Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) walks through the corridors of the White House in a scene from the motion picture 'Lincoln.' / David James, DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox
Imagine Abe Lincoln on The Colbert Report.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has. She says that despite the 16th president's warts - a homeliness he often joked about and a history of depression that would be a bottomless well for opposition researchers - Lincoln's steadiness, his willingness to compromise while maintaining principles, his believable self-deprecation and wit would endear him to Americans aching for those qualities in their leadership.
Goodwin wrote the best-selling book Team of Rivals that the Oscar-nominated movie Lincoln was partly based upon. She chuckles as she tells a story of Lincoln being heckled and called two-faced, to which he responded, 'If I had another face, do you think I'd wear this one?"
Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, a script consultant to the movie, says Lincoln led politicians of his age in recognizing how photography - then a cutting-edge medium - could broaden his reach and sway during the strife-ridden Civil War.
"Anybody who could have figured that out as early as he did could have figured out tweeting and blogging and Colbert," Holzer says.
This weekend marks a pinnacle of Lincoln's rediscovery. Steven Spielberg's movie about the Civil War president is up for 12 Oscars, including a best actor nomination for British actor Daniel Day-Lewis who portrayed the 16th president.
Holzer, who wrote a children's book to go with the movie, was asked by the U.S. State Department to do a satellite symposium on Lincoln for students and scholars in 15 countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Spielberg's movie came out after President Obama's re-election, amid hopes that he and Congress could quickly address the nation's fiscal challenges, but that hasn't happened. The movie, which portrays Lincoln as principled but willing to give, "put a standard out there and a longing for that kind of leadership," Goodwin says.
Holzer has been studying Lincoln for 40 years, and he says he has never seen anything approaching this level of interest. There were bursts during the nation's Bicentennial in 1976 and during fights over Civil War battlefield preservation, he says, but "all that could fit in a shot glass compared to the waterfall that this is."
In Spielberg's movie, Lewis plays a weary president facing turmoil in his public and private lives. It depicts bare-knuckled politics - vote-buying and shady lobbying - in the passage of the 13th Amendment to end slavery.
"It reminds people that leadership is not all great oratory and nobility and posing for pictures, or ending up on the $5 bill," Holzer says. "It is about down and dirty politics. Sometimes our hands have to get a little bit dirty for us to hold up a jewel, and that is what this movie showed."
During the Civil War, while thousands were being slaughtered on battlefields and the fate of the Union was unknown, Lincoln struggled with the death of a young son and the emotional fragility of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, played in the movie by actress Sally Field.
This latest bout of Lincoln chic comes during the 150th anniversary of the war in which his administration not only saved the Union and abolished slavery but pushed through legislation to build a transcontinental railroad, open millions of acres to homesteaders and establish land-grant research universities in every state.
But it is the personal Lincoln that's getting the most attention.
Lewis told CBS' 60 Minutes that he had "never ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met, and that is probably the effect that Lincoln has on most people who have taken the time to discover him."
Goodwin says she considers Lincoln the greatest president, as do Holzer and Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, a renowned Civil War scholar.
Faust calls Lincoln "a brilliant man who understood people very well. He also understood politics very well. ... (Lincoln) had extraordinary persuasive powers. That kind of a gifted leader and politician doesn't come along very often."
She says she believes Lincoln has been the most written-about president largely because of his writing skills. Lincoln's Gettysburg address, Faust says, is a masterpiece in brevity that frames the vision of preserving the Union and the stakes for a nation struggling to remove the scourge of slavery.
Goodwin says the depth of Lincoln's personality and the complexity of a life filled with great despair and riumph will forever entice historians to examine him.
"There is something about Lincoln - the vulnerability, the strength, the humor, the conviction, the melancholy, the political genius and the literary genius, that somehow just grabs you in a way that goes beyond the normal subject," Goodwin says.
She notes that Lincoln spent his childhood in extreme poverty, wracked by the loss of a mother as a young boy, and that he contemplated thoughts of suicide. Lincoln "gives so much hope and solace for people who have gone through so many troubles in their lives," Goodwin says. "(His appeal comes) from where he came from and where he led the country. It was the most defining moment in our nation's history. Without the Union being saved, without slavery ending, without that war being won, we would not be America today."
Faust says Lincoln was brutally excoriated in his time and most of his greatness has been seen "in retrospect," a lesson about leadership.
His assassination, Holzer says, will always leave historians to wonder, "what if?"
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