- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

As the Shakespearean actor Edmund Keane observed in another context, “[c]omedy is hard.” Harder still is to be witty and amusing while at the same time being informative and thoughtful. Yet local author and editor Andrew Ferguson manages all this in a touching confessional of his boyhood fascination with our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

Witty and amusing? About Abraham Lincoln? For those who find it hard if not impossible to see the prospect of anything funny about Lincoln or the myth that has grown around him, perhaps this book is not for you. Something from Oprah’s Book Club might be more to your taste.

So as a test, read just the six-page preface about Mr. Ferguson’s Illinois boyhood and his fixation on Lincoln the man, Lincoln the untutored re-inventor of a new and more united nation, Lincoln the martyr, and most of all of Lincoln the myth. If you identify with that boy, be you boy or girl, and if your own time of hero worship still echoes in your subconscious, then settle down with Mr. Ferguson as he embarks on a trip of reconsideration not only of the man but why we need other people to look up to.

In the interests of full disclosure let me here reveal that I was a bi-polar Civil War junkie from my earliest memories, so Mr. Ferguson’s fascination struck a loud chord. I had two great-grandfathers who fought for the Union, one trudging from Second Manassas through every other battle including Gettysburg. But I also had Uncle John Handlin, a quasi-godfather/baby sitter to whose home I repaired each day after school. There I would pore over books in his library of Confederate history by Douglas Southall Freeman, James Street and C. Vann Woodward, often having to come back to the same tomes years later as my understanding improved.

Less important than what I read was what I wore while reading it. Until I grew too large for it around age 12, I was permitted to wear the butternut homespun cavalry jacket worn by Uncle John’s father when he rode as a boy trooper with the fabled Kentucky raider John Hunt Morgan on his invasion of Ohio. Even at that distance of time that jacket was rank with horse sweat, dust, gunpowder residue and, yes by golly, Yankee blood. Captain Jack Handlin of Morgan’s Raiders (“Morgan, Morgan’s Raiders and Morgan’s terrible men, With Bowie knives and pistols, a’comin up the glen”) seizes my emotions in a vice even as I write these words.

Mr. Ferguson came by his addiction honestly. He grew up in a town in Illinois (“The Land of Lincoln“) literally, and his father commuted to Chicago, where he was a member of the law firm founded there by Robert Lincoln, Abe’s only son to survive into manhood. Mr. Ferguson grew up in a house on Lincoln Street, and the family’s summer vacation trips invariably included visits to the Lincoln landmarks, including his own hometown of Springfield. Young Andy Ferguson collected documents that were claimed to be in Abe’s hand, photographs and shelves of books about the man. Did he have imaginary conversations with the man as I did with Captain Jack? I like to think so.

Then of course we grew up, as children will do, and a vastly different world claimed our ambitions and attention. Childish things were put away. Mr. Ferguson notes that his emergence into adulthood also coincided with a “great historical amnesia” that began to wash through the national conscience of the Sixties, a cynical cleansing of even the desire to learn about, much less revere, the history of a nation now judged to be a carrier of war and greed to an innocent world.

But while memories can be stored away, they never can be permanently discarded. So Mr. Ferguson begins his tale one morning when he picks up his newspaper from the stoop in front of his Arlington home and sees the headline “Lincoln statue stirs outrage in Richmond.”

As he recalls, “I thought: Lincoln? Outrage? And I felt the first stirrings of the fatal question, the question that, once raised, never lets go: ‘Huh?’”

He explains that to him Lincoln “… seems too big even to have an opinion about. It would be like objecting to the moon.”

Think about it for just a minute. Spool back over the 43 presidents and name one other than Abraham Lincoln without whom we would not have the nation we have today. Washington? Not a bad general and a pretty good first president, but any of the Founding Fathers would have managed to get us up and running somehow. Woodrow Wilson never matched his dreams with results.

Franklin Roosevelt’s much applauded New Deal and wartime leadership is now being picked apart by the remorseless eye of history. As for his successors, there is a reason they are generally reduced to their initials when we name them; they are that forgettable. The Bushes are rightly called merely by their place numbers, “41” and “43.” Nope, Abe is the essential president.

The story that drew Mr. Ferguson into his personal quest for understanding had to do with a bid by a Richmond purveyor of historical jim-cracks to erect a life-sized statue of Lincoln and his son Tad in the act of visiting the abandoned Confederate capital city in April 1865. The statue is located on the public park site of the Tredegar Iron Works, the arsenal of the Rebel forces during the struggle.

It is on a trip to understand what the fuss of the statue is all about that Mr. Ferguson meets a group of perfectly nice, intelligent individuals of whom he was unaware, people who despise Abraham Lincoln. Their motives vary. Some are unreconstructed fans of the Confederate past. Others tax Lincoln for creating the institutions and government practices that intrude most in their lives today — Abe invented the modern big government with its paper money, its intrusions on privacy, its contempt for law and its overregulation of everything.

Mr. Ferguson begins to suspect there is more to the Lincoln story than he had suspected as a boy. To his credit, he does not play these Lincoln-haters for cheap laughs. Yet there is much enjoyable humor as the two sides of the battle for Richmond’s cultural soul go at each other in front of him. But Mr. Ferguson is left with a vexing question: What did Lincoln really stand for? What kind of man was he?

To find a satisfying answer, Mr. Ferguson sets out on a picaresque journey, at first to discover “how do we know what we think we know about Lincoln?” How could one man be judged both the greatest president of all time and the author of all our national ills and diseases? How could he be mythologized by statues in almost every town north of the Mason-Dixon line and merit only one — in a park in Richmond — in all the South?

Here again, Mr. Ferguson deftly melds solid reporting and sly humor during his stop at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Abe’s hometown of Springfield, Ill., a $145 million Disney-fied extravaganza opened in 2005. Here we confront the dilemma faced by museums everywhere: How to attract the interest of an audience addicted to the visual stimulation of computer games when all you have are historical artifacts and a static narrative.

Interestingly, he concludes that the success of new high tech approaches to history presentation spell doom for the so-called “new history,” which stresses politically correct interpretations of broad social themes to the exclusions of cracking good yarns — such as the life of Lincoln.

Onward Mr. Ferguson treks. He seeks out bizarre mega-collectors of Lincoln memorabilia, and he attends a convention of Lincoln presenters (don’t call them impersonators) in Santa Claus, Ind., and a management training seminar for CEOs eager to learn the successful Lincoln tactics of running big organizations. Through this mad landscape what becomes clearer about Lincoln is the mass of contradictions that made up his personality. But with Mr. Ferguson guiding the way, somehow you are not disappointed.

Finally, a small quibble. My personal belief is that it is impossible to write 100 pages of nonfiction without one factual error creeping in. Mr. Ferguson has written 279 pages of top-rank prose and only has two minor errors. Indeed, he repeats the same erroneous factoid twice, so perhaps that’s only one error and it has nothing to do with Lincoln or the basic story.

He is simply wrong about a dramatic incident at a Civil War battle, and his editors should have saved him as mine do me. (Hint: It involves Gen. Lewis Armistead.) Those who spot it can be sure he knows about it already and it will be fixed in later printings, so keep reading. Those who are in the dark, stay that way and revel in this most entertaining and thought-provoking effort by one of our better writers.

Author James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”



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