by Ted Lietz
I’m not Abraham Lincoln, but I played him on television once. It was a commercial for a sleep aid, and I was in the background of somebody’s dream. I mean Abe was in the background, along with a football player and a platypus. Only the platypus had a speaking part.
Most of the time, I portray our sixteenth president in one-man performances like this. By the way, if you enjoy what you see tonight, in the back there’s a stovepipe hat just like the one I’m wearing. It’s marked “TIPS,” and I put some business cards next to it. I’m also available after the performance for pictures.
Sometimes, people ask me what it’s like to play Lincoln for a living. Well, saying the things he said, over and over again, sometimes I don’t know where Abe leaves off and I begin. But he’s legendary for suffering fools gladly, and that’s something I just never learned.
Once at a restaurant near Gettysburg, even though I was out of costume, a waitress recognized me. She giggled and said, “I’m surprised to see you sitting in a booth.” When I told her a booth was fine, she said, “I mean, you know. Booth. Like John Wilkes Booth who shot Lincoln.”
Slathering on irony as if it were mayo on a BLT, she asked if I, being an actor and all, knew Booth was an actor, too. I said something about the dual nature of humankind, ordered a fake-meat burger, and resisted the temptation to leave a Lincoln penny as a tip.
What I’m saying is, you probably can’t tell me a Lincoln joke I haven’t heard, and I really hope you don’t try.
Okay, one minute to get into character, and I’ll become Honest Abe. Here we go.
I’m often asked about the Gettysburg Address. It’s so short, lots of people think I just dashed it off in a hurry, but I worked very hard to get it right. By the time I gave that speech in 1863, after two years of civil war and not much to show for it, people in the North were asking what all the fighting and dying was about. I knew. I knew I knew. But I hadn’t been able to explain it very well.
Did you ever have a truth in your gut, I mean a truth so powerful, so overwhelming, so fundamental, for God’s sake, that you ached to tell it, but couldn’t find the words? That’s where I’d been since Fort Sumter.
Maybe you’ve heard that one cause of the war was states’ rights, a constitutional issue. I admire the Constitution, I really do. But a lot of the framers, North and South, would have lined up with the Confederacy on states’ rights.
So how about abolition, ending a practice that should never have been allowed in the first place? You know, Battle Hymn of the Republic stuff? As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free?
If Julia Ward Howe were penning those lyrics today, she’d probably write set all people free. I was a politician and a darned good one. So, that’s for sure the way I’d have said it today.
Anyway, incredibly important as it was, setting people free was only part of something even more important. We’re all created equal.
Created equal. You won’t find those words in the Constitution, but they are in the Declaration of Independence. It’s part of a dandy set of talking points about what people are entitled to simply because they’re human. Equality. Unalienable rights. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness.
Those ideals kicked off positive changes all over the world. But here in the U.S.A., sometime after the chest-thumping at Independence Hall, we lost our way. This horrible war was the result of going off course, of ignoring some ideals and bending others beyond all recognition. Sound familiar?
It also was a test of the Founders’ hypothesis: Could this nation or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, long endure?
What I was trying to say at Gettysburg—and, okay, these were not my exact words—but what I was trying to say is that this was a war for the soul of a people.
By the time I was sworn in for my second term in 1865, victory was in sight. But it was only a military victory. Bringing us back together as a nation would be even harder. I laid out the broad strategy--With malice toward none, with charity for all.
Did somebody just snicker? It pisses me off when I say that and some cynical Twenty-First Century type snickers. I know what some of you are thinking: “So, the union prevailed and we all lived happily ever after.”
Well, I did what I could until that SOB shot me. After that, it was up to you, the living.
So, when you’re done being cynical, bring me up to date. How’re you folks coming with that?
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
© Ted Lietz 2020. All rights reserved.