Does Obama Write Like Lincoln Too? Pundits and public alike are comparing President-elect Barack Obama with the sixteenth U.S. president. Fred Kaplan's new book takes a look at President Lincoln as a scribe, from his personal letters to poems to epic speeches. Does he see Obama in Lincoln's words?
NPR logo

Does Obama Write Like Lincoln Too?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Does Obama Write Like Lincoln Too?

Does Obama Write Like Lincoln Too?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Back now with Day to Day. It was no accident that Barack Obama announced his decision to run for president in Springfield, Illinois, home to Abraham Lincoln. Lately, Mr. Obama has talked of staffing his Cabinet with a team of rivals, something Lincoln did, and on "60 Minutes," he was asked what he's reading these days.

(Soundbite of TV show "60 Minutes," November 16, 2008)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Senator, Illinois): I've been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There was a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to the government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful.

BRAND: The book that Barack Obama may have been referring to is the newly published "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer." The president-elect has been seen carrying that book. Well, the author, Fred Kaplan, is here now. And my goodness, what great press that is to have the president-elect carrying your book around.

Dr. FRED KAPLAN (Author, "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer"): Yes. It's an author's and a publisher's fantasy come true.

BRAND: Well, now, there have been lots and lots of Lincoln biographies, and everyone knows that he was a rhetorical master - you know, you just have to think about the Gettysburg Address. Your book takes a slightly different perspective. You look at him as a writer, and I was surprised to learn that he didn't just write great speeches; he wrote all manner of things, poetry.

Dr. KAPLAN: Yes, indeed. He wrote poetry and some of it quite competent and even touching. There was a particular point in his career in which he became excited by the idea of expressing himself in poetry so strongly that he devoted a lot of time to it.

BRAND: Now, Abraham Lincoln was born poor to an illiterate father in Kentucky. How was he able to write these poems and these speeches and become such an accomplished writer and speaker?

Dr. KAPLAN: From the earliest age, Lincoln fell in love with words, and he fell in love in words as embodied in the great literature of the British and American of the English language literary canon. From early on, he was immersed in the Bible, early in his teenage years, began to read great British literature, both poetry and prose, and became deeply immersed and formed a literary sensibility. He also, for a time, thought perhaps that he, too, could be a great writer like his favorite, Shakespeare. And though he had very few books available to him by modern standards, what he did have, he almost entirely memorized.

BRAND: And you say that he was particularly influenced by Shakespeare. How did Shakespeare influence Lincoln, not only in his writing, but in how he viewed the world?

Dr. KAPLAN: Lincoln was interested in the varieties of human character and in the varieties of human experience. And he found in Shakespeare all of those aspects of life richly presented. He had already been so long immersed in Shakespeare's plays that when in 1821, he came in to the presidency and a war soon began, he carried the resonances from the plays, in this regard, with him through the presidency.

BRAND: What is your favorite piece of his writing?

Dr. KAPLAN: I find it so difficult to answer because as a biographer, I become so immersed in the works and the lives of my subject.

BRAND: What about the most surprising piece of writing you came across, one that was particularly illuminating as to his character, who he was that you hadn't read before, you hadn't thought about?

Dr. KAPLAN: The most surprising moment that I had, a revelatory moment that I had, in reading Lincoln's collected works, his total works, was in reading his very brief but beautiful and poignant farewell address that he delivered on the railroad-station platform from the back of the train, as he addressed his fellow Springfield citizens who had come down to the station to see him off when he left Springfield for Washington to assume the presidency. It's a beautiful piece of writing, and it reveals aspects of his character, the depths of a sort of wise and melancholy that he possessed and a realistic wisdom.

BRAND: Now, you're really piqued my interest. I'm wondering if you could just read a little bit of that.

Dr. KAPLAN: (Reading) I now leave, not knowing when - or whether ever - I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that divine being, whoever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

BRAND: I'd like to close by coming full circle and asking you where you see the similarities are between Abraham Lincoln and President-elect Barack Obama in their writing style, in their speaking style - if there are similarities.

Dr. KAPLAN: Well, let's talk first about speaking style for a moment because Lincoln was not a very powerful public speaker. Writing was immensely important. His speeches were immediately published and of course, he carefully crafted every speech, other than campaign speeches, in advance. They're all written documents. They're all expository essays. Barack Obama has a marvelous public presence, and he has a terrific voice, a great baritone. He speaks beautifully. Obama is a really fine writer, but he's a writer who doesn't have the attraction towards the poetic resonance that Lincoln reached for. Obama, of course, is a work in progress. Lincoln is total and final. And it remains to be seen to what heights of writerly achievement and oratorical achievement Obama will rise to. He certainly has immense talents, and this is a drama that we're all watching very closely.

BRAND: Well, Fred Kaplan, thank you very much.

Dr. KAPLAN: My pleasure.

BRAND: That's Fred Kaplan. He's the author of the new book - and it's a book that Barack Obama has been seen carrying around and presumably reading - it's called "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer."

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.