The Greatest American – An Australian Political Hero?1
February 10, 2013 by brettdgale
Steven Spielberg’s bio-pic of the 16th President finally opened in Australia this week. Dealing as it does with Lincoln’s political machinations it’s bound to have Australia’s politicians rushing to their nearest Hoyts, supersized boxes of popcorn in hand, just as they frantically set the IQ to record repeats of the West Wing or The Thick Of It. Probably because as Mark Latham once paraphrased, “Politics is Hollywood for ugly people,” Aussie pollies worship any depiction of themselves on the screen big or small.
But they also love reading about politics. Australian politicians are drawn to stories of America’s political elite like bees to honey. Every new tome on a former or current US President, election campaign or new political strategy is devoured with the intensity of Homer Simpson in an “All You Can Eat” restaurant. Most politicians of my acquaintance (and I know more than a few) are more interested in the events of recent years than those of the 1860’s. It’s generally Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan that float their boats (with a smattering of Karl Rove and Barack Obama thrown in depending on your personal leanings).
Yet there is a surprisingly large number of Lincoln lovers amongst Australia’s political class and not just for the heart warming notion of Uncle Abe as the man that freed the slaves.
In his excellent introduction to the companion book of contemporary essays for the Spielberg movie (Lincoln: A President for the Ages) Karl Weber makes a strong case that Abraham Lincoln is the “greatest ever American” due to his central role “in the central drama of American history”. He sums up Lincoln thus, “Somehow our Lincoln remains resolutely mortal and human while transcending mere mortality, mere humanity, as figures from mythology do”.
Lincoln was single-mindedly obsessed with an idea that very few of his contemporaries shared the indissolubility of the union. That he kept the union together, reframed the American project and freed the slaves easily explains the reverential role he plays in American life.
But there is little in that list that explains why the hard-nosed pols of our political class are so obsessed with Lincoln.
But, as Gore Vidal, David Donald and now, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner make clear, Lincoln was above all a politician. As Andrew Ferguson points out in Weber’s essay collection; “Lincoln was an extremely partisan politician himself …He was capable of genuine deviousness, underhandness, subterfuge, and all the other qualities you ascribe to a fierce partisan”. Perhaps that explains it.
Or perhaps something else is at work. The Civil War was an ugly brutal war devastating the cream of a nation’s youth yet fought as part of a righteous and ultimately worthwhile cause. Perhaps then civil war obsession is a metaphor for those who covet power, wrapping their lust for supremacy in a “noble” cause.
By some counts more than 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln. A fair number deal with his role as a politician. I can’t claim to have read them all. In fact I reckon I would be pushing it to say I’d read much more than one one-thousandth of them. So what follows is hardly the definitive list of Lincolnalia . Instead take this as a sort of primer for those that have inspired this politico and blogger.
Lincoln- David Herbert Donald
Widely considered to be the best of contemporary biographies this brilliant, lucid one volume political history of Lincoln is the perfect entry point for examining both the myth and the man.
Lincoln – Gore Vidal
If memory serves correctly Gore Vidal’s magisterial novel was the first book I ever read about Lincoln, way back when. And if you read only one book on Lincoln read this. The great American chronicler captures the terrors and torments, the stratagems and struggles and in vivid prose. Lincoln made human. Thoroughly engrossing, all absorbing – a perfect novel.
Herndon’s Life of Lincoln – William Herndon and Jesse Weik edited by Paul Angle
Somewhere along the line I picked up this1930 edition of the first real Lincoln biography written by his old law partner William Herndon. Herndon’s text 1888 text set the view of Lincoln to come for most of the next 150 years. It is then a seminal work in the story of Abe.
Team of Rivals – Doris Kearns Godwin
It’s intriguing that this book by Doris Kearns Godwin, churner out of worthy tomes on America’s political greats, has been greeted so divisively by so many people. On the one hand there are those like myself who love it (I consider myself in good company on that score with both Barak Obama and his predecessor both fans) while a certain Australian Foreign Minister and a number of Federal backbenchers marks the case against. In my view Godwin’s book is as fine an analysis as you’ll find on the political dynamics of the complex relationships at the centre of politics. I’m not the first to say it but I agree that this historical analysis is as relevant to the internecine political conflicts of today as it is to those of the 1850’s and 60’s.
Speeches and Letters: Abraham Lincoln – Peter Parish (ed)
You can’t really know Lincoln without knowing his words. He left behind such a rich legacy of letters, memos and speeches (although in fact rarely giving any when he became President), that one would be mad not to dip into them every, now and again, simply to be transported by the sheer poetry of his expression, the brilliance of his ideas, the lucidity of his arguments and the majestic power of his rhetoric. His collected and selected speeches come in many forms so do yourself a favour and pick up any copy you can find.
Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural – Ronald C White Jr
Whilst the Gettysburg address is more famous (Four Score and Seven years ago and all that) there is a strong case to be made that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural is not just his greatest speech but one of the greatest political speeches of all time. A speech that not only framed the war’s aims and outcomes but was the final straw for Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth to act 41 days later. White analyses both the speech’s rhetorical structure and power but also its historical antecedents and consequences.
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America – Gary Wills
The definitive exegesis of Lincoln’s most famous speech. Wills captures both the text and context of the 272 words that changed America’s view of its own birth and purpose. A brilliant extended essay on the art of speech making and the impact of one speech.
Why Lincoln Matters Today More Than Ever – Mario M Cuomo
Mario Cuomo is the best politician never to have become President. Inspirational, and thoughtful, conversing with him as I did one day over lunch was like talking to Plato’s philosopher king. It remains a great shame that he never ran for the top job. In this small treatise written at the height of George W Bush’s attack on American values and undermining of democracy Cuomo draws a parallel that was extremely unflattering to the then incumbent of the Oval Office.
Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter – Seth Grahame Smith
This is a quite preposterous book with a quite preposterous premise. Yet for all that, it’s a rollicking fun read. Suspend belief and enjoy the ride on this alt-history/fantasy gem. With Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Grahame-Smith basically invented a new genre, one that unfortunately has far outstripped its humorous beginnings and descended into a turgid conga line of spinoffs. Yet, in imagining an alternate backstory for Lincoln (not to mention an alternate cause for the Civil War) Grahame-Smith has created an amusing and diversionary read.
I caught Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary series recently, and for me it wasn’t Jackson, Lee or Grant who was the star – it was Lincoln. It’s a shame we don’t seem to have anyone with similar qualities in any of our political parties – can you imagine what a colossus he’d be in the current election campaign? I”ll add the Gore Vidal book to my reading list.