Books Offer Insight Into Abraham Lincoln

Politicians love to invoke Honest Abe Lincoln, often while twisting his legacy to fit their own purposes. But who was the man, really? Steve Inskeep talks to three Lincoln historians — Andy Ferguson, of the Weekly Standard, and Doris Kearns Goodwin and Eric Foner — about the books they think best capture the former president's character. (This piece initially aired April 10, 2012 on Morning Edition.)

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

No matter how you scan the early voting numbers, no matter how often you check Twitter or stare at the TV, you will hear no election results before this evening.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

While you wait, we can at least recommend some good political books. Earlier this year, we had a series of talks about books on American history; history that comes up in the campaign, including a talk we're about to hear again - about Abraham Lincoln.

MONTAGNE: President Obama often cites Lincoln, in his speeches. Mitt Romney's website quotes the first Republican president's reference to the U.S. as the, quote, "last best hope of Earth." The use of the 16th president comes as no surprise to historian Eric Foner.

ERIC FONER HISTORIAN: There's every possible way to interpret him. Every Lincoln you might want, is out there in the literature. And every political movement, and every political group, has claimed Lincoln as their own - from communists to conservatives, from segregationists to civil rights activists. Everybody wants to get Lincoln on their side.

MONTAGNE: Lincoln is, in fact, the subject of more than 15,000 books.

INSKEEP: We've brought in authors of books about Lincoln. Eric Foner, of Columbia University, wrote "The Fiery Trial." Andy Ferguson, of the Weekly Standard, wrote "Land of Lincoln." Doris Kearns Goodwin is author of "Team of Rivals." And we started with this book: David Herbert Donald wrote what maybe is the standard biography of Lincoln, just called "Lincoln," a couple of decades ago. What approach does he take?

HISTORIAN: Well, if I can start - Eric Foner. You know, it's funny. I think it is the best one-volume biography of Lincoln. Oddly enough, I personally don't agree with this interpretation; and many people don't. He sort of sees Lincoln as a person without any deep convictions.You know, everyone who writes about Lincoln has one eye on the present. And I think Donald wrote this - in the mid-'90s - sort of under the influence of Clinton. I think, you know, he sort of saw Lincoln as a Clinton figure; buffeted by events, not clear what he stood for.

I don't think that's a very persuasive picture of Lincoln but nonetheless, Donald was a great historian. And I think he told the story of Lincoln's life in a way that avoided the two pitfalls that so many people fall into. One is just hagiography - you know, he was born with a pen in his hand, ready to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. And the other is the opposite, of course - you know, just a racist, or didn't really care about slavery at all. And Donald sort of navigates between them. So it's well worth reading, and I think it is still the best one-volume biography.

INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson.

ANDREW FERGUSON: Well, that's right. And I think that Donald came up with this idea of Lincoln as sort of a passive character.

INSKEEP: A tactician.

FERGUSON: Really, really, yes - and kind of scheming and manipulative, but not particularly effective; and tossed and turned by events. But it's interesting: As you read through the book, even by the end, Donald loses faith in his own thesis, I think. The power of the Lincoln facts are so strong, that you have to concede that he was a giant in being able to manipulate events.

INSKEEP: Doris Kearns Goodwin, when we asked our panel here for recommendations of Lincoln books, you sent us one that is about more than that one man, "Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson, which is a history of the Civil War.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think the reason that that one meant so much to me, was that he is such a narrative genius - McPherson. And somehow, when you read "Battle Cry of Freedom," what he's done is to mix together the battles, Lincoln's leadership, the home front, the finances, the Cabinet - all together. But it drives forward as a story, and you don't know until finally, perhaps, Atlanta, whether the North is really going to win this war. And that's the way the people who lived in it felt it at the time.

INSKEEP: And I guess that's a good thing to think about if we think about Abraham Lincoln. All of his decisions that seem so brilliant now, could not be known as brilliant at the time.

GOODWIN: Absolutely. It took a while for the country itself to understand him. We know the ending. We know that he was martyred. We know that the war was won. But the people living then certainly didn't know that. And I think that's what McPherson's pace allows us to see.

INSKEEP: Let's get in one more book here, which Andy Ferguson has sent us. The name: "In the Footsteps of the Lincolns." Hard one to find, but a famous name behind this, Ida Tarbell, the famous muckraking journalist from the late 19th, early 20th century.

FERGUSON: Yes. She was, first and foremost, a journalist. But she, all along, carried this obsession with Lincoln. After World War I, she went and sort of fulfilled a kind of part of her obsession that she'd always wanted to, which was to retrace Lincoln's movements with his family since he was a little boy - from Kentucky to Indiana and into Illinois. And as she did this, there were still people alive who knew the Lincolns. It's a part of time that we can't really get access to any other way.

INSKEEP: Although Tarbell's journey across Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois does underline something that's worth remembering about Lincoln, one of the reasons that he's so well-remembered today: He came from this frontier culture. This was a - these were very remote areas that were struggling to develop in the time he was...

FERGUSON: It was just a couple of steps up from the Bronze Age, really.

HISTORIAN: You know, Lincoln as the frontiersman, in a sense, is part of the sort of imagery that we remember about him. But it's very interesting how Lincoln kind of separates himself in so many ways from the - what you call frontier culture. You know, he doesn't like hunting.

He's not a violent person. He doesn't hate Indians. He doesn't drink, you know, which is pretty prominent out there. And he understands, very early - and where this comes from, who knows - that the way to get ahead is through your mind, not through just, you know, hard, physical labor, which is what his father does. He gets as far away from the frontier as he can, pretty early.

INSKEEP: If it were up to you, each of you, if you were presidential speechwriters, how would you want candidates to think of Lincoln, deploy Lincoln when they're talking about him today?

HISTORIAN: You know, I would love to see a candidate - I don't care which party we're talking about - forthrightly say: I have changed my mind about this. That's what Lincoln did during the Civil War.

He changed his mind over and over again. He didn't change his core beliefs. Lincoln was a flip-flopper, if you want to use the terminology of modern politics. But we don't seem to allow our politicians to do that anymore.

INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson, you're smiling.

FERGUSON: Well, it's partly because politicians won't let their speechwriters talk that way. I don't think that Dr. Foner should wait for a phone call from any political campaign because...

HISTORIAN: I'm not holding my breath.

FERGUSON: Yeah. Having actually done a little bit of that, I can tell you that the last thing a professional politician ever wants to do is admit that he either made a mistake, or that he's changed his mind.

INSKEEP: And if you do change your mind, the task of the speechwriter is to find a way to say that you actually did not change your mind, even as you did change your mind.

FERGUSON: It requires a great deal of ingenuity. Of course, Lincoln had the greatest speechwriter who ever lived.

HISTORIAN: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: He wrote his own.

GOODWIN: Mr. Lincoln.

HISTORIAN: Mm-hmm.

GOODWIN: But I think, just to follow on that, the one thing I wish politicians had today - more than anything - that Lincoln had, is a sense of humor. I mean, his ability to laugh at himself when he was said to be - you are two-faced, Mr. Lincoln. And he said: If I had two faces, do you think I'd be wearing this face?

That ability to laugh at yourself, to look at yourself from the outside in, means a certain kind of confidence, means taking your - you know, the world seriously, but not taking yourself so seriously at every moment. It is in such short supply in our campaigns.

INSKEEP: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eric Foner, Andy Ferguson. And since our talk, by the way, I've dug into another good book: "A. Lincoln" by Ronald C. White. On Election Day it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renée Montagne.

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