In the midst of one of the most turbulent weeks in our recent civic life, I attended the play Lincolnesque last Saturday at Washington’s Keegan Theatre. First released in 2009, this new production couldn’t have come at a better time. Here’s the synopsis:
“Leo has more on his plate than he can handle. He is a speechwriter for an endangered mediocre Congressman, in the final month before a do-or-die mid-term election. His new boss Carla is a dominating message maven who has been brought in from the corporate world to try and save the campaign. And his brother Francis is a psychiatric outpatient recently released from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, despite having a powerful delusion that he is Abraham Lincoln. Desperate for inspiration, Leo turns to Francis for help writing “Lincolnesque” speeches, hoping that Lincoln’s transformative oratory will revive his boss’s career.”
Playwright John Strand uses humor and plot twists to bring Leo and Carla to the point of stealing Francis’ “Lincolnesque” citations for the final campaign speech that puts the Congressman over the top. The power of idealism (or E&I as Francis calls it, for Ethics and Integrity) is clear, even when the staff take the low road and end up, as one reviewer noted, in the “inevitable aftermath.”
I’ve been thinking a great deal about our political conversation these past few weeks and how it affects my work and life. I suspect that many of you are having the same thoughts. Political conversation is a measure of the civic health of our country, and right now that health is fragile. Lincoln was not a perfect human, as Strand points out time and again in Lincolnesque. The same can be said for Thomas Jefferson, the other American president whose words have inspired across decades even as his flaws as a person have been identified and examined in detail. However, even in today’s understanding of history, author Thomas Reston writes that Barack Obama could note that, “’Thomas Jefferson represents what’s best in America,’ . . . even as he (Obama) pointedly recognized that Jefferson’s household was built and maintained by slaves.” What Lincoln and Jefferson did best was to focus on big ideas and big politics, not policies.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said: “It seems to me that at this time we need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure.” While we don’t need leaders who steal “Lincolnesque” citations, we do need the same clear thought about what it means to be an American. An education in the obvious, in other words. Historian (and National Trust Honorary Trustee) David McCullough has said, “What we Americans need above all is leadership to define the national ambition.” Speaking to the National Trust conference in Providence after the 9/11 attacks, David reminded us that as a country:
“We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength. And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”
That strikes me as what’s missing in today’s course discourse. Just like playwrights and other artists, historians and preservationists dedicated to telling the full American story and linking it to our present and future can help provide that “education in the obvious.” It won’t be easy to be heard over the noise of today’s discourse, but I believe we have to try. Our nation’s political health may depend on it.
Have a good week.
More to come…
Image: Studio Lincoln by Daniel Chester French at Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site (credit Carol Highsmith)