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7 Days in America: Harold Holzer, Arianna Huffington, & Bob Shrum

01/18/2009 08:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer shares the parallels between one lanky Illinois legislator / president-elect and another. Think about it: without Lincoln, no emancipation proclamation, no Obama... and no United States of America.

Interview with Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln President Elect, January 17, 2009

MARK GREEN: Congratulations on your masterful book. Did you begin it before or during Doris Kearns-Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and how do you two relate -- are you rivals or allies?

HAROLD HOLZER: We're friends but we don't agree on everything. She's been very kind to me in her comments. The difference is I don't believe Lincoln appointed rivals overnight, as other books have suggested, including Doris's. I think he wanted real rivals. He wanted North Carolinians in the cabinet, he wanted Virginians in the cabinet, as a political effort to stave off secession. But in the end, there was a tradition about appointing your closest competitor or the head of your party as Secretary of State. But none of these guys, who were the team of rivals, ever debated Abraham Lincoln, or criticized him, or said an unkind word about him. You know, they were largely just names entered in nomination.

GREEN: But that was the way people ran for President in that era? HOLZER: In the way it was done, yeah. They had their little organizations and their names were submitted, they never went to the convention, they never made speeches, they never had rallies, and they never campaigned. Obama, to his credit, has really appointed a team of rivals, including Richardson, if you will, and Biden and Hillary debated and criticized him. He actually showed more self-confidence in this regard than Lincoln.

GREEN: Obama seems to be using the Lincoln playbook, taking the train into D.C., using Lincoln's actual bible, calling his speech "a rebirth of freedom" after Lincoln's second inaugural. So how did Lincoln perform in his four month transition?

HOLZER: Is he using the Lincoln playbook, aside from the obvious things? I think he is. And I think Lincoln was long mischaracterized as a person who did too little during the interregnum to prevent war and secession, when in fact, the argument that I make in the book is that he did a lot. And he forced Congress, in his case, not to act. He impelled them not to pass compromised legislation that would've extended and perpetuated slavery. Just as Obama, while saying as Lincoln did, we only have one president at a time, has in fact moved Congress to release the bailout's second phase, and also to move having the House introduce the stimulus package. So it's the same kind of thing.

GREEN: Yes, your book Lincoln: President-Elect does alter the traditional view that his transition was a weak failure. You instead argue that he was canny and practical. What other examples are there?

HOLZER: Using the patronage power early to solidify his support among Democrats in the north, a part of the coalition he would need; Germans in Missouri, for example. Number two, influencing Congress strongly to hold off on a Constitutional amendment that would've made slavery perpetual where it existed and extended it to the Pacific ocean, which was included in the Republican platform. That was extraordinary stuff for a President-Elect in those days, who was basically supposed to use those four months to pack his bags and be quiet. Third he presented a new kind of image to people, not just by growing a beard, which stimulated a lot of nice and homey chatter, but by having an embedded newspaper reporter, who was widely syndicated, following him day-by-day, Henry Vallard of the New York Herald, who became increasingly sympathetic and convinced about his capacities. And then finally, conducting a very public inaugural journey, he called it "My Meandering Way", that included stops first in state capitols in the states where he had done really well like Indiana, Ohio, and New York. And then, taking him into territory where the American experiment had first been born: Trenton, where the Hessian barracks stood next to the State House. Philadelphia, where the hotel was a couple of blocks from Independence Hall.

GREEN: For that era, he went viral given the number of voters that he saw a short period of time, right?

HOLZER: Absolutely. And that 250,000 people saw him during this journey makes him the most widely seen President in American history up to that time. And probably until Theodore Roosevelt.

GREEN: You write about how brilliant was his first inaugural address. Tell us why famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas, however, was so withering in his criticism.

HOLZER: He was every bit as praiseworthy of what he called the sacred effort of the second inaugural, when Lincoln conceded that Northerners and Southerners were equally responsible for the sin of slavery and deserved punishment and suffering. Lincoln said in his first inaugural that he would enforce the fugitive slave act, which is a pretty retrograde thing to say, but he had to prove his bona-fide's as a conciliator, and someone who not promulgating the war. He wanted to leave with the impression that the South had no reason to start a war. And the way he did it was by saying that slavery could exist where it already existed, and if there were fugitives to be captured and returned, the federal government would do what it was required to do.

GREEN: What I take out of it was that there were really two speeches in one-- one directed at the South by telling them that he didn't like slavery but they could keep it, and then another clearly stating rebellion would not be tolerated. That is, Union was more important than slavery.

HOLZER: You can't rebel, secession is an impossibility. A husband and a wife may divorce each other, but not states. And, the great line: "why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?" If you don't like me, get rid of me in four years. But he wanted to end it on a rather defiant note. The way he drafted it in Springfield, and had it set in type by the way, thinking it was a final thing, was he wanted to end it by saying: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine lies the momentous issue of civil war. Shall it be peace or a sword?" But Seward talked him out of it.

GREEN: Let's conclude with any analogy between Lincoln and Obama. I was struck by Sen. Charlie's Sumner's famous phrase that Lincoln's inaugural was a steel first within a velvet glove and also by Lincoln's famous concluding line appealing to "the better angels of our nature." Seems like that's exactly the tone that Obama is trying to set.

HOLZER: I think they're both extremely cool under pressure. I think they know when to use humor. They know when to direct attention to the more private aspects of their lives or to deflect over discussion of contentious issues, down to discussion of pets, which Lincoln had too. I think they're deeply rooted, both in their own way, in American history; The precedence with the chief executives who came before them. For Lincoln, it was Washington and Jackson. For Obama it's Lincoln and Roosevelt. And I think they're both historic figures, and know it. I mean, Lincoln said "We cannot escape history. We'll be remembered in spite of ourselves." And clearly, the second he takes the oath, Obama is a figure of history as the first African-American president. And that's an extraordinary thing in itself.

Interview audio can be found at airamerica.com

Panel Discussion with Arianna Huffington and Bob Shrum:

MARK GREEN: This is the week that W leaves and O arrives. First, what are your views on Bush's Farewell Address and his long-goodbye generally?

BOB SHRUM: I thought they were a pathetic effort to redeem a disastrous legacy. 22-23% approval is generous. I mean, the fact is he took us into a war we never should have fought, which cost over a trillion dollars, and the costs keep mounting. He didn't focus on the war on terror. When he came into office, we were headed to pay off the federal debt by 2009. He's added about $5 trillion to the federal debt. The economy is in a shambles. Barack Obama is probably inheriting the greatest dual crisis in the history of the Presidency.

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON: I completely agree with Bob. The amazing thing for me is how delusional he remains. After all this time, there was absolutely no sense of anything that he had done wrong. He said, glancingly, that he wished that he had done some things differently, but he claimed credit for everything. I mean, he presented Afghanistan as something of kind you should be vacationing in, rather than the disaster it has become. He talked about Iraq as now being a friend of America instead of a "BFF" with Iran. He talked about a great, new Medicare drug plan, which everybody acknowledges, across both aisles, has not worked. So, I hope it made him feel better, but that's not a good reason for doing it.

GREEN: Bush says that, like Truman, he will be vindicated in 50 years. Which conveniently cannot be disproven now.

SHRUM: Where is his Marshall Plan? Where is his response to the Greek & Turkish crisis? I mean, the notion that you can compare him to Harry Truman is ridiculous. Where is his NATO? I mean, NATO is one of the singular achievements of modern democracies, and was critical to winning the Cold War. I just don't think there's anything. His cupboard is bare.

GREEN: Arianna, Bush would say that his NATO was converting Iraq into a functioning democracy in the Middle East.

HUFFINGTON: Well, that's just simply not the case. I mean, our presence there continues to ignite an anti-American feeling; hatred in the region. It has destabilized the region rather than, in any way, stabilizing it, which was one of the thirty-five excuses for us going in after there weren't any WMD. So, he still is trying to make us believe that the future will vindicate him.

GREEN: Obama has taken a particularly non-partisan tone this past month. Has he struck the right notes here or might he be bending over too far to mollify the other side?

SHRUM: No, I don't get that sense at all. In fact, Eric Holder, in his confirmation testimony, said that waterboarding is torture. They're holding to the promise to close Guantanamo and to end torture. I think on the large landscape, that they're going to move in very big and bold ways. I think the bailout money will be used differently. It will be used, for example, to help stem the tide of foreclosures. There will be a very, very large stimulus package, which I guess we're now supposed to call the "recovery package", which will invest in infrastructure. And I believe they will move very boldly, this year, on healthcare. He is a student of Presidents, not just Lincoln. I think he understands that if he waits for the second year for big, bold measures, they're not going to happen. I mean, Roosevelt did an enormous amount in 1933 in those first hundred days. I don't know if it'll be the first hundred days, but I think it'll be a very productive first year.

GREEN: Last, given the cease-fire now in Gaza, does General Ehud Barak have a chance next month to be elected Prime Minister Barak?

SHRUM: I've been an adviser to him a few years ago.I think he has a chance. I mean, look, Netanyahu is leading in the polls. Labor is doing better than it was doing. Kadema has reasonable prospects. I think the most likely outcome is another coalition government. I wish he would be Prime Minister because he's a tough guy, and the most decorated soldier in the history of Israel. But he's also somebody who would like to make peace. I think that'll be a little more difficult if Netanyahu is Prime Minister.