On The Caucus blog in today’s New York Times, political reporter Katharine Q. Seelye has an interesting post about President Obama’s intense feeling of connection with Abraham Lincoln and the ways in which he is expressing it publicly.
The piece begins with a general set up:
Barack Obama is not the first president to feel a kinship with Abraham Lincoln. Nixon made at least one midnight visit to the Lincoln Memorial for a talk with the great man’s statue. Teddy Roosevelt wore a ring that was made from a lock of Lincoln’s hair. Franklin Roosevelt hired Robert Sherwood, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” as his speechwriter.
I know it’s possible to be too literal by half, but I can’t quite figure out what effect Ms. Seelye —whose writing is usually savvy, experienced, and stylish, and who certainly strives to be accurate— is going for here.
The point of her post is the unusual degree of the new President’s Lincolnphilia. And the point of the opening paragraph is to establish that it is the degree of its intensity, rather than in the sense of the connection with the Great Emancipator, that Mr. Obama is different from some of his predecessors.
So she gives the three examples —including interesting ones about TR and FDR— but leads with one about RN that is unnecessarily untrue. Because, far from being mystical or weird —which are the impressions she leaves by saying the purpose was to “talk with the great man’s statue”— RN’s intention was both worldly and specific.
Nor is the truth hard to find. For example, Wikipedia gets it right:
On May 9, 1970, President Richard Nixon had a middle-of-the-night impromptu, brief meeting with protesters preparing to march against the Vietnam War just days after the Kent State shootings.
And, in fact, the purpose for RN’s visit to the Memorial that morning was both poignant and profound.
Time magazine’s account —in the issue of 18 May 1970— was more on target:
Before dawn the next morning, Nixon impulsively wakened his valet and set off with a clutch of Secret Service men for the Lincoln Memorial, where he talked for an hour with a group of drowsy but astonished demonstrators. His discussion rambled over the sights of the world that he had seen — Mexico City, the Moscow ballet, the cities of India. When the conversation turned to the war, Nixon told the students: “I know you think we are a bunch of so and so’s.” He said to them, the President recalled Chamberlain was the greatest man living and that Winston Churchill was a madman. It was not until years later that I realized that Churchill was right.” He confessed afterwards: “I doubt if that got over.”
Before he left, Nixon said: “I know you want to get the war over. Sure you came here to demonstrate and shout your slogans on the ellipse. That’s all right. Just keep it peaceful. Have a good time in Washington, and don’t go away bitter.”
RN considered the Lincoln Memorial visit sufficiently important —and sufficiently misunderstood— to devote eight pages to it in RN (pp. 459-466); he quotes extensively from a memorandum he wrote describing the events and his intentions. It is also discussed by Bud Krogh in his book Integrity.
Ms. Seelye’s erroneous throw away line is curiously misjudged and —in the second sentence of what is clearly intended to be a serious piece of writing— unfortunately misplaced.