BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal to you and our studio audience.
Sam Waterston and Harold Holzer have spent so much time with Abraham Lincoln they could be his alter egos. Millions see Sam every week as district attorney Jack McCoy on the prime time drama, Law and Order. He's had a distinguished career, in roles from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to The Killing Fields, with Tony and Oscar nominations and an Emmy award to prove it. But he has turned over a large piece of his heart to old Abe, playing him so magnificently on stage and television that you think you're seeing double.
My friend Harold Holzer has published so many books on our 16th president — 22 at last count — that he was a natural to serve as co-chair of the national commission celebrating Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday this year. Harold is editor of The Lincoln Anthology, recently published by The Library of America, a collection of more than 90 authors from across the years who create a constantly evolving portrait of the man whose shadow keeps lengthening across our history.
When we heard Sam and Harold read excerpts from the book earlier this year, we were so taken with the experience that we asked them on the spot to do it again, right here, for you. So, here they are. Please welcome now Sam Waterston and Harold Holzer.
HAROLD HOLZER: "The art of writing," Abraham Lincoln once declared, "is the great invention of the world. Great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space." With those words, in a way, Lincoln forecast his own impact on the American vocabulary. In the assessment of no less than Harriet Beecher Stowe, "Lincoln's writing proved worthy to be inscribed in letters of gold." She was right.
Lincoln did nothing less than revolutionize the American political vocabulary. But no political leader, no political writer, not even Lincoln, can define his own place in the landscape of memory. That judgment belongs to those who portray the man in life, massage his biography into metaphor, and refine its meaning over what Lincoln called all distances of time and space.
The Lincoln we have come to know — the man who Barack Obama claimed through his will and his words moved a nation and helped free a people, not surprisingly began this process of historical analysis himself. Though he never kept a journal, never wrote a memoir, Lincoln offered the very first judgment of his prospects while still a teenager, scribbling in a notebook on which he practiced arithmetic, but occasionally, let his mind wander to contemplate his own future.
Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen he will be good
but god knows When Time What an empty vapor
'tis and days how swift they are swift as an Indian arrow
fly on like a shooting star the present moment Just is here
then slides away in haste that we can never say, they're ours
but only say they're past
Abraham Lincoln is my name
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both haste and speed
and left it here for fools to read.
HAROLD HOLZER: Lincoln underestimated himself. Though he would escape the notice of America's greatest writers for another four decades, when he arrived in New York City to deliver his Cooper Union address, the poet William Cullen Bryant took note. This is how Bryant introduced him, in February, 1860. Until that day, Lincoln was only an intriguing westerner, who had nearly won a Senate seat. That was about to change.
SAM WATERSTON: These children of the West form a living bulwark against the advance of slavery, and from them is recruited the vanguard of the mighty armies of liberty. One of them is present to you this evening, a gallant soldier of the political campaign of 1856, in which he rendered a good service to the Republican cause, and the great champion of that cause in Illinois two years later, when he and his friends would have won the victory but for the unjust apportionment law. I need only to pronounce the name of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois — I have only to pronounce his name to secure your profoundest attention.
HAROLD HOLZER: And attention was paid. Just eight months later, Lincoln won the presidency, a little known inexperienced Illinois lawyer who had seized the nomination from the overwhelming favorite, the experienced senior Senator from New York. And yet, he remained obscure, still required introduction. The first embedded journalist to observe him at home as he prepared for his inauguration was Henry Villard of The New York Herald, who watched him change his attitude and his image to face the coming storm, still not certain the nation had chosen wisely.
SAM WATERSTON: His old friends who have been used to a great indifference as to the "outer man" on his part, say that "Abe is putting on airs." By this, they refer to the fact that he is now wearing a brand new hat and suit, and that he has commenced cultivating the unusual adornment of whiskers. But these late outward embellishments to the contrary notwithstanding... We venture to say that Fifth Avenue snobs, if unaware who he was, would be horrified at walking across the street with him.
And yet, there is something about the man that makes one forget these exterior short-comings and feel attracted toward him. But the present aspect of the country, I think, augurs one of the most difficult terms which any president has yet been called to weather; and I doubt Mr. Lincoln's capacity for the task of bringing light and peace out of the chaos that will surround him. A man of good heart and good intention, he is not firm. The times demand a Jackson.
HAROLD HOLZER: The times brought more scrutiny but, for a time, no more approbation. One of the writers who glimpsed Lincoln at the White House was the pro-slavery Nathaniel Hawthorne, a confirmed Democrat, who preferred the handsome former president, Franklin Pierce. Hawthorne's frank portrait of Lincoln was considered so shocking that The Atlantic Monthly refused to print it. Yet, as the text progresses, one can almost feel the starchy New Englander slowly falling under Lincoln's spell.
SAM WATERSTON: If put to guess his livelihood, I should have taken him for a country-schoolmaster as soon as anything else. He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed, and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be an outer skin of the man. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb...
The whole physiognomy is as coarse a one as you would meet anywhere in the length and breadth of the States; but withal, it is redeemed, illuminated, softened, and brightened, by a kindly though serious look out of his eyes, and an expression of homely sagacity that seems weighted with rich village-experience. A great deal of native sense; no bookish cultivation, no refinement; honest at heart and thoroughly so. Yet, in some sort, sly. At least, endowed with a sort of tact and wisdom that are akin to craft, they would impel him, I think, to take an antagonist in flank, rather than to make a bull-run at him right in front. But, on the whole, I liked this sallow, queer, sagacious visage, and, for my small share in the matter, would as lief have Uncle Abe for a ruler as any man whom it would have been practicable to put in his place.
HAROLD HOLZER: For months, Lincoln kept northern Democrats like Hawthorne at bay by resisting the temptation to turn the war for union into a war for liberty. Not everyone was charmed by the delay. Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, led the chorus of attack, unaware that the president had already drafted his Emancipation Proclamation, merely tabling it temporarily until it could be backed by a battlefield victory.
SAM WATERSTON: Dear sir: I do not intrude to tell you — for you must know already — that a great portion of those who triumphed in your election, and all who desire the unqualified suppression of the Rebellion now desolating our country, are sorely disappointed and deeply pained by the policy you seem to be pursuing with regards to slaves of the Rebels...We think you are strangely and disastrously remiss in the discharge of your official and imperative duty....Why these traitors should be treated with tenderness by you, to the prejudice of the dearest rights of loyal men, we cannot conceive.
We think you are unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States...Whether you will choose to bear responsibility through future history and at the bar of God, I will not judge...I entreat you to render a hearty and unequivocal obedience to the law of the land.
HAROLD HOLZER: Eventually Lincoln did issue the Proclamation, and accompanied its dry prose with the poetry of The Gettysburg Address. This is when Harriet Beecher Stowe took notice.
SAM WATERSTON: Among the many accusations which in hours of ill luck have been thrown out upon Lincoln, it is remarkable that he has never been called self-seeking or selfish. When we who are troubled and sat in darkness, and looked doubtfully towards the presidential chair, it was never that we doubted the goodwill of our pilot — only the clearness of his eyesight.
But Almighty God has granted to him that clearness of vision which he gives to the true-hearted, and enabled him to set his honest foot in that promised land of freedom which is to be the patrimony of all men, black and white, and from henceforth the nations shall rise up and call him blessed.
HAROLD HOLZER: As Lincoln said on signing the Proclamation, "If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act." And he reinforced that thought through his annual message to Congress, as he said, "We cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation." The press cheered.
But Lincoln was about to move beyond the confines of journalism, and even of history. A martyr's death for mankind's sins, on Good Friday, no less, catapulted him into the realm of myth. To poet Julia Ward Howe, author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, he became the second George Washington.
Crown his blood-stained pillow
With a victor's palm;
Life's receding billow
Leaves eternal calm.
In the greenest meadow
That the prairies show,
Let his marble's shadow
Give all men to know:
"Our First Hero, living,
Made his country free;
Heed the Second's giving,
Death for Liberty."
HAROLD HOLZER: Then there was Herman Melville, who observed the morning crepe strung for black Easter and viewed Lincoln as more than a second Washington, but as a second messiah.
Good Friday was the day
Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm—
When, with yearning he was filled
To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
But they killed him in his kindness,
In their madness and their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.
There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.
He lieth in his blood—
The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver—
The Avenger takes his place,
HAROLD HOLZER: Melville later retreated from his charge that Lincoln's successor had been, as he put it, "[...] raised up by heaven to wreak vengeance on the south." In fact, the new president, Andrew Johnson, proved so lenient, so hostile to the rights of African-Americans, that Congress overrode and ultimately impeached him. The house divided again, this time over reconstruction. And writers imposed on Lincoln's memory, whatever inspiration they felt he might provide. Amidst this renewed national contentiousness, John Greenleaf Whittier saw Lincoln as nothing less than God's voice on Earth.
We rest in peace where these sad eyes
Saw peril, strife and pain;
His was the nation's sacrifice,
And ours the priceless gain.
Oh symbol of God's will on earth
As it is done above!
Bear witness to the cost and worth
Of justice and of love.
HAROLD HOLZER: But no one crystallized the nation's mourning more influentially or endearingly than the bard of Lincoln legend: Walt Whitman. In prose and verse inspired by Lincoln's life and death, he argued that the assassination had been, as he called it, a cement to the whole people, a tragedy that made possible national renewal. This excerpt is from his consummate masterpiece, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower, I break.
HAROLD HOLZER: With the passage of time and the intensifying of racial strife, Frederick Douglass, for one, added texture to the rush to monumentalize Lincoln, asserting he was quintessentially the white man's president, and tempering his admiration for Lincoln with impatience for future progress. Points he made, ironically enough, at the 1876 unveiling of the Freedmen's Memorial in Washington, a statue entirely funded by the donations of free blacks.
SAM WATERSTON: We have done a good work for our race to-day. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honor to ourselves and those who come after us;..fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal:..and defining ourselves from a blighting slander...for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you our country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose...
Yet you are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best his step children; children by adoption, children by force of circumstances and necessity. To you, it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures on your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor...Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent: only by measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical and determined.
HAROLD HOLZER: In the ensuing debate over Lincoln's claim to the title of Great Emancipator, a discussion that still percolates today, some poets began exploring a different, more universal, less divisive side of the story, as if unable to bridge the growing national chasm on race. So instead, they emphasize Lincoln's astounding rise from pioneer obscurity. This is how the once enormously popular poet Edwin Markham saw Lincoln in 1900.
The color of the ground was in him, the red earth;
The tang an odor of the primal things—
The rectitude and patience of the rocks;
The gladness of the wind that shakes the corn;
The courage of the bird that dares to the sea;
The justice of the rain that loves all leaves;
The pity of the snow that hides all scars.
And so he came from prairie cabin up to Capitol,
One fair Ideal led our chieftain on.
Forevermore he burned to do his deed
With the fine stroke and gesture of a king.
He built the rail-pile as he built the State,
Pouring his splendid strength through every blow,
A conscience of him testing every stroke
To make his deed the measure of a man.
HAROLD HOLZER: Poet Richard Watson Gilder went even further. Marking the reunion of Union and Confederate veterans at the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, he dedicated a poem to what he called the spirit of Lincoln, a spirit that he believed looked kindly on sectional reconciliation without reference to the disadvantaged race that the war had freed but not empowered.
Shade of our greatest, O look down to-day!
Here the long, dread battle roared,
And brother in brother plunged the accursed sword;-
Here foe meets foe once more in proud array,
Each fought for what he deemed the people's good,
And proved his bravery by his offered life,
And sealed his honor with his outpoured blood;
But the eternal did not direct the strife,
And on this sacred field one patriot host
Now calls thee Father— dear, majestic ghost!
HAROLD HOLZER: Then of course there was the one man Lincoln industry named Carl Sandburg, the poet who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography that sold more copies, and perhaps influenced more Americans, than any book ever written. Even if Edmund Wilson once insisted that no one had done more to injure Lincoln since John Wilkes Booth.
Sandburg reserved his most direct assessments for his verse, like The People Yes.
He was a mystery in smoke and flags,
saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
yes to the hopes of government
of the people by the people for the people,
no to debauchery of the public mind,
no to personal malice nursed and fed,
yes to the Constitution when a help,
no to the Constitution when a hindrance,
yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
each man fated to answer for himself:
Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
must I choose for my own sustaining light to bring me
beyond the present wilderness?
[...] Death was in the air.
So was birth.
What was dying few could say.
What was being born none could know.
HAROLD HOLZER: Here was Lincoln fully transformed from memory to monument. Yet still something of a paradox when Langston Hughes first encountered the most monumental Lincoln of all, the great statute at the Lincoln Memorial in 1926.
Let's go see Old Abe
Sitting in the marble and the moonlight,
Sitting lonely in the marble and the moonlight,
Quiet for ten thousand centuries, old Abe.
Quiet for a million, million years.
And yet a voice forever
Of time— Old Abe.
HAROLD HOLZER: There was far less ambiguity in the analysis by another African-American writer of the time. This is what W.E.B. Dubois said in 1922, breaking sharply with the tradition fostered mostly by whites that Lincoln deserved to be sanctified by blacks, and yet concluding, inevitably, that even de-mythologized, Lincoln still did deserve veneration.
We love to think of the Great as flawless. We yearn in our imperfection, toward perfection— sinful, we envisage Righteousness.
As a result of this, no sooner does a great man die than we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant and remember the fine and brave and good. We slur over and explain away his inconsistencies and at last there begins to appear, not the real man, but the tradition of the man—remote, immense, perfect, cold, and dead!
Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century...the most human and loveable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet, triumphed. The world is full of illegitimate children. The world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.
HAROLD HOLZER: Whether real man or symbol, until this time, Lincoln had remained the exclusive property of Republicans, even when they strayed from his example. Theodore Roosevelt cloaked himself within the legacy. But then Woodrow Wilson seized it for the Democrats to justify fighting for a world war for democracy, ignoring the bitter irony that he was simultaneously re-segregating the entire federal bureaucracy.
Perhaps the greatest manipulator of Lincoln's political legacy of all was Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR hired the playwright Robert Emmet Sherwood as a speech writer, fresh on the heels of his Broadway triumph: Abe Lincoln in Illinois. He wanted Sherwood to help him persuade isolationist America to rally against the new global threat from fascism, just as his Lincoln character had been persuaded to fight against slavery.
So suddenly FDR began quoting Lincoln. But in a way, nothing the playwright composed for the president better made the case for abandoning complacency than the final speech from his triumphant play. Based on the president elect's original farewell address to his Springfield hometown, but skillfully embellished with a timeless call to action in crisis. Sam Waterston once spoke these lines, performing the title role, appropriately enough, at Lincoln Center. Here he speaks some of them again.
SAM WATERSTON: No one not in my situation can appreciate my feelings of sadness at this pardoning. To this place and the kindness of you people I owe everything. I have lived here a quarter of a century, and passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried.
I now leave not knowing when or whether ever I may return. I'm called upon to assume the presidency at a time when 11 of our sovereign states have announced their intention to secede from the union, when threats of war increase in fierceness from day to day. It is a grave duty I now face.
In preparing for it, I have tried to inquire what great principle or ideal is that has kept this union so long together. We gained democracy. And now there is the question of whether it is fit to survive. Perhaps we have come to this dreaded day of awakening and the dream is ended. If so, I am afraid it must be ended forever. I cannot believe that ever again will men have the opportunity we have had. Perhaps we should admit that and concede that our ideals of liberty and equality are decadent and doomed.
Let us believe that is not true. Let us live to prove that we can cultivate the natural world that is about us, and the intellectual and moral world that is within us, so that we may secure an individual, social, and political prosperity whose course shall be forward, and which, while the Earth endures, shall not pass away.
HAROLD HOLZER: Though the Earth and democracy did endure, by the end of the 20th century, a new, sometimes discordant Lincoln entered the literature to fit a new vernacular, new political sensibilities, and a new cynicism. To the perpetually enraged Delmore Schwartz, for example, something of an anti-Sandburg, a morose Lincoln represented an indecisiveness that had encouraged national greed.
Manic depressive Lincoln, national hero!
How just and true that this great nation, being conceived
In liberty by fugitives, should find
--Strange ways and plays of monstrous History--
This Hamlet-type to be the President-
This failure, this unwilling bridegroom,
This tricky lawyer full of black despair-
O how he was the Hamlet-man, and this,
After a life of failure made him right,
After he ran away on his wedding day,
Writing a coward's letter to his bride-
How with his very failure, he out-tricked
The florid Douglas and the abstract Davis,
And all the vain men who, surrounding him,
Smiled in their vanity and sought his place-
Later, they made him out a prairie Christ
To sate the need coarse and the national heart-
He studied law, but knew in his own soul
Despairs anarchy, terror and error,
--Instruments had to be taken from his office
And from his bedroom in such days of horror,
Because some saw that he might kill himself:
When he was young, when he was middle-aged,
How just and true was he, our national hero!
In fact, the North and South were losers both:
--Capitalismus won the Civil War-
HAROLD HOLZER: Schwartz ultimately yielded to Allen Ginsberg [and Sidney Goldfarb], who saw Lincoln through the same radical lens, but now, as a rallying cry for, not an impediment to, revolutionary change as in this Homage to Neruda. But again, as before, he seemed an urgently needed inspiration.
Let the Railsplitter Awake!
Let Lincoln come with his axe
and with his wooden plate
to eat with the farmworkers.
May his craggy head,
his eyes we see in constellations,
in the wrinkles of the live oak,
come back to look at the world
rising up over the foliage
higher than the Sequoias.
Let him go shop in pharmacies,
let him take the bus to Tampa
let him nibble a yellow apple,
let him go to the movies, and
talk to everybody there.
Let the rail splitter awake!
Let Abraham come back, let his old yeast
rise in green and gold earth of Illinois,
and lift the axe in his city
against the new slave makers
against their slave whips
against the venom of the print houses
against all the bloodsoaked
merchandise they wanna sell.
Let the young white boy and young black
march singing and smiling
against walls of gold,
against manufacturers of hatred,
against the seller of his own blood,
singing, smiling and winning at last.
Let the Railsplitter awake!
HAROLD HOLZER: Of all the poets and politicians of the last 50 years, arguably no one has done more to let the rail splitter awake, or perhaps more accurately, reawake with profound relevance than Barack Obama. The latest renaissance began when Mr. Obama announced his candidacy for President from the state capital in Lincoln's old hometown of Springfield, Illinois, where he'd once served as a state legislator, warned America about the house divided, and later, lay in state, the final victim of the war to reunite it and to extend its original promise of freedom and opportunity. This is what Barack Obama said two days before Lincoln's birthday in 2007.
SAM WATERSTON: By ourselves this change will not happen. Divided we are bound to fail. But the life of a tall, gangly, self made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible. He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in conviction, that beneath all the differences of race and region, faith and station, we are one people. He tells us that there is power in hope.
As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say, "Of strange discordant and even hostile elements we gathered from the four winds and formed and fought to battle through. Together, standing today, let us finish the work that needs to be done and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth."
HAROLD HOLZER: President Obama dedicated his inaugural of the 44th President to the 16th President. He even swore his oath on the very Bible on which Lincoln placed his hand at the same ceremony nearly a century and a half before. Now still early in the Obama era and, as we mark the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, it's clear that Lincoln memory has expanded exponentially.
The hero of the Democrats, the Republicans, blacks and whites, writers and readers, is where he should be, capable of inspiring as long as his example is not misused, capable of guidance through what Lincoln called "all time to come." Perhaps his place in American memory and mythology was expressed best of all by an anonymous poet from The Depression, the last depression, that is, in words, words that seem as relevant today as they were then.
Consider the land of thine and freedom's birth--
Cry out: It shall not perish from the Earth!
Engrave upon our hearts that holy vow.
Spirit of Lincoln, thy country needs thee now.
BILL MOYERS: Sam, when you first knew you were going to play Lincoln, were you intimidated?
SAM WATERSTON: Actually, I was kind of protected by my own ignorance. Because I just knew that it was a great part. And I knew that I was plain, and he was plain, and if there was any justice in the world, there should be some reward for that. And it wasn't really intimidating until I began to do the research. I went to the Library of Congress. And I was standing there, looking around. And a nice woman came up to me and said, "You look lost, can I help you?" And I said, "Yeah actually, I was wondering if you had anything here about Lincoln." And she said, "Well actually, we are the Lincoln Library." "And may I ask you why you're interested?"
And I said, "Well, because I'm going to be playing him." And she said, "Oh dear." And then they gave — she and four or five other people gave over the rest of the day, all the time that I had — they'd shown me photographs, I saw the cast of his hand, the life mask that was cast, all of these wonderful things. And then I said, "You know, really, I've got to get back to New York. I got to go."
And they said, "Wait, wait, wait." And this guy took me down, down and down and down into the bowels of the library, down a long hall, down another long hall, all the way to what felt like the back of the building, in a room. There were these big work tables with pool lights over them, you know. And they were all shut off except one at the back of the back of the room.
And there was a guy over the table. "Did you close it up yet?" said the man I was with. And I — the man in the room said, "No, no, not yet, but I'm about to." And he said, "Well, wait, wait. Wait just a second. I want to show this. " "I don't know, is that authorized?" "Don't worry about it, it'll be okay." And then he went like this, "Hold out your hands. These are the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he was shot."
BILL MOYERS: What were they?
SAM WATERSTON: Two pairs of glasses, I think. One of them was a gift from Billy Herndon , his law partner. His wallet. A watch fob. Some studs, maybe.
HAROLD HOLZER: Pocket knife?
SAM WATERSTON: A pocket knife, Confederate money, reviews.
BILL MOYERS: Reviews?
SAM WATERSTON: Both positive and negative.
BILL MOYERS: Press reviews?
HAROLD HOLZER: Editorials, yes.
SAM WATERSTON: Uh-huh.
HAROLD HOLZER: A hankie embroidered by Mary A.L.
SAM WATERSTON: It was a galvanizing and very thrilling thing.
BILL MOYERS: This raises the question I've often wondered about, not only for an actor, but especially for a historian. How do you cope with a man who comes to you wrapped in a myth?
HAROLD HOLZER: Well, there are two ways to answer the question. The first is, when you're doing research and writing for presentations, you don't pay much attention to what's been written in the last 75 years. You go back to the original sources. You discover the man through his image and through his writings, if you're lucky enough to have the experience of that connection of — to the raw materials of his life, which few of us have had. I got to hold the contents of your pockets once. That was as close as I got. For a few minutes, then you took it back.
SAM WATERSTON: Yeah, naturally.
HAROLD HOLZER: The other answer, though, is, I mean, you go back to the original sources. Lincoln's writing is enough to immortalize him and it's enough to justify the study that has been pursued so avidly for so many years. But there's another answer to the question. And that is, you know, Lincoln said, "Let us believe that George Washington is perfect because it helps us strive to perfection."
There are many modern politicians, including Mario Cuomo, who we both know, who says let's not denigrate Lincoln publicly. Let's keep him on a pedestal, because it makes others aspire to join him on the pedestal. It brings out the best in modern leaders. And I think there's something to be said for that, as well.
SAM WATERSTON: I think the danger with myths is that once a person becomes a myth, he goes in a box, you don't have to pay any attention to him. And so I think the remedy for that is to read what he wrote and read it carefully.
BILL MOYERS: I saw you some years ago when you were portraying Lincoln at Lincoln Center, as Harold said earlier. And when we left, I was struggling with where — when you ceased to exist and Lincoln appeared because —
SAM WATERSTON: Bless you.
BILL MOYERS: — he did. He did appear. As I said, it was like an incarnation. How does that happen?
SAM WATERSTON: I think in Lincoln's case it's like great parts in Shakespeare. If you say the lines, the character comes out. Stacy Keach, who was a colleague of mine when I was first doing Shakespeare in New York, said, "You know, there's a reason that these parts are so durable. Learn them. Respect the scansion. And say them loud enough to be heard. And people are going to like it." And I think the same thing's true of Lincoln.
BILL MOYERS: On the issue of language, what — how do both of you explain the Gettysburg Address? In your presentation, you referred to it as the poetry of that address. How do you explain that powerful and timeless statement in, what, three to five minutes?
HAROLD HOLZER: Two to three.
BILL MOYERS: Two to three minutes?
HAROLD HOLZER: You know, the first thing we have to remember is that Lincoln, the great orator of the pre-presidential years, spoke very seldom as President of the United States. It was not considered seemly for sitting presidents to address the public directly. We forget. They took seriously the fact that they were chosen indirectly by the electoral college.
He put a great deal of thought into that hymn to sacrifice and his ode to rebirth of the country. It was not written on the back of an envelope on a train. It was written in the White House whenever he could grab a moment. And I just think he poured his expectations for the future and the idea of making the country a single entity following the bloodshed of the sacrifice.
But you know, it wasn't a poem about the end of something, or even the beginning of something. It's really the middle of something. If you think about when it was offered, sort of just a little bit past the midpoint of the Civil War. So, in a way, it was also a rallying cry, that there is a horizon amidst all this sacrifice and carnage.
BILL MOYERS: Was it received as such?
HAROLD HOLZER: One of the famous reviews of his Gettysburg Address, which was relegated to the bottom of the story in The New York Times that focused principally on the two hour oration that preceded it, and which no one remembers, was that, "the silly, flat, and dish-watery remarks of President Lincoln must be considered an embarrassment by the man who must be pointed out to foreigners as the President of the United States."
SAM WATERSTON: Which just goes to show you should read him carefully.
HAROLD HOLZER: You know, another great myth is that everyone hated it. But if you look at the editorial reaction, the Democratic press assailed it and the Republican press thought it was okay. The Providence Journal, I think, gave the best review. The hardest thing in the world is to write a short speech, and they got it fairly quickly. But of course it achieved nothing like the status as American scripture that it has now.
SAM WATERSTON: I think that he had a lot of practice at the two things that were required to write a short political speech that's full of meaning. And one is that he was a poet all his life. And the other was that he was a persuader all his life. And he practiced the art of persuasion way before he became a politician, as a lawyer.
BILL MOYERS: As a lawyer. That's where he told so many of those stories. They said he could actually turn a jury around with a short story. And the shorter the better.
SAM WATERSTON: And The Gettysburg Address is a lot of wonderful things. But it is mainly a persuasive argument to keep on fighting till it's done. Which I think is pretty cool.
HAROLD HOLZER: He was always writing for that wider audience. How many people in a crowd of 15,000 would hear him? How many people would know that he even had begun a speech, having followed an orator who went on for two hours? They said that the photographer in the crowd never pulled his shutter because he assumed that he would be on for a long time, and missed the opportunity to record him speaking.
BILL MOYERS: There was a wonderful arc to what we heard tonight, beginning with young Lincoln, and ending with modern writers who keep turning the prism, who keep changing the perception. It's almost as if he's changing before our eyes and ears, as I listen, and we're changing in response to what you're reading and proclaiming.
SAM WATERSTON: Well, I'm a sort of a backward person. I think he sort of stays who he is. And we spin around and haul him this way and that way and try to make him like us, and try to make him think this or be subject to this criticism or that criticism. But by and large, I think, you know, you just read what he says, and all of that stuff kind of falls off.
BILL MOYERS: You say he stayed as he was. But in fact, didn't his perceptions and opinions about the war and union and slavery change as the war continued?
HAROLD HOLZER: Of course. And the fact that he matured is what represents the hope that we still have that our leaders can mature and react to exigencies as they occur, and grow with the times, and deal with the unforeseen emergencies that inevitably occur during every administration and every era. But the fact that each successive generation of leaders looks to Lincoln, I think, is a healthy thing.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think is his relevance today?
HAROLD HOLZER: The immediate relevance is that he is considered a hero and an inspiration to the sitting president of the United States. And it's not just that he's — that Lincoln is an inspiration to Barack Obama. It's that Barack Obama is, in a way — brings us nearer to the completion of the unfinished work that Lincoln spoke about at Gettysburg.
His election is a validation of that dream, even if it took 150 years to get to this point. And I find the idea that two little girls, Sasha and Malia Obama, who are the descendants, through their mother's side, of enslaved people, might this very evening be playing in the Lincoln bedroom, which was Lincoln's office, and the room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That is the apex of the arc of history since the Civil War, it seems to me, as simple as it is.
BILL MOYERS: Sam Waterston, Harold Holzer, thank you very much for being with us this evening. And thank you both for what you're doing during this bicentennial year.
SAM WATERSTON: We're having too much fun.
HAROLD HOLZER: Absolutely. Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you
SAM WATERSTON: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: That's it for the Journal. You can learn more about Abraham Lincoln and his times on the Moyers website at pbs.org. You can also find information there about The Lincoln Anthology edited by Harold Holzer and published by The Library of America. That's at pbs.org. I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next time.
Note: Harold Holzer notes in The Lincoln Anthology that Allen Ginsberg collaborated with Sidney Goldfarb to adapt Neruda's poem: "Ginsberg made this adaptation from the Waldeen version in collaboration with the poet and playwright Sidney Goldfarb, giving the poem a renewed colloquial fluidity - and, by removing it from proximity to Neruda's effusive and repeated praise of Joseph Stalin, a more democratic context."