In Honor of Abe

In Honor of Abe

I don’t get a lot of good ideas.  I really don’t.  I’m halfway good at recognizing the good ideas of others.  But it’s not all that often that a good idea appears inside my own noggin, all on its own.  But here’s one of those rare instances when I actually came up with a good idea all on my own.  And I am so happy about that.

It was in answer to the question of how I wanted to commemorate the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.  There was no question that I had to do something special on my WGTD “Morning Show” interview program – but what? I had a whole drawer full of interesting interviews from the past related to one aspect or another of Lincoln’s life and legacy. . .  should I piece together snippets in some sort of celebratory collage?  That wouldn’t allow me any chance to do interviews about any of the new books just out for this bicentennial year.  And then I became aware of several different PBS documentaries devoted to Lincoln and I began to realize that February 12th from 8:11 to 9:00 was not going to be nearly enough time to do all that I would want to do.

And that’s when it hit me:  How about a whole series of programs dedicated to our 16th president?   I did some quick calculation and realized that I had at least ten programs of material  and probably more. . .  and to try and skim just the cream from the top of all that would be an exercise in frustration.   So I decided that Mr. Lincoln deserved at least ten days worth of Morning Shows, and that’s what he’s getting. . .  ten programs airing this month which I collectively titled “In Honor of Abe:  Celebrating the Life and Legacy of our 16th President.”   My boss loved the idea and was even able to secure a financial underwriter for the series:  the Kenosha Civil War Museum,  who wanted to use my series as a vehicle to publicize all the Lincoln-related events they have coming up over the next few weeks.

But what is far more important to me is that the listeners seem to love the idea.   I don’t think I have ever heard from so many listeners and received such enthusiastic compliments about anything I’ve done at WGTD.  Case in point is a voice mail I received yesterday from a woman in Racine who called to thank me for yesterday’s interview and all the others- and she seemed almost at a loss for words, trying to express her gratitude.   I was so touched and honored.

And it would be easy to let such compliments go to my head except that all of this has almost nothing to do with me and everything to do with the wonderful guests I have spoken with . . .  and of course the amazing figure behind it all,  Abe Lincoln himself, who deserves all this and more.   (Were it the 200th birthday of James Buchanan or MIllard Fillmore,  we wouldn’t so much as bake a cupcake.)

So what can we say about this extraordinary man?  The famed Union general William Tecumseh Sherman said “Of all the men I have met,

[Lincoln] seemed to posses more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”  I love those words,  and the more you learn about Lincoln the more you appreciate how true those words are.   It’s not that he was perfect – but he was amazing in almost every way. . .  especially that someone born and raised in a log cabin and who received almost no official schooling at all during his childhood grew up to be astonishingly intelligent and well-read (able to recite entire scenes from the plays of Shakespeare from memory) and able to lead our nation through perhaps the darkest and most perilous days of its existence.   (Early in the war, when things were going very poorly for the Union and defeat a very real possibility,  Lincoln said in a letter to a friend “if there is a place worse than hell,  I am in it.”   And I am moved by the words of the man who would eventually be called upon to serve as Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens.  Between Lincoln’s election and inauguration,  Stephens wrote these words to the president- elect:  “The country is certainly in great peril, and no man ever had heavier or greater responsibility resting upon him than you have in the present momentous crisis.”  Think of it- a man born in a log cabin was the president of the United States at such a moment. The thought of it gives me shivers. )

Lincoln must have had an incredible mind and integrity,  because so much of his outward appearance was not especially impressive,  aside from his size.  One journalist of the time wrote:  “Lincoln’s charm did not, in the ordinary way, appeal to the ear or to the eye.  His voice was not melodious; rather shrill and piercing, especially when it rose to tis high treble in moments of great animation.  His figure was unhandsome, and the action of his unwieldy limbs awkward.  He commanded none of the outwardly graces or oratory as they are commonly understood.  his charm was of a different kind.  It flowed from the rare depth and genuineness of his convictions and his sympathetic feelings.”   And this is what another writer of the day said:  “He had a lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, an odd- featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face.  As for his mannerisms,  he used singularly awkward and almost absurd up-and-down and side-wise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments.  And yet, in Lincoln one saw a thoroughly earnest and truthful man inspired by sound convictions.”  When I read those words, I become convinced that there is no way in the world that Lincoln could ever be elected president today. . .  and I’m not sure if he would manage to be elected governor, senator,   mayor of Hooterville,  or local dog catcher.

But we are fortunate indeed that Lincoln came along at a time when outward appearance didn’t matter nearly so much and a person’s intelligence and ingenuity and integrity mattered far more.   And I believe with all my heart that it was not blind luck but rather divine providence that gave our country Abraham Lincoln at a moment in its history when anyone less would almost certainly have failed miserably to bring our two nations back together as one.  “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present,” he said – and he was so right.   And anyone trapped in those outdated dogmas could not have led us out of that awful darkness the way Abraham Lincoln did.

pictured above:   the face of the Abraham Lincoln statue on the Carthage campus.  Lincoln was an honorary member of the board of trustees when Carthage (or the school that became Carthage) was founded in the 1840’s.

In case you’re curious, here are the guests for “In Honor of Abe” :  the series started on Friday, February 6th with James Swanson, author of the runaway bestseller “Manhunt,” which talks about the assassination and the frantic search for Lincoln’s killer.   Then on Monday the 9th, I spoke to documentarian Barak Goodman about his PBS American Experience documentary about the assassination (which aired that night).  Tuesday and bleeding into Wednesday was an extended interview with Phillip Kunhardt III, who is part of an extraordinary family of historians who have studied Lincoln for five generations.   He co-wrote an incredible new book called “Looking for Lincoln” that actually starts with Lincoln’s assassination and traces how Americans came to terms with their grief and came to view the first martyred president.  Also Wednesday, I talked to the author of a fascinating book called “Mr. Lincoln’s High Tech War,”  which looks at how Lincoln embraced some of the most important new technologies of his day and how that may have made the most significant difference in how the war ended.

Thursday, the birthday itself,  I reserved for a local Lincoln enthusiast and expert named Steve Rogstad, whose been on the Morning Show any number of times; I could think of no one better to join me for the special day itself.  And today I rebroadcast an interview with the author of a book with the unpromising titled “Lincoln in Peoria” but which is actually an incredibly interesting book about a dramatic speech Lincoln gave in Peoria, Illinois in 1858 which was at that point the most dramatic public denunciation of slavery he had ever made.

Next week begins with Ronald C. White, author of the newest full-length biography of Lincoln,  and a book which many experts are calling “Definitive.”  The book is titled “A. Lincoln” because that’s how he always signed his name – and if you want a thorough understanding of who Lincoln was and what made him great,  this is the book you must read.   Other programs coming up include a chat on Wednesday with the author of “Lincoln’s Men,”  which looks at the critically important work done by Lincoln’s private secretaries,  John Hay and John Nicholay – and of the close friendships which sprang up between the president and these young men.   (It is through their journals that we catch some of our most intimate and personal glimpses of Lincoln.)  Friday I’ll rerun a past conversation with Steve Rogstad that talks about his two presidential campaigns- 1860 and 1864.   And still to come will be the author of a wonderful book about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas,  a book titled (quite appropriately) “Giants” – and the rebroadcast of one of my all-time favorite interviews with the aforementioned Ronald C. White.  This time, it’s about an earlier book called “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech”  which examines not the Gettysburg Address but rather Lincoln’s radiant second inaugural address-  perhaps the finest presidential speech ever given by anyone in all our history. That struck me as a perfect way to end the series.

As with any other Morning Show programs,  you can listen to any of them via the program’s archive,  which can be found on the station’s website,  wgtd.org        Click on talk and you’ll easily find your way to the Morning Show page.