Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Abe

“He has a face like a hoosier Michaelangelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep-cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.”
~ Walt Whitman

Divinipotent Daily asked me to write today’s installment because of my history of romantic dreams about Abraham Lincoln. Just two dreams in the last 25 years, but apparently that’s two more than normal, and DD finds it amusing. In one dream, he and I held hands while waiting for the 7 train at the Hunters Point Avenue station in Queens. (Subway = Underground Railroad? Maybe.) (Wait, just this second I realized that the 7’s terminus is Times Square, also known as the theater district; Lincoln, theater, hmm.) I don’t remember the details of the other except that he smiled at me. More on that later.  

I’ve had an interest in presidents, individually and as a group, since I was about six years old. A younger brother had been given a set of president coins, and because he couldn’t read I helped him learn their names. We could recite all presidents in order. I still can, a useless talent because if you mix up Taylor and Tyler or reverse the Harrisons, who’s going to know or, much more to the point, care?

But even more than the coins it was the events in Dallas about a year later that intensified my interest in presidents, especially the assassinated ones. (I have such a clear memory of cutting out from the back of a cereal box trading cards of Kennedy, Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield. Seriously? Murdered presidents for breakfast? Wasn’t watching Oswald get killed over lunch — I remember I was eating a grilled cheese sandwich — enough for us poor kids? Is it any wonder that for the next few years I was obsessed with presidents and true crime, culminating in my summer of 1966 scrapbook the front of which was devoted to Luci Baines Johnson’s White House Wedding while the back covered mass murderer Richard Speck?)

Of course I always liked Lincoln. What’s not to like? And from the time I was little, I loved the way he looked — a leaner, lankier Leonard Bernstein, whom I found devastatingly handsome in his Young People’s Concerts when I was a young person. But in truth Lincoln wasn’t my favorite president. Certainly he was in my top two, but to coin a phrase, he was no Jack Kennedy.

And then a few years ago I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The title is deceptive. Yes, it’s about Lincoln’s political genius, which was extraordinary, but politics is just one area in which Lincoln was the smartest person in the room. And the kindest, most compassionate, best educated (though almost entirely self-taught), funniest (loved bawdy jokes, but rarely worked dirty), strongest (while in his 50s, decades removed from splitting rails, he could hold an ax at arm’s length by his thumb and forefinger for minutes at a time, playfully demonstrating “that in muscular strength he was one in a thousand”), most inventive (the only president to hold a patent!) and most fair-minded. Most eloquent. Tallest. And of course most honest. A rare human being the likes of which the office of the presidency has not seen before or since.

Since reading Team of Rivals, I find myself talking about Lincoln a lot. The result is that people give me more Lincoln books. One of the two I received this past Christmas was called Lincoln, Life Size, a compilation of every known photograph of him shown in its actual size on the left side of a spread and blown up life-sized on the right.

Some of the photos are profile, some are head on, some are full body, most are close-ups, with minimal change of background, wardrobe or expression over the 19-year period the portraits represent. His hair does change. In one photo in particular, it’s an absolute crazy mess, and in another in early 1865 he has a punk-rock crew-cut to facilitate the making of a plaster life mask. The beard shows up only for the last five years of his life. His eyes are very light gray, which is surprising; I don’t know why, but I always assumed he had dark eyes. In some photos he looks weary, old and haggard, as if he had the weight of the nation upon him, which of course he did. In others he looks like a movie star, and I don’t mean of the Steve Buscemi–Bill Macy sort, I mean Laurence Olivier. All are mesmerizing. Striking. Beautiful.

As I looked through the book for the first time, I kept waiting to see the one of him smiling. There’s one photo that the authors say is a portrait of him smiling, but it’s more of a smirk. Apparently, the long exposure time required at that time made smiling difficult — he’d have to hold it for longer than he held the ax. But I knew I had seen him smiling…at me, I realized. In my dream. 

I gave up trying to interpret my romantic Abraham Lincoln dreams years ago. Maybe they’re not about him at all, and he merely represents an authority figure in my life. Or maybe they’re really about Leonard Bernstein. I’ll never know. But on the occasion of what would have been his 201st birthday, I can say that if I’m going to devote many of my waking hours and some of my sleeping ones to anyone, there are few people more worthy than Abraham Lincoln. 

“Washington was a typical American. Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the Presidents together...We are still too near his greatness, but after a few centuries more our posterity will find him considerably bigger than we do."
~ Leo Tolstoy

— by Mary Ghiorsi

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Note from Divinipotent Daily: This post was prompted by one of my readers — you know who you are! — who requested that I write about Abraham Lincoln. Since my friend and off-and-on colleague Mary Ghiorsi has a much more…intimate…relationship with him, I asked her to do the honors.


  1. Sure the writer seems obsessed with Lincoln, which is a little unusual. Unless you know her. In which case, it fits the profile. Hers I mean, not Lincoln's, which is, as she points out, really impressive. On the occasion of his birthday, I think it was high time someone address the sexiness issue. Funny how Kearnes-Goodwin wrote right around it...thanks for this great post

  2. You know, I think Mary may have started something here: Abe Lincoln, Sex Symbol.

  3. The damnedest people are sexy in dreams. I can see Lincoln enjoying a crossover career as a sexy dead president among the non-sleeping, as well. He's got all the juice the babes love; he was super-righteous yet delightfully human, and he died young and stayed pretty...homely. But that has its own perverse allure--Mary's dreams cover that territory.

    Happy Birthday, Babe-raham Lincoln (SNL). Abrahummina. Emancipator of the Mighty LIncoln Log... Join me in a race to the bottom.