speech from the White House balcony that it’s time to consider the electoral franchise for people of color who have fought in the ranks and who are educated. Whatever that meant. But it was … although it sounds like a retrograde statement by today’s standards, it was an astonishingly radical thing for a President of the United States to say. And who was in the audience that evening? But John Wilkes Booth. And John Wilkes Booth said, “That means Negro equality”. And he didn’t use the word “Negro” as you can imagine. “That’s the last speech he’ll ever make.” So I think, in a sense, it’s fair to say that Lincoln died for a belief in creating a bi-racial society.
HEFFNER: That notion has, in a sense, been diminished in the minds of great many people.
HOLZER: I, I agree.
HOLZER: Well, I think beginning in the sixties when my Lerone Bennett of Ebony magazine wrote, “Was Lincoln a Honky?” It’s been a growing sentiment, particularly in the Black community that emancipation was, was in large part due to people of color liberating themselves, and marching off the plantation when they had the first opportunity.
And I think that for so many generations we, we … you know, told the students that Lincoln waved a magic wand and people were suddenly free and fell to their knees in gratitude, and now we’re paying the price for that oversimplification. Of course, he created the legal apparatus and Black people free themselves with their feet. They left. And they conducted as brave an act toward their own liberation as Lincoln did, politically, in making it possible.
HEFFNER: Harold Holzer there’s so much that we have to talk about, about Abraham Lincoln. You’ve got to come back another time and let’s continue this discussion. But thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind today.
HOLZER: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and 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.