Tribute: Sen. George McGovern on the Presidency From Lincoln to Obama
Posted on Nov 6, 2009
PART 3: Lincoln’s Strength Lay in Reading and Writing
McGovern: Let me give you a few words about Abraham Lincoln. There are more words and pages written about Abraham Lincoln than anybody else in world history, with the exception of Jesus Christ. My authority for that is this word master at The New York Times who died recently—I can’t think of his name [editor’s note: William Safire]. Anyway, more books in this country have [been] written about Abraham Lincoln than all the other presidents combined. So why another one? I did it partly to educate myself about Lincoln. I read all of his speeches, I read most of his letters, I read a number of the secondary books about him, and I did come to a deeply increased appreciation for this remarkable man. This is a part of a series. Henry Holt is the publisher; they’ve now been taken over by Macmillan—but they’re doing a book like this on each of the presidents, beginning with George Washington, and they’re supposed to be about 165 pages. And I’m glad they put that limit on it; I had to cross out an awful lot of brilliant stuff, but—I did it tearfully—and I think in holding it to 165 pages, each one of us probably did better than if we had had unlimited pages. You’ve heard the old saying, “Sorry, I don’t have time to write a short letter.” And it’s the same, I think, with books. A lot of these 900-page books, in my opinion, would be better if they were tightened up a bit—maybe to four or five hundred pages. Every writer thinks that every word is precious, but some of them aren’t all that precious; they can be tightened up.
I admire Lincoln, first of all, because of the kind of man he was. There was an old Roman orator by the name of Quintilian, an orator, and he was asked one time: “What makes a great orator?” And he said: “A good orator is a good man speaking well.” Today we’d say “a good person speaking.” To be a great speaker you should first of all be a good person—you agree with that, Bob? It’s probably the same with journalists. And I came to the conclusion Lincoln was even better than I had thought. He overcame incredible handicaps. One was the lack of education. About one and a half years—there were a few teachers, sort of traveling teachers that came through his little village, and they might stay around for a month or two and teach a few of the kids, but historians tell us that he had less than two years’ formal education. No high school, no junior high, no college, no law school, nothing, nothing like that. But he did learn two things in that little school. He learned how to read, and he learned how to write, and he never quit. Reading, reading, reading, reading, all of his life. He was hungry for every book he could get his hands on. He knew Shakespeare, he knew the King James Version of the Bible, he knew some of the great poets, he knew Aesop’s Fables, and hundreds of other things that he read. And writing—he loved to write. I think he became the best writer ever to serve in the White House. How are you going to improve on the Gettysburg Address? Talk about tightening things up—a definition of democracy: government of the people, by the people, for the people. That’s all you need to know about what democracy is all about. It took two and a half minutes to deliver that speech, but contrary to what you may have heard about him writing it on the back of an envelope on the way to the address, he worked on that speech for days, as he did every speech, those first and second inaugurals. Sometimes after he got a draft down to his satisfaction, he would call in members of the Cabinet, most frequently Secretary Seward, the secretary of state, and he would read his speech to the secretary or whoever was listening—“what do you think of this, what do you think of that”—Seward at one point said I think this particular phrase is a little dull, it’s a little flat. Why don’t you change that to “the better angels of our nature”—in that inaugural address. I’ve always wished I’d thought of that phrase, appealing to the better angels of people’s nature. But he didn’t have ghostwriters. He wrote his own speeches, and then he would let somebody else make a few suggestions. Then, after he incorporated the changes, he would read the speech—no, he would have the critic read the speech to him to see how it sounded. There’s a wonderful book just out called “Lincoln’s Sword.” And Lincoln’s sword, according to that author, was his writing ability and his speaking ability. If you want a really interesting book on Lincoln, [“Lincoln’s Sword” will] tell you how he produced those great masterpieces.
PART 4: A McGovern Family Tragedy; Lincoln’s Greatest Accomplishment
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Just a couple of quick additional things about Lincoln—I’ve probably gone too long, haven’t I?—he thought his greatest achievement was the Emancipation Proclamation. I would very respectfully disagree. That was important, but it was only a partial emancipation. It just emancipated the slaves in the 11 Southern states. And with the war in progress, there wasn’t much Lincoln could do to enforce the emancipation. It didn’t touch the slaves in the border states, and it didn’t provide for a permanent right of people to be free of slavery. That came after Lincoln was re-elected, and it’s in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which not only freed all people who were slaves then, but freed people for all time. Nobody can be held a slave in the United States; that’s a federal crime. I think his greatest achievement was not that; it was the saving of the Union. The United States could very easily have disappeared as the United States of America. The New England states had threatened at an earlier time to secede over the tariff question, and then 20 years later comes the Southern secession. But Lincoln was determined to save the Union. He was very open on this; he tried to deal with the South so they wouldn’t secede. He said: “If I could save the Union by freeing all of the slaves, that I would do. If I could save the Union (and this was a sop to the Southerners) by freeing none of the slaves, that I would do. If I could save the Union by freeing some of the slaves and holding others (which is what he eventually did) that’s what I would do. But the Union must be preserved.” And that’s why he absolutely refused to compromise on slavery in the territories or on new states coming into the Union. Not one inch of soil would be settled with slaves in it, except for the 11 in the South. And that’s where he drew the line. So anyway, that to me is his greatest achievement: He saved the Union.
PART 5: The Founding Fathers’ Greatness; a Straight Shooter Named Goldwater
Scheer: Let me ask you a question. The old guys look good, yourself included. But seriously, I read Jefferson and Washington, and in my book I go on and on about how great Washington’s farewell address was. It’s a fabulous document, for people who haven’t read it. First of all, am I exaggerating how good these guys were? You know, at least they had brains; they thought. Now we do have a president who has a brain, so that’s been a good change. But I just wonder, what are we to make of the Founders, what are we to make of this great history? It did involve slavery, it did involve exploitation, it was white-male exclusive. What about that whole history, and to what degree is it worth relying on? Everybody does; even the right wing relies on it.
McGovern: Well, I think they were great, those Founding Fathers. I think Jefferson was a tremendously farsighted and intelligent man. Washington was a great administrator, and probably the person that was needed to launch the Union. He also had the ability to keep Jefferson and Hamilton in the same Cabinet without them shooting each other. Hamilton finally got shot by somebody else, but he and Jefferson didn’t agree on too much, and Washington wanted both of them in his Cabinet. So I think you’ve got to say Washington was a very great figure in the way he handled the first eight years. He was assailed right and left, even as was Lincoln. Lincoln, just to give you a few words that I recall, was called a senseless baboon; a traitor; was accused of selling out the country; even his physical appearance—he was described as an ugly creature. One problem with that is that Lincoln always thought he was ugly, he always thought he was homely. I don’t agree; I think he’s got a very noble face. I’d trade my mug for his any day. But he thought he was ugly. And when they tried to get Washington to run for a third term, he said: “I would rather be in my grave than to spend another four years in the White House.” And he bristled under these terrible things that were said about him. But I think these were great men. I think Adams was; Adams was a conservative, but we need that kind of conservative. I’ve never had any quarrel with honest-to-goodness conservatives any more than I had with honest-to-goodness liberals. I can’t stand these neoconservatives, I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I that think a person like John Adams you have to respect. One thing about the Founding Fathers: There were just a few of them, there were only about 150, and they all knew each other. And they wrote letters to each other, and they recommended books to each other, and they sent speeches to each other. Some of them were educated in three or four languages, including Jefferson, but a number of others—Lincoln is the one that had to get by with the least education, but he had great wisdom and great knowledge that was self-taught. So I think they were a very remarkable group of men. People ask me why we don’t produce people like that today, and I think probably we do, but in that time there was just this little group, as I say, maybe 150 or 200 people, and even Jefferson and Adams wrote hundreds of letters to each other, even though one was a liberal and one was a conservative. Mrs. Adams raised Jefferson’s children after Mrs. Jefferson died. And so they were close to each other; they had differences, but they were close to each other.
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