Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published June 10, 2005

Lincoln Holiday


Claudia suggested that we drive down to Springfield ,Illinois, on Memorial Day and visit the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. As a big fan of the rail splitter I was delighted by the idea of taking a Lincoln Holiday. Back in Junior High when I told my Mom that I was ugly, rather than disagree with me, she pointed out that Abe was a homely fellow too. I was flattered by the comparison.  If I hadn’t been a devoteé of the “skin deep” theory of beauty before I have been one ever since.


To prepare for our trip we ordered an eight hour lecture on CDs by an eminent Lincoln scholar for the drive south. I read “Lincoln at Cooper Union” a book about the speech which won Lincoln the Republican nomination in 1860. It was the seventh book on Abe that I’ve read to completion. I also read halfway through the fictionalized account of his Presidency “Lincoln” by Gore Vidal which I had given my Father twenty years earlier. My Dad had been reluctant to read the book because he was afraid his idealization of the sixteenth President would be punctured by Vidal’s lethal acerbity. Dad was relieved to report that instead, Vidal had bolstered his admiration for the President.


I’ve studied Lincoln for the same reason that I study Jesus and the early Christian Church. Both give me worthy role models and both steel me to have patience with their imperfect successors.


It was fitting that we visited the Museum on Memorial Day. America began honoring the fallen soldiers of the Civil War on this holiday shortly after war’s end and Lincoln was almost the last man to sacrifice his life before the South’s unconditional surrender.


This was my fourth trip through Springfield. The first trip took place in 1962, 97 years after Lincoln’s assassination. When we entered Lincoln’s Home on that first visit a breathless attendant rushed over to tell us that Red Skelton (a famous television star of that era) was on his way to visit the house. I begged my Father to wait half an hour so that I could meet the famous comedian. When Red failed to materialize we went on to our next scheduled point-of-interest, Lincoln’s Tomb. As we pulled up to it a woman rushed over to breathlessly tell us that we had just missed Red Skelton.


On this fourth visit I finally got to meet a red headed celebrity. Richard Norton Smith, the Museum’s Director and one of the stable of historians who commentate for PBS’s News Hour, was busy chatting up visitors to his museum. I shook Smith’s hand, complimented his museum, and lobbied him to put one of its displays, “The Civil War in four minutes,” on the Internet.


During our stay Claudia and I lodged in a bed and breakfast north of Springfield in the hamlet of Petersburg. Young Abe Lincoln surveyed the town when he lived in New Salem five minutes down the road. Our B&B stood on the spot of an earlier home whose owner implored Lincoln not to plat a street through his house. Lincoln obliged so that the current house rests on a small square of land that is misaligned with the surrounding streets.


Lincoln has been dead long enough to have become the icon Daniel Chester French sculpted on the Washington Mall and that Borglum carved onto Mt. Rushmore. He is no longer remembered as the cartoonists of his time portrayed him – as an ape. Religiously observant folks revere his faith in God while agnostics revere his doubt. Republicans revere him as the founder of the GOP and the Southern Democrats who once revered John Wilkes Booth have now become ardent Republicans. Even the American Communists, leftists and idealists who volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain called themselves the “Lincoln Brigade.” This is not a bad legacy for a homely man even if the reverence comes with a little historical infidelity.


For instance, today’s Republican Party rails against income taxes and champions regressive taxes which place a greater burden on the poor. Yet Lincoln was a long-time champion of “progressive” taxes which fall more heavily on the rich. Furthermore, he was the first president to institute an income tax.


I got a chuckle over this when we returned to Minnesota and heard the breaking news that Republican Governor Pawlenty had offered to adopt a “health impact fee” on cigarettes. Not only would it fall disproportionately on the poor but calling it a “fee” allowed him to honor his pledge not to raise taxes. I turned to Claudia and suggested that the Governor might find it even easier to balance the budget if he announced an income tax “fee” or a sales tax “fee.” Or a “fee fee” Claudia riposted.


Ah, but this would not have done at all. No respectable Republican could stomach any tax that sounded so . . . French! And Lincoln would have agreed. Abe was hopping mad when Napoleon III of France invaded Mexico to install the Austrian prince, Maximilian, as its emperor while he was tied down fighting the Civil War. A Fifi indeed!


Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com