Bill Moyers sat down with historian and Abraham Lincoln biographer Eric Foner to discuss the legacy and the legend of America’s most studied president. Also in this JOURNAL, PressThink blogger Jay Rosen and Salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald respond to a tough question. Is the same old media sustaining the same old politics?
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
This week at the White House there was a quick shift to Plan B. President Obama was all set to cheerlead his economic stimulus plan with a lightning round of network interviews when the news hit. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, laden with tax problems and charges of influence peddling, took himself out of the running for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Quick as a flash, the president had lost control of his message. So, he changed his tune to a medley of mea culpas.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know ultimately, I take responsibility for the situation that we’re in. I’m here on television saying I screwed up. I don’t want my administration to be sending a message that there are two sets of rules.
BILL MOYERS: Message: I care and I’m really sorry, too. Contrition, of course, is rare in Washington; presidents almost never say, “I blew it.” So here’s how it was interpreted by cable and network news.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Daschle ditches and the president takes the blame.
DAVID GREGORY: At a time when the administration and the president himself is going after Wall Street executives for their conduct, for their executive pay, are all of his people playing by the rules?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: The good news is, even though the president was forced to apologize so many times yesterday, is that these nominees now are gone. They have chosen to withdraw. So the president can move on.
BILL MOYERS: The new president and the Washington establishment – including the press corps – are still trying to figure each other out. The narrative of change that carried Barack Obama through the campaign isn’t working – so far. His attempts at bipartisanship rejected, he now has dropped his conciliatory tone and gone on the attack. These rapid gear shifts in Potomac spin cry out for some analysis, and here with me now are two keen students of politics and the media to share with us their thoughts.
Glenn Greenwald is a constitutional lawyer turned journalist. His blog on Salon.com is one of the most influential on the internet. He’s written two best sellers: “How Would a Patriot Act?” about President Bush and executive power, and “A Tragic Legacy.” His most recent book is “Great American Hypocrites.”
Jay Rosen is a founder of the citizen journalism movement and is a professor of journalism at New York University, as well as a widely published writer and media critic. He created the popular blog called PressThink, subtitled “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine.”
Two and a half years ago he began a research project called NewAssignment.net, bringing together professional journalists and amateur contributors to cover the news.
Welcome to both of you.
GLENN GREENWALD: Good to be here.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s spend a moment on the Daschle affair before it becomes a footnote to history. The press zeroed in on the unpaid taxes. But was that really the heart of the story?
GLENN GREENWALD: I don’t think it was the heart of the story at all. I think there was a much more significant aspect to Tom Daschle’s nomination, which is that he spent 30 years in Congress, all of his adult life, in essence, doing nothing but being a member of Congress.
And the minute he left, he traded in on his influence and his contacts to make enormous sums of money by telling large corporations and wealthy individuals how they can get the legislation that they want from the Congress, including giving advice to the very companies and giving speeches to the very companies that he would have ended up regulating as part of his duties as Health and Human Services secretary.
And I think the press overlooked that, and didn’t think that was much of a story was because it’s so customary in Washington for members of both political parties. That’s how the system works. And the members of the media, being integral parts of that system, want to do everything other than offer critiques of it.
BILL MOYERS: There was a headline that grabbed my attention during the week. It said, “Senators Stunned By Daschle’s Withdrawal.” What does that say to you, that the senators were stunned?
JAY ROSEN: Well, I think the culture of Washington is one of probability. The probabilities seemed to be that Daschle would get nominated. And the press looks at everything in terms of what’s likely to happen. So at the time, it was likely that Daschle was going to be approved. And so, looking carefully at the case, asking what might intervene, and even asking should he be approved, kind of takes a back seat once reporters get a beat on what’s likely to happen.
BILL MOYERS: I think you wrote that “The media stars in Washington almost never understand that there’s anything wrong with the establishment of which they’re a part.”
GLENN GREENWALD: That’s right. I mean, if you were to say to normal Americans, and it’s the reason why these issues resonated, and why Barack Obama made them a centerpiece of his campaign, that members of Congress leave office and make millions of dollars doing nothing other than essentially peddling influence to wealthy individuals who can have their way with Congress.
Most people consider that to be corruption. That’s what Barack Obama called it when he ran. Yet, to members of the media, who have spent their lives in Washington, who are friends and colleagues of the people who are engorging themselves on this corrupt system that is just the way of life. It’s like breathing air or drinking water. It’s not anything that’s noteworthy, let alone controversial.
JAY ROSEN: Well, what doesn’t get considered, Bill, is that there could be anything radically wrong with Washington. That the entire institution could be broken. That there are new rules necessary. That idea, that the institutions of Washington have failed and need to be changed, doesn’t really occur to the press, because as Glenn said, they’re one of those institutions. And they’re one of the ones that failed.
BILL MOYERS: Your colleague at Salon.com, Joan Walsh, wrote this week, that Obama, “the great communicator,” she called him, “seems to be losing control of the rhetoric of the spin.” What do you think about that?
JAY ROSEN: I think his words have a power that perhaps he didn’t understand. And one of the reasons why Daschle concluded that he had to go was that his own actions kind of undermine the spirit of Obama’s own message. And that was certainly something he didn’t expect. But in a way, it’s good that we’re holding him to his own words. That itself would be a radical change.
Because what the establishment expects is that people kind of say what they need to say to get elected. And then, once they’re in power, kind of the old rules of Washington reassert themselves.
BILL MOYERS: The Rasmussen Poll this week shows an eight point drop in support for the stimulus plan, what do you make of that?
GLENN GREENWALD: You know, I think if you go back to the 1990s, what you saw is essentially a partnership between the Republican Party, the right wing, and establishment media venues. And this partnership was formed when they were essentially engaged in their lynch mob over the Lewinsky affair.
And that partnership, those methods that were so successful then, translated into the media being blindly supportive and reverent of the Bush administration. And that partnership hasn’t really gone anywhere. And so, I think that Obama, being somewhat new to Washington, and looking at Washington as this culture ready to be changed, and leave behind its old ways – that’s what he really believes he can accomplish – may have been somewhat surprised by how potent that process is, when it works together.
And it suffocated his message. It attached the most dreaded label in Washington to what he was trying to do, which is conventional liberalism, that this is just a standard package of liberal economic policies: taxing and spending, and imposing burdens on the American taxpayer. And that message resonated with the media, and therefore, with the American public, and steamrolled the White House in a way that I think demonstrated they weren’t really prepared for how vibrant that partnership remains.
JAY ROSEN: My sense, Bill, is that insofar as politics looks like it always has, Obama’s ratings will go down. So if Washington is able to kind of ensnare him in its usual game, if the kind of partisan bickering or argument resumes, if Washington seems to be behaving the way it always has, Obama will lose. And it’s easy for that to happen. It’s the most likely thing. And that might be what happened this week.
GLENN GREENWALD: Let me just add to that, because I think it raises an interesting dilemma. Which is, if you look at what the media were saying about Obama favorably, both around the time of his election and subsequent as well, they kept insisting that he could continue Bush’s counterterrorism policies that were so controversial.
They were praising him for leaving in place all sorts of Bush officials that the media wants to see is continuity, that he’s not threatening to their way of life and to their establishment, for the reason that we talked about before. That’s how he wins praise from them, is by showing that he isn’t going to change things fundamentally, and therefore, isn’t a threat to their system.
At the same time, as Jay said, what he needs to do more than anything to fulfill the commitments that he made, is demonstrate that he’s a true change agent. And I think these objectives are very much in conflict, because the more he threatens the Washington system, I think the more hostility the press will feel towards him, and therefore, project to the public about him. And that, too, can undermine his political popularity.
JAY ROSEN: If you’re a career Washington reporter, how do you know that your knowledge is always going to be relevant throughout your career? Well, if politics is just an inside game, then you’re always on top of it. If all of a sudden, a new dynamic enters it, you may not have the knowledge you need to be the expert, to be the authority. And I think there’s a tendency for Washington journalists to see everything converging towards the political game that they are themselves masters of.
BILL MOYERS: We use these term, media and press, pretty generally. I mean, “The Washington Post” is in the media and of the press. You all are in the media and of the press. But so is Rush Limbaugh.
I think you wrote on your blog that Dave Brody from the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pat Robertson’s outfit, will one Sunday show up on “Meet the Press.” But an Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” will never show up on “Meet the Press.” What’s behind that phenomenon?
JAY ROSEN: I think part of the reason is that if Amy Goodman came on “Meet the Press,” she would say all sorts of things that not only challenge the people on the program, but challenge what they have been saying over the years. It would go back in a sense, discrediting the narrative that’s been building up for a long time. And even though it’s maybe not wholly conscious, the idea that there’s a kind of building narrative that is more or less accurate, that we kind of tell you what’s going on in Washington, is a common assumption in the press. And people who would completely shatter that, don’t.
GLENN GREENWALD: I think that’s exactly right. It’s all about the content of views. Rush Limbaugh can depict himself as being this insurgent outsider. But he supported the wars of the last eight years. He supported the tax policies that Ronald Reagan essentially instituted as conventional wisdom, that we need to lower taxes, reduce government spending. All of the conventional cliches that the media airs frequently, and doesn’t need much time in order to explain, are ones that Rush Limbaugh and the furthest fringes of the right essentially embrace.
And so, to include them into our discussion is not very disruptive at all, whereas if you had people on from the left who were advocating things like the United States’ responsibility for its unpopularity in the world, the fact that we wage wars and bomb other countries and invade and occupy other countries far more than any nation on the planet.
To include somebody like that would not only threaten the vested interests of everybody who’s participating in these conversations, it would disrupt the entire narrative, as Jay said it would. Almost sound foreign, as though these views are un-serious views, don’t belong in mainstream, serious shows. Because these views are never heard. They’re stigmatized, they’re demonized as being things that don’t really deserve a platform. And so, you can’t include advocates of these views in these shows.
JAY ROSEN: You know what’s really striking to me about this, is Lawrence Wilkerson, who worked for Colin Powell, when he retired from the government, he said that the people in power: Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld especially, were, in his view, radicals. That the radicals were the people actually running the government.
And this idea that the people in power were kind of outside the sphere of normal government, never made its way into the establishment press at all. The idea that Wilkerson could have been right, that the real radicals were running the federal government, never really penetrated their narrative at all.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that so many in the press, pundits and others as well, were saying Obama has to be bipartisan?
JAY ROSEN: I think that the ideology of the press is not so much liberal or conservative. They think themselves the keepers of realism, of savviness. I think the real religion of the American press is savviness. And in their view, it isn’t savvy to say you’re going to mobilize the anger and frustration of the American people and bring that power to Washington to change it.
That’s not how politics works. The way politics works is you say things like that to get elected, and then, once you’re in, you make your accommodations, you show that you want to hew to the center. You demonstrate that you’re bipartisan. You pick people who are familiar.
And it’s those eternal laws of politics that journalists feel they know better than us. And they expect politics to kind of run down these rails that they’ve laid down, because then we have to turn to them for the inside story. And this is what they want to continue.
GLENN GREENWALD: I agree with Jay, that it isn’t so much that the media is liberal or conservative in terms of how those terms are defined conventionally in our political spectrum. What ends up happening is that ideas that are threatening to the media and to the political elite end up being attached to the label of liberalism or leftist ideology.
With the corresponding orthodoxy that the one thing Obama, for instance, needs to show, is that he’s not beholden to the far left of his party, or that he’s willing to scorn the leftists and the liberals in his party. That’s when he generates the most praise. And the-
BILL MOYERS: From the Washington press corps.
GLENN GREENWALD: From the Washington press corps.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
GLENN GREENWALD: If you go back and look at the way in which Obama was praised for the last two months, almost entirely by the media, will almost always be based on this idea that he’s not an ideologue, that he’s not in concert with the liberals and the leftists in his party. That’s the great accomplishment in the eyes of the media; a president could possibly aspire to.
And the reason for that is because in their eyes, what liberalism or the leftist ideology that they’re scorning, are not things about policy making per se, or even approaches to foreign policy. It’s the idea that the prevailing consensus among our political elite is corrupted and needs to be radically changed. And so, what I think they are most afraid of is having the anger of the American people start to affect what happens within their system. What they want more than anything else, is to exclude those external influences.
JAY ROSEN: Here’s another way to look at it. The press is full of behaviorists. They don’t know they’re behaviorists, but they are.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
JAY ROSEN: A behaviorist is somebody who thinks that we can figure out what’s going on by looking at probabilities and large numbers of people, and what tends to happen with those people. And politics runs on laws like that to a large extent. However, there’s another aspect of politics, which is leadership, action, bringing something new into the world, starting something that didn’t exist before. Having an idea nobody had before. Pushing it through.
Journalists, deep down, don’t believe that action really works. But the real excitement of democratic politics is that something new can come into the world, because we decided it. Because there was an election. Because there’s a new crowd in town.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that’s happening?
JAY ROSEN: I think it very much could happen.
BILL MOYERS: Even yet?
JAY ROSEN: It could, yes. Because not only are there new people in the government, but there are new realities, especially in technology. The whole transparency revolution of let’s make the business of government radically open to inspection, not just in the establishment, to everyone in the country, to everyone in the world. I think that can have very powerful effects on politics. But journalists don’t see it. Because they’ve always had that information.
BILL MOYERS: But if Obama stayed true to what people perceived he was saying and being during the campaign, would the press begin to write about that? Wouldn’t they then get it?
JAY ROSEN: They might, if Obama were able to succeed and to show that the rules have changed, and to keep people mobilized, that after a while – this is the good thing about journalists. After a while, they have to report a different reality. But at first, their assumption is going to be same old game, same old people, and same old laws of behavior.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a narrative that you think could be written now that’s not being written?
JAY ROSEN: The narrative that we aren’t getting is that the political class cannot solve the problems it created. And that some outside force is needed. People from outside, ideas from outside, as well as the anger and sort of mobilized – feeling of Americans themselves.
BILL MOYERS: By your own paradigm, these ideas, as you said earlier in the broadcast, don’t get into the Washington mix, because then they’re seen as heretical by the establishment.
JAY ROSEN: They have to be forced in.
BILL MOYERS: It is not enough just to elect a president?
JAY ROSEN: It’s not enough to elect the right people. They have to be forced in from the outside. And we have more means of doing that. So it’s going to be a little bit more uncertain.
BILL MOYERS: Where is the evidence of a movement like that?
GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think, you know, even if you talk to journalists, they will tell you that they have in some sense, lost the monopoly that they previously exerted on our political discourse. There are alternative voices now. The internet enables people to construct their own platforms and to attract like-minded people.
So that now there are gathering places of hundreds of thousands, if not more citizens, who are just as angry, just as dissatisfied and just as intent on circumventing these institutions, shaming them into changing as well, in order to force the change that they themselves so vigorously resist. And I think there’s a cause for optimism in that regard.
JAY ROSEN: And when the story coming out of Washington, when the story on the talk shows isn’t actually true, or isn’t accurate to what we know, many more people are aware of that now. Many more facts can be added to the story. What we haven’t seen yet is national politics adjusting to bring these mobilized outsiders in more.
BILL MOYERS: On my computer upstairs, I have a lot of photographs from around the world this week, of protests, demonstrations of people who feel desperate in the midst of economic collapse and calamity. And they’re taking to the streets. We don’t see that in this country. Will Washington ever get the message unless they feel the pulse of people who are saying we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more?
GLENN GREENWALD: I think the idea of street demonstrations is probably the most stigmatized idea in our political process. There were huge marches, for instance, prior to the Iraq war, against the war. There were hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people throughout Europe marching in the streets against the war.
And yet, the media virtually excluded those demonstrations from the narrative, because they’re threatening, and because they’re considered to be the act of unserious radicals and people who are on the fringe, and I think that in some sense, that’s reflective of the fact that that level of agitation is probably the most threatening to the people who have a vested in having the system continue unchanged.
BILL MOYERS: So here, at the end of the week, what’s the message you are getting from Obama? And how’s the press reacting to it?
JAY ROSEN: I actually think Obama is a disruptive force, potentially disruptive force.
BILL MOYERS: To?
JAY ROSEN: To Washington. Because he did speak to people’s disgust with our political system. And he still has the power to mobilize that. And his words, expressing that feeling have more potency than, I think, maybe even he realized. But as Glenn said, he is naturally, a compromiser. And I think he’s going to be pulled between playing a savvy inside game and trying to mobilize anger from outside of Washington. He’s going to seesaw between these two things.
BILL MOYERS: Is it your sense that the situation in the country, with half a million people losing their jobs in a month, is it your sense that the reality in the country is far more calamitous than Washington seems to be perceiving it?
GLENN GREENWALD: I think yes and no. I think that clearly, the opinion-making elites and the political elites are generally insulated from the level of anxiety and economic threat that millions and millions of Americans are facing in the most extreme fashion since the Great Depression, as the cliche goes.
At the same time, I think the problem is, is that the citizenry has really been trained to believe that they’re impotent when it comes to demanding action from the political class.
It’s already extraordinary that nine out of ten Americans, prior to the election – nine out of ten – believe that the country was radically off course. They lost complete faith in our political institutions, our media institutions. Virtually everything is held in such low esteem, and that’s the reason why there was such hope vested in Barack Obama, that he would be something different and new that the country is hungering for.
But I think what needs to happen is there needs to be a sense, as you said, whether it’s street demonstrations or other forms of true social disruption that can threaten the people who have an interest in preserving how things are, that until that happens, and whatever form that takes. It’s hard to predict. It can be spontaneous. It can grow out of real dissatisfaction and anger. That more or less, lip service will be paid to the idea that these are significant problems that our political leaders care about, that change is coming.
But no real change will occur. Their interests will continue to be to ignore all of that, to treat it as condescendingly as possible and just to placate it when they can.
BILL MOYERS: Both of you have a keen sense of the power of the internet. You’ve used it for your own work. What if all those people out there who supported Obama through the internet, actually used that technology to send him a message? You know, wait a minute. This is going the wrong way. We expect more of you than this. What would happen?
GLENN GREENWALD: I think that’s one of the things that’s going to have to happen if Obama’s going to do anything other than essentially blend into the permanent political class in Washington. You actually saw a little bit of that when he first secured the nomination, and then suddenly violated, betrayed his commitment to filibuster any bill that contained Telecom immunity. It created a real backlash among his supporters.
There was a website that was the sort of center of his campaign. And it was a conduit of lots of anger. And the campaign heard that. I think that’s what’s going to have to happen, is his supporters on whom he relies for his political power, are going to have to be the ones holding him accountable, by being angry and dissatisfied when he seems to be off the course that he promised he would stay on.
JAY ROSEN: During the age of mass media, the idea of one way, one to many communication, sunk very deeply into the political elites’ sense of self. Broadcast the message. Send the message. What’s the message? The great thing about the internet it that it runs two ways. It’s just as good at enabling us to send messages to them as it is for them to tell us. And I think what people have to do is remember the internet runs two ways, and to use it to tell Washington what to do.
BILL MOYERS: Jay Rosen, Glenn Greenwald, thanks for being with me on the JOURNAL.
In just a few days we’ll mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, on the 12th of February, 1809. We can only wonder today what he would think of the city over which he broods. The scandals and partisan rancor, even our present economic woes, would not likely surprise him although they pale beside the trials and tribulations he faced. But what has happened to his vision of a government “Of, by and for the people?”
The country has begun a year-long celebration of the man who saved the Union, and became a martyr for it. Here on public television, two new documentaries about Lincoln will air next week. “American Experience” explores his assassination and its aftermath.
Then historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents his two-part series “Looking for Lincoln“, a personal journey to understand both the enigma and the legacy.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Today he is far more myth than man.
DAVID BLIGHT: There’s a deep mythology to his roots. There’s something so American about that.
HAROLD HOLZER: He is the hero we have created to suit everybody.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: I’m Henry Louis Gates, Jr. For years I have pursued the question of how our history defines us…
My work on identity has led me to the one American who stands at the heart of what it means to be an American.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: There are lessons for all of us in everyday life from him. The question is, what would Lincoln do?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR: In our history books he is the savior of the Union, the great emancipator. But he also continues to spark controversy.
LERONE BENNETT: Everything I’d heard about Abraham Lincoln was a lie.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR: I’ll explore the myth, and the man behind it.
GEORGE W. BUSH: You know I look at Lincoln and say to myself my goodness I have I got it so easy compared to Abraham Lincoln.
BILL CLINTON: He overcame enormous difficulties as no president has ever done before or since.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: Helping me along the way will be the Lincoln scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: In Lincoln’s own words ,you see the man and the brilliant politician and the great leader that he was.
BILL MOYERS: As we often say on PBS, check your local listings for both “American Experience” and “Looking for Lincoln” next week. Also check your local library. More books have been written about Lincoln than any other American than any historical personage it’s said, except for Jesus Christ.
More books are coming during this bicentennial year. Here’s my most recent favorite, “Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World.” It’s a collection of original essays by prize-winning historians, including the book’s editor, Eric Foner, who is with me now.
Eric Foner is an acclaimed professor of history at Columbia University here in New York City, and the author of “The Story of American Freedom”, “Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War” and “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution”.
Eric Foner, welcome back to the JOURNAL.
ERIC FONER: Good to see you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: You open your book with the anecdote from that great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, when he said in 1876, “No man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.” Boy, was he wrong, right?
ERIC FONER: Well, people have been trying to say new things ever since. But I think the reason we keep finding new things to say about Lincoln is that Lincoln is a mirror for ourselves. People find in Lincoln you know, indications of their own time. The questions we ask about Lincoln change as our times change.
So today, for example, we’re really interested in Lincoln’s views about race, about slavery, because of the centrality of those questions in the last generation. You know, previous generations were interested in other aspects of Lincoln. So you know, Lincoln is kind of a Rorschach test for every generation to look at and to see new things.
BILL MOYERS: How did he become the lens through which we look at the American experience and define it, in many respects?
ERIC FONER: Well, first of all, of course, he was the president during the most pivotal crisis in American history, the Civil War. He presided over the end of slavery, one of the great turning points, probably the greatest turning point in some ways in American history. But also there’s a kind of mythology that is built up about Lincoln in which he exemplifies, you know, what we consider the basic traits or characteristics of American life. He’s Honest Abe, you know?
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: The politician who actually holds to high moral standards. He’s the man who rose from very humble background. You know, he was born in a log cabin in Kentucky to, you know, to great success. So he shows how people can rise in this society. So Lincoln seems to exemplify things that we consider kind of essential to the American character and American society. Lincoln was a great man, no question about it. But Lincoln was not, you know, someone who just did everything all by himself. He was influenced by many of the people around him.
He was influenced by the ideas of his time, by the changing circumstances. In fact, that’s the greatness of Lincoln, I think, is his capacity to grow and change and evolve. Lincoln’s ideas when he dies are quite different from what they were earlier in his life. So you have to put Lincoln in the context of his time, the whole spectrum of thinking about slavery and anti-slavery, to really understand how Lincoln, you know, grew and developed. If you pull Lincoln out of context, as, unfortunately, many-
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: -writers have a way of doing you know, you’re left with a marble man, a statue, but not a real historical figure.
BILL MOYERS: You know, one of my favorite photographs in the book is of the marble bust of Lincoln by Sarah Fisher Clampitt Ames, 1868. It casts him as what’s often the case artists wanted to portray American heroes as Greek or Roman gods.
ERIC FONER: You know, Lincoln was a man who valued respectability. He rose from very humble background. But by the 1850s he was a solid middle-class professional, a successful lawyer. You know, he owned more property than most of the people in Springfield, Illinois, the city he lived in. But he never really adopted the way of life of that middle class – you know, he was always considered a little bit rough.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: And his frontier ways never went away.
BILL MOYERS: Told lots of bawdy jokes.
ERIC FONER: Yeah. No, he did. So he wasn’t the kind of guy to be put there in a toga, definitely not.
BILL MOYERS: You said he was a great man. What’s your definition of greatness in regards to Lincoln?
ERIC FONER: Sometimes people are president who may have great characteristics. But they’re president in very quiet, calm times and they never have an occasion to demonstrate their greatness.
Lincoln’s greatness comes in his response to this crisis, the unparalleled crisis of the Union and of slavery. Now, so it gives him the opportunity to rise to greatness. But, of course, there were many presidents, who given the opportunity-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: -fell by the wayside. Most strikingly, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, who comes in after Lincoln’s death and is president during another great crisis, Reconstruction, and fails abysmally to rise to the occasion because, unlike Lincoln, he can’t change his ideas. He’s deeply racist. He can’t understand that the end of slavery has really put on the agenda a new kind of, you know, definition of citizenship and rights and the political structure of the United States. So, you know, you have two men who are faced with a crisis. Lincoln rises to the occasion. Johnson sinks beneath the waves, you might say.
BILL MOYERS: Do you recognize something in Lincoln that empowered him to rise above his circumstances?
ERIC FONER: Well, I think, the characteristic that I find most interesting in Lincoln is this self-confidence, ability to think for yourself, coupled with open mindedness and willingness to listen to criticism. You know, Lincoln grows up in the frontier, as you know.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: But he doesn’t associate himself with that culture at all. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t hunt. He’s not religious at all in a world which evangelical religion is very powerful. In other words, he sets his own standards, moral standards for himself. He doesn’t just go with the crowd.
Now, on the other hand, when he becomes president, he realizes that he’s going to have to rethink his assumptions. You know, he says in his great message to Congress in December 1862, “We must disenthrall ourselves.” Unchain ourselves literally and from our old ideas. And the “we.” We. He includes himself as part of that “we.” “We’ve got to slough off our own assumptions and think anew,” he says. And so it’s that strong moral compass but willingness to listen to criticism and think anew that I think is the characteristic that leads him into greatness.
BILL MOYERS: There was something else about him that I did not know until I read the book, the chapter in it by Harold Holzer, who’s a self-taught Lincoln scholar.
A very influential writer. And he has a chapter in your book on Lincoln and the visual arts and how Lincoln understood the power of the photograph and the image and how he would even, like a modern politician, manipulate the image and the photograph to advance his own career.
ERIC FONER: Well, Lincoln, you know, was a politician. That was his main job. We sometimes forget that. This is a guy who was either in office or running for office every day of his adult life except for a short period, 1849 to ’54. That was his world, the world of politics. He was shrewd. He understood public opinion. He understood political organization. And, as you say, he understood how to project his own image.
BILL MOYERS: He saw it as his cosmetic salvation, someone says in here.
ERIC FONER: Well, he was not the most good-looking fellow. I don’t think he would have done very well on TV nowadays. You know, in fact some people said he was the ugliest guy in Illinois. But he was very, very careful about his public image, how these photographs were distributed, how these paintings were made. So he was, you know, he was careful about how he was presented to the public. And he was shrewd about, you know, what that meant and how he could benefit from certain kinds of visual imagery of himself being disseminated.
BILL MOYERS: And those photographs and those portraits and those sculptures didn’t just happen. He would give hours and days of his time to cooperation, to cooperating and collaborating with artists.
ERIC FONER: He understood the, you know, he was pretty busy during the Civil War as president. So he, as you say, he obviously considered that pretty significant.
BILL MOYERS: Do you have any sense of how that came to be?
ERIC FONER: Well, this was the world where photography was just coming into prominence, as you know. It was in a sense, we’re overwhelmed by imagery today. You can’t get away from it. But at that time, you know, the daguerreotype had come in a little earlier. But that meant, to have the daguerreotype taken, you had to sit there for several minutes, you know, totally still and everybody looked really stiff in those pictures, you know?
But then you know, in the Civil War gives a big impetus to the art of photography just because of the opportunity it arise, it creates. And Lincoln, as you say, Lincoln seizes this. He understands that as photography develops and lithographs develop and the widespread dissemination of images develop, this can be used to help generate public opinion in support of his administration.
BILL MOYERS: So he was an astute manager of his own celebrity?
ERIC FONER: Absolutely, his own self-image, you know? It – my mentor, Richard Hofstadter, in a great essay on Lincoln, he chose the title “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-made Myth.”
BILL MOYERS: Self-made?
ERIC FONER: Self-made myth. In other words, how Lincoln created his own image and was brilliant at doing that.
BILL MOYERS: And yet seemingly devoid of cynicism about it, right?
ERIC FONER: This was too early for politicians to be quite cynical about it. No, Lincoln did things partly for ambition, you know? I’m not trying to make Lincoln into a saint. He wasn’t Gandhi, Mother Theresa. He was an ambitious politician, an ambitious man. He wanted to be prominent.
And yet he, you know, he wasn’t doing – he wasn’t using politics in a cynical manner as perhaps some of our more recent presidents have been doing it. He stuck to his principles as he understood them. And when he changed, when he made decisions like the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a shift. You know, he wasn’t in favor of emancipation-
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: The first two years of the war. But he stuck with it. He did not go back. Even when it might have been politically advantageous, 1864, you know, the war is at a kind of stalemate. And people are saying, well, let’s get rid of this Emancipation Proclamation.
BILL MOYERS: He almost didn’t run again in 1864.
ERIC FONER: Well, he ran. No, he wanted to run but he almost didn’t win.
BILL MOYERS: Almost didn’t win, right.
ERIC FONER: He thought he was going to lose in August 1864. And people came to him, including Henry Raymond, the editor of the NEW YORK TIMES, and said, “Look, let’s tell the Confederacy that if they come back into the Union we’ll let them keep slavery,” basically. And, you know, Lincoln said, “No, I cannot do that. That would, you know, I would be damned in time and eternity to go back on this promise I have made.” So, therefore, he’s a politician. But he’s not just a politician. He’s not doing things purely for political advantage.
BILL MOYERS: One of the most interesting parts to me of Skip Gates’ documentary that’s airing next week is a segment he has in LOOKING FOR LINCOLN at the obvious racial racist attitudes that Lincoln embraced. He talks about how he wasn’t, as you said, always against slavery. He used the “n” word in reference to blacks. He told racist jokes. I mean, what do you personally make of that side of Lincoln?
ERIC FONER: Well, Lincoln was always against slavery. He wasn’t an abolitionist. But from very early on he knew and said that slavery was wrong. But I think the point is, yes, Lincoln shared many of the racial prejudices of a deeply racist society. And he was not part of the abolitionist movement. And that’s important because it was in the abolitionist movement, the first interracial movement in American history, that white people of goodwill actually came into contact with articulate, you know, intelligent black people and worked with them.
And Lincoln never had that experience of actually being in an interracial, you know, society. He knew almost no blacks before he became president except, you know, a couple who worked in his home as servants. During his presidency, he then got to know people like Frederick Douglass. Black people visited in White House really for almost the first time in American history as, you know, to discuss things with the president. And he – his views broadened and changed. So, you know, Lincoln is a product of his time obviously.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think at the end he truly did believe in a biracial society?
ERIC FONER: Well, he had to, he came to the recognition that that was necessary. You know, most of his life he believed in this idea of, called colonization.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: That is that if blacks were freed, they should be sent voluntarily, he said, but they should be encouraged to leave to go to Liberia in Africa or someplace in Central America or maybe to Haiti. Lincoln said the reason for this is it’s impossible for blacks to get any kind of equality in this society. Racism is too deep.
But it was also a way of avoiding the question of what is the aftermath of slavery? Can we be a biracial society? But once he issues the Emancipation Proclamation and also it begins enlisting black soldiers in the Civil War, you know, 200,000.
BILL MOYERS: 200,000.
ERIC FONER: -black men fighting in the-
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t know that until I read your book.
ERIC FONER: -fight in the Union Army. But that’s a whole different vision of the role of blacks in American society. And Lincoln realizes you can’t put these guys in the army to fight and die for the Union and then say, “Okay, when the war is over, you’re out of here.” You know, he begins, the last two years of his life, for the first time really, he begins to think seriously of, as you say, America as a biracial society and what are the implications of that? Now, Lincoln doesn’t live to really fully work this out.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
ERIC FONER: That’s the fundamental problem of Reconstruction, which comes after his death and after the Civil War.
BILL MOYERS: And that great promise dashed into restoration of almost slavery conditions again for working blacks.
ERIC FONER: Well, certainly restoration of white supremacy.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: I mean, Reconstruction is this wonderful moment when the country, for the first time, tries to become a democracy, I mean, a real democracy for both black and white. And there’s a little opening there. Many things change. The Constitution is rewritten. The laws are rewritten. But then, of course, with violence, the Klan, and the north retreating from the idea of equality, we then go back. And, as you know, we go back to the Jim Crow system and segregation and disenfranchisement. And it leaves it almost for another century for us to come back to the agenda of Reconstruction.
BILL MOYERS: In your private moments, do you ever think about what difference it would have made if Lincoln had lived to launch and preside over Reconstruction?
ERIC FONER: I believe Lincoln would have probably, that Reconstruction would have probably ended up where it landed in 1866, that is with civil right national – civil rights legislation, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing the equal protection of all citizens in the Constitution, still a part of our Constitution and maybe limited black suffrage in the South.
Lincoln, at the end of his life, Lincoln was already talking about some black suffrage in the South. Now, this was not as radical as Reconstruction eventually becomes. But I think a reconstruction with the united support of the president and the Congress might have had a greater chance of succeeding for a longer period of time.
It might have become a more stable situation.
BILL MOYERS: Until I read your book, I had never heard the story of Lincoln and William Johnson. William Johnson was his valet.
ERIC FONER: Uh-huh.
BILL MOYERS: One of the few people who accompanied him from Springfield to Washington when he became president. One of the few, perhaps the only person to actually read a draft of the Gettysburg Address before it was delivered. I didn’t know this, that on the way back from Gettysburg, they both came down with small pox.
Lincoln’s case was not very serious. But Johnson’s was. He became quite ill. During his dying, Lincoln took care of him. When he died, Lincoln ordered that he be buried in Arlington Cemetery. And then he had the inscription on his tombstone read: “William Johnson, citizen.”
ERIC FONER: Right. And, you know, that is a wonderful story. Johnson is a black man, of course. And, you know, to say “citizen” meant something more than in a way that one might understand today because it was only a few years before, in 1857, that the Dred Scott decision had ruled, that Chief Justice Taney had said, “No black person can be a citizen of the United States.” Only white people can be citizens. So to put “citizen” on this black man’s gravestone is a kind of an affirmation of something. It’s not just an empty phrase. It’s an affirmation that, no, black people can also be citizens.
BILL MOYERS: What impact did that have?
ERIC FONER: It’s very hard to say.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ERIC FONER: You know, Lincoln was a very un-self-revealing individual, you know? He didn’t expose or display his inner beliefs about almost anything. That’s why there’s so much debate about what Lincoln really felt. What did he really feel about race? What did he really feel about religion? He kept his views to himself. Even people who knew him extremely well, David Davis or Herndon, his law partner, after his death, you know, people would ask them.
And they said, “Well, I don’t really know what Lincoln thought in his heart of hearts about this, that, and the other thing.” He was a very reserved and self-continued person. He listened to everybody. But he didn’t really express his own views all that much, you know, in terms of day-to-day relations. He did in wonderful speeches and writings. But so we don’t know what the precise you know, impact of any particular relationship was on Lincoln.
BILL MOYERS: You know, every American with a political idea wants to establish a connection to the Lincoln legacy. Why is that? I mean, here Obama rides the train on the same route to Washington that Lincoln took, uses the same Bible that Lincoln used for his swearing in. What’s the symbolism there?
ERIC FONER: Well, every, you’re right. Every political group and ideology has tried to claim Lincoln, whether it’s Communists, segregationists, liberals, conservatives, everybody tries to, as David Donald once said, you know, “getting right with Lincoln,” or claiming Lincoln as your forebear because I guess that just gives you an extra degree of legitimacy in American political debate.
Lincoln is such an icon that to get him on your side gives you a position of advantage in political debate. I think, you know, the problem is it’s now 150 years virtually since the death of Lincoln. And the issues of Lincoln’s day, some of them are very much our issues today.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
ERIC FONER: Well, I mean, race and the nature of an interracial society and the whole question of the relationship of the federal government and the states and who’s to protect and define the rights of citizens. I mean, those are Civil War-era issues. And they’re still on our agenda today.
On the other hand, it’s a different world Lincoln’s living in, a different economy, a different society. People sometimes ask me when I give a lecture, you know, “Well, what would Lincoln have said about abortion rights?”
Or what would Lincoln have said about the bailout program? Or you know, and I said, well, Lincoln wouldn’t have said anything. Those were not Lincoln’s issues of that time. So it’s pointless to try to say, well, put Lincoln 150 years later and what would he be saying?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but what about this? 100 years ago the progressives of Theodore Roosevelt era constantly invoked Lincoln for their agenda, their actions, their ideas, and their program, even though Lincoln could scarcely have imagined the America of Teddy Roosevelt’s time, 40 some odd years after his own-
ERIC FONER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -death. What did the progressives, that first group of robust progressives claim that was useful to them in advancing their agenda?
ERIC FONER: I think they saw Lincoln as, you might say to go back another couple generations, a combination of Jefferson and Hamilton at the same time. In other words, Lincoln is a man who believes in Jeffersonian ideals and equality, of democracy, of the government by the people. He’s not an elitist the way Hamilton, who wanted a monarchy basically. On the other hand, he believes in a powerful government, like Hamilton did and Jefferson did not. He believes the government can be an agent of social change and social reform and improvement. And that’s, of course, what the progressives were saying in the early 20th century, that the power of big business had become so dominant, the only countervailing force in the society was government.
And you had to empower government to, you know, regulate and control the excesses of business rather than just leaving it to, you know, the market. Now, of course, 100 years later we see that there is some good argument there. And if you just leave it to the market you may end up in a kind of disasters situation.
BILL MOYERS: Lincoln started, did he not, as a Whig, as pro – a member of the pro-business party. And when he was president he favored public funds for private purposes. He favored a continental railroad. He favored an active government.
ERIC FONER: Well, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: -a federal bank.
ERIC FONER: Absolutely. Lincoln was always a Whig. The Whigs but, you know, that’s a different society. Say the Whigs were pro-business it’s not like today where you’re getting, you know, you’re just trying to cut taxes for the rich-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, and get a tax break, right.
ERIC FONER: -and, you know, that kind of thing. They were pro-business in the sense that they thought government aid to building an infrastructure, you know, canals, railroads having a banking system that regulated the economy, would open up doors of opportunity for people like Lincoln. In other words, they’re pro-business. But what Lincoln sees in the Whig Party is creating a circumstance where humble men like himself can rise in the social scale.
He’s thinking of a society of small farms, small shops. It’s not the vast industrial leviathan of the late 19th century. So that’s what he sees in these programs of government aid to business, opening up opportunity for ordinary people to kind of seize the possibility of rising in the social scale as he himself did.
BILL MOYERS: And as you’ve written about within the wake of his death came the great trusts, the monopolies, the first gilded age, the concentration-
ERIC FONER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -and convergence of power and wealth.
ERIC FONER: Well, this is the great irony of the Civil War you might almost say. Both sides in the Civil War are fighting to preserve their own society. It’s obvious for the South. They’re fighting to preserve slavery and the war destroys it. And yet something like that, too, happens in the North.
Lincoln is fighting to preserve the America that he knew, the America of opportunity, of the small farm, the small shop. And yet the very act of mobilizing the resources of the nation to fight this war gives a tremendous impetus to factory production, to railroads, to trusts, to giant corporations. And the world that comes out of the Civil War is quite different than the world that went into it. And it’s not the world that Lincoln was really that familiar with in his younger days.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a political message for our time from Lincoln?
ERIC FONER: But the lesson, if there is a lesson, it is, again, that we must disenthrall ourselves, as Lincoln said. We must think anew. We cannot just go back to the ways we have been operating over the last 20, 30 years. That doesn’t tell us what to do. But it does say we’ve got to have an open mind and not just stick with the failed ideologies of the past.
BILL MOYERS: The book is “Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World”, edited by Eric Foner. Thank you for being with us on the JOURNAL.
ERIC FONER: Great to see you. Great to see you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: I had a history professor at the University of Texas – Robert Cotter – who believed the most remarkable quality of Abraham Lincoln was his empathy for people he didn’t personally know. The working man. The soldier in battle. His widow and orphans.
Ordinary folks caught in the undertow of events. We could use that kind of empathy today. As Washington obsessed all week over the fate of one nominee to the cabinet, and as we watched hearings about the failure of watchdog agencies going to sleep on the job, we heard almost nothing of the people across the country suffocating in the wreckage of their lives. Some of us born in the Depression still remember the song made famous by the Carter Family singers, called the “Worried Man Blues”.
“I went across that river and I lay down to sleep. When I woke up there were shackles on my feet.”
The day my father was fired from his job at Manly’s Appliance Store, he came walking home as if he had shackles on his feet. I still remember the look on his face. He wasn’t yet 50, but had suddenly turned old, the way a lot of people look today who are losing their jobs. Their stomachs are knotted with fear as the life they had come to expect is fading fast. Not because of their own failures but because our political and financial elites rigged the economy for their own advantage.
John F. Kennedy famously said, “Life is unfair,” and so it is. But it wouldn’t feel as unfair if the shackles wound up instead on the well-heeled feet of Wall Street and Washington’s elect. That’s the change we need, the change we can really believe in.
That’s it for the JOURNAL.
For more, visit our website at pbs.org.
I’m Bill Moyers, and I’ll see you next time.
This transcript was entered on June 10, 2015.