Sidney Blumenthal, left, in costume as Abraham Lincoln with the late NAACP chair Julian Bond, center, and conservative commentator Richard Viguerie as Confederate general John Bell Hood. Photograph: supplied by Sidney Blumenthal
Its a good role, being a ghost. No one can attack a ghost.
has long been said to haunt the White House. Supposedly, President Truman heard it and Winston Churchill saw it, in the latter case while naked and smoking a bedtime cigar. Blumenthal says he never did, though he might have seen Nixons spook in the Lincoln Bedroom, praying for forgiveness.
The joke is fitting, even if the assassinated president has become a tragic figure in Blumenthals words a kind of American Christ who saved the country and was killed on Good Friday. Lincoln had a notoriously robust sense of humor; much in the early chapters of A Self-Made Man is duly hilariously funny.
At rural fairgrounds, Lincoln won debates with smutty wit. In a legislative session held in an Illinois church, he sought to deny his opponents a quorum by jumping out of a window. Challenged to a duel over an insulting editorial, he chose broadswords to take advantage of his great height, only to find out his diminutive challenger was an excellent fencer.
Blumenthal appreciates the value of a good editorial. He started his career writing on baseball and politics for Boston newspapers, and has written for the New Republic, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Salon, the Atlantic and
the Guardian. In his Lincoln book, he delights in the role of the press. Before he went to Washington, Lincoln covertly controlled a Whig paper, wrote brutal editorials anonymously and eagerly read of great speeches made in the east.
Blumenthals experience in the politics of the press he has consulted for the progressive media watchdog
Media Matters as well as the pro-Hillary Clinton super pac American Bridge also means that in 2016, as the election pivots from primary to presidential, he is not remotely surprised that the reception of his political book has been colored by politics.
Among Lincoln scholars this is rather like a game of tennis, shots exchanged across the net with a polite thwack and applause for well-made points. Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College, a conservative, gave A Self-Made Man
a glowing review of which Blumenthal is naturally very appreciative. But he did take exception to the contention that Lincoln, through reading the work of Henry Carey and others, believed in federal economic intervention.
Lincolns concept of political economy, Guelzo wrote, was a very long way from a Keynesian, not to say a Clintonian concept of government.
It doesnt surprise me that he wrote that, Blumenthal says, of the economic point as well as the reference to the Clintons, which is of
a kind also prompted by his work on the Lincoln marriage.
Its his point of view. This is mine and I stand by it. Lincolns self-education in what we call political economy has been remarked on in the past but also overlooked.
The role of the federal government in the economy is ever remarked upon. Four years ago, Mitt Romney insisted business
needed no help. Blumenthal takes aim at a man then on the podium with Romney, now House speaker: Paul Ryan.
[Lincolns] belief in the essential role of government in the economy as part of democracy might not fit Paul Ryans understanding of what is the party of Lincoln, he says. Lincoln was not a follower of Ayn Rand. Although Trump may well be the embodiment, however a nightmare embodiment, of Ayn Rands vision. So be careful what you wish for.
And thus we have reached, presumably by a federally maintained road, the parlous state of the so-called party of Lincoln. On Wednesday morning, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump,
met Ryan and other party leaders. The result was an apparent calming of troubled waters, but Blumenthal views those in the present day GOP who trumpet Lincoln with skepticism and Trump himself with disdain.
statement against Trump a week earlier, Ryan widened his definition of the GOP to the party of Lincoln and Reagan and Jack Kemp. Blumenthal points out that Reagan began his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, [near] where three civil rights workers were murdered, and spoke about states rights surrounded by Confederate battle flags. So the idea of the party of Lincoln [who defeated the Confederacy] and the party of Reagan is a strange bracketing.
He also knew
Kemp, the popular congressman from Buffalo who was Bob Doles vice-presidential pick in 1996. He isnt buying.
There was a decency to him and openness to Jack, he says. [He] never imprinted himself on the party much.
Blumenthal returns to
a point he has repeated on TV and in public. On issues including immigration and the equality of all citizens, the GOP has moved a long way from the ideals of its first president. Furthermore, Lincoln became a Republican because his first party, the Whigs, tore themselves apart over politics.
Casting his eye at Trump, he says: This happened not least because of nativism, the schism and the growth of the Know Nothing Party, the so-called American Party. The Know Nothings created this ideal citizen who represented the ideal American. And he wanted to make America great again.
Citizen Know Nothing had a son, named Jonathan, a pure American who had a fresh face and wore a sort of rural farmers hat, but he was neatly turned out.
And so on.
Its time for some direct political questions.
Go ahead, he says, smiling. Well see if I answer.
Hillary Clinton win the presidential election, does Blumenthal expect to return to the White House?
I havent given it much thought. My position is to be here, a year from now, with volume two. I have my next few years plotted out for four volumes at one a year, and thats enough.
Famously, Lincolns cabinet was a team of rivals, including would-be presidents Seward, Chase and Bates. Could a President Hillary Clinton appoint, say, former Republican Utah governor Jon Huntsman
as her own first secretary of state?
I havent heard that.
Fair enough. But with such brutal dissension within and without the two modern parties, does Lincolns famous magnanimity inspire any advice to the next president, whoever that may be?
Abraham Lincolns memorial looms over three Democratic presidents and one first lady, in a picture from 2013. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP
Well, working with members of the other party, maybe it depends upon who controls which house in Congress and how powerful [they are]. So well see. Thats how it always is.
But in Lincolns case there was a lot of personal relationships and a lot of that has broken down. I think one of the great precipitators of the breakdown was Newt Gingrich [once House speaker, now reportedly
a possible Trump VP] and Ted Cruz is his natural-born child, politically.
He turns his attention to the Democratic primary, a bitter struggle in which Bernie Sanders has vowed to fight all the way to the convention.
In terms of getting along within your own party, Lincoln said once people stop attacking him, then he could work with them Hed even work with people who didnt stop attacking him, [like] his secretary of the treasury, Salmon Chase.
I think there are lessons in binding a party together, if you can. I think those are good lessons for the Democrats right now. I think its likely the
Democrats will come together, and I dont think there are such irretrievable differences and wounds that cant be dealt with.
I remember President Clinton when he was first elected, his political team was opposed to the appointment of somebody who had been on an opposing primary campaign and had been combative. And Clinton told them to knock it off, and said: I thought we won.
The meaning is implicit: in 2009, thanks to his work in the 2008 primary, the Obama administration
reportedly barred Blumenthal from taking a role at the state department under Clinton.
He speaks glowingly of Obama, who he says like Lincoln stands for inclusion, and the vindication of American ideals. Regarding the contest to replace Obama in the White House, to select the next man or woman to contemplate its many portraits of Lincoln, he indicates a willingness to fight the good fight.
[Its] all hands on deck, all talents forward on our side.
Thinking again of Lincoln and the Whigs, torn apart over slavery, he adds: On the Republican side? No-one knows where this story ends.
Were just at the beginning. Theyre under the volcano.
Sidney Blumenthals The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, vol I: A Self-Made Man, 1809-1849 is published in the US by Simon & Schuster