Laugh with Lincoln on his Birthday

04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve Leveen Fellow, Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute; Harvard Fellow, Advanced Leadership Initiative; working on a book on bilingualism; Co-founder, Levenger

Lincoln Bronze Bust

On 12 February 2010, two centuries and a year after his birth, Lincoln is a figure cast in bronze and chiseled in white marble. He is perhaps the president whose legacy most frequently calls to mind the word immortal.

But the problem with placing someone on a pedestal is that we risk losing sight of the real human. And thus we look to our historians to bring us the depth behind the frozen images, to -- in the words of David McCullough -- make the past as interesting as it actually was.

One facet of the real Abraham Lincoln often left out of sober remembrances was the man's humor.

Lofty laughter

America's late historian of images, Otto Bettmann, would often begin his speeches the following way: "Abraham Lincoln said, 'No short speech can be all bad.'"

Years ago Levenger sold a set of refrigerator magnets sporting food quotations. One was by Lincoln: "If this is coffee, please bring me tea. If this is tea, please bring me coffee."

Like many Americans, I can't read, or hear, the Gettysburg Address without choking up. But let's laugh, too, along with our tall president. (And in February 2010, most of us could use a laugh.)

In one of Lincoln's debates, his opponent accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln paused and then replied, "If I had another face, do you think I'd wear this one?"

Happy Birthday, Mr. President!

(And if you have a favorite Lincoln quotation, I'd love to hear.)