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Lincolns Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words by Douglas L. Wilson

Cheryl Truman [Lexington Herald-Leader]

Lincoln's Sword fondly recalls the U.S.'s public discourse before "talk-radio blowhard" became a job description.


Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 352
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $26.95
Author: Douglas L. Wilson
US publication date: 2006-11
UK publication date: 2006-11
Amazon

The smart money was never on Abraham Lincoln.

He was laughed at for his leadership skills, scorned for his corn-pone appearance. His lack of formal education made him a target.

Hence, he was perhaps the most persuasive man of the 19th century.

Lincoln became an underdog commando, a genuinely brilliant man who rarely let on just how smart he was. By never .acknowledging how much he knew about the enemies he kept near, he won their most valuable gift: silence. By farming out his prodigious literary output to a variety of beta readers, he was able to sift through their equivocations and posturings, modify his speeches and proclamations, and seem ever the cautious yet charismatic leader in perhaps the United States' most dangerous time: the Civil War.

In Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, author Douglas L. Wilson does stellar work dissecting Lincoln's most prominent public utterances. But for my money, Lincoln is best embodied by a speech he made to a group of Jefferson enthusiasts in Boston in which he indirectly let them know that the Declaration of Independence's key line -- about the "self-evident" truth that all men are created equal -- was just what he was planning to implement with the Emancipation Proclamation. The genius is that Lincoln didn't mention emancipating slaves -- or even specifically mention that all men are created equal.

But then, Lincoln had learned well from his past political life. Wilson notes that Stephen Douglas made Lincoln eat his anti-slavery sentiments during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, forcing Lincoln to backtrack and equivocate every chance he got. Even Lincoln wasn't beneath playing politics.

Lincoln wasn't plagued by public-opinion polls or 24-hour news analysis. On the other hand, he swam with political sharks by choice. (See Doris Kearns Goodwin's mesmerizing Team of Rivals for an explanation of how Lincoln came to pack his Cabinet with some of his most bitter opponents. Some rivals he finally won over; the others he neutralized by forcing them to publicly reveal their weaknesses.)

But Wilson is less interested here in Lincoln the politician than in Lincoln the master communicator. Even so, the book has a few bumpy patches: The New York Times was moved to wonder why Wilson didn't do more with Lincoln's reading as it is reflected in Lincoln's writing. Where's Shakespeare? The Bible?

We do learn that Lincoln read as we watch TV today, for sheer entertainment as well as for the seeds of literary inspiration. He read the funny guys of the era, along with such inadvertently hilarious folk as Fitz-Greene Hallack, called the "American Byron," except that you've heard of Byron. One of the book's most engaging moments features Lincoln in 1862 engaging in an overdramatic reading of one of Hallack's tortured poems to a startled guest, then pausing to cackle.

We learn that Lincoln was one of the few educated folks of his age who didn't read Charles Dickens, which is the Great Emancipator's loss. There are parts of those meticulously dissected inaugural addresses that could have been really punched up with some of Dickens' arch observations about character and motivation.

So we learn a great deal about how Lincoln wrote, as Wilson opines that Lincoln was perhaps more a pre-writer than a rewriter. By either measure, his output was impressive: You hardly pause to think how Lincoln would have fared in the age of word-processing programs and PowerPoint -- by finally finding time for The Pickwick Papers, I expect.

And about the Gettysburg Address, these tidbits: Lincoln was not interrupted by raucous applause during its delivery, indicating that the famous speech beginning "Four score and seven years ago" and ending "of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth" did not exactly wow its target audience. But then, the Gettysburg Address was a 272-word speech in an era when politicians routinely yammered on for hours, a sort of speaker's bureau proving ground. The crowd might have expected that Lincoln was just getting warmed up.

Wilson also provides a hearty dose of detail on just when Lincoln started writing things, how the revisions went, how punctuation was misused and what influences might have gone into his word selection -- all of which you can happily skip, unless you're a serious Lincoln scholar or doing your own paper on Lincoln's language.

And it turns out that Lincoln even got the last laugh on some great men. Wilson notes that although Henry Clay was the great speaker of the day, nobody read him after the issues he sonorously declaimed about faded into historical obscurity.

There's a lesson in this: Don't speechify about the small stuff. Save yourself for the history books. In fact, Lincoln might have done both: frittered with the details while creating prose for the ages.

The irony is that presidential speeches today are less persuasion than sound bite and hardly ever written solely by the presidents themselves. Try to behave yourself when you consider what a speech written in its entirety by President Bush might look like.

Even though voters today have more information, are they more thoughtful? Can they follow the arguments devoured by voters in Lincoln's day, when public lectures were a leading form of entertainment?

Lincoln's Sword fondly recalls the U.S.'s public discourse before "talk-radio blowhard" became a job description. It was a gilded era. The president was expected to speak for himself, without an army of spin doctors, press secretaries and White House correspondents.

Happily, in Lincoln's case, that was no problem.

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