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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 9/23/20


I thought it would be good to return to some good books. So for today I’m going to focus on the president that Mr. Trump said “maybe did as much for the Blacks” as Mr. Trump. Here, as a reminder, is his exchange with Harris Faulkner on CNBC this June:

“So, I think I’ve done more for the Black community than any other president, and let’s take a pass on Abraham Lincoln, cause he did good, although it’s always questionable,” Trump told Faulkner, who is Black.

“You know, in other words, the end result,” Trump continued.

Faulker then interrupted Trump: “Well, we are free, Mr. President. He did pretty well.”

Trump replied: “But we are free. You understand what I mean. So I’m gonna take a pass on Abe, Honest Abe, as we call him.”



Just arrived at the Sonnenberg household is the book, Lincoln’s Melancholy, by Joshua Wolf Shenk, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. I haven’t read it yet but will start once a few others make it to conclusion. One reason for ordering the book, subtitled, “How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness” is that it deals with three interests of mine:

• American history and, specifically, American Presidents

• Mental health and how it both afflicts and motivates people

• The fact that, while we are all flawed in our own ways, it seems many of our leaders are particularly damaged and/or visited by tragedy. That Abraham Lincoln suffered melancholy and lost several children may have contributed to his greatness.

I got to thinking about great leaders and biographies. With regard to Lincoln, there are several books I can recommend:

• Freedom, by William Safire. Rarely has there been a wit or wordsmith as able as Mr. Safire. A speechwriter for President Nixon, grammarian and long-time columnist for the New York Times, Safire wrote a brilliant historical recreation of Lincoln’s life. I hesitate to say “historical fiction,” as there is little that Mr. Safire had to create; his exhaustive bibliography of sources and quotes can be found at the end of this novelization.

• Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Several of you have recommended this book, subtitled “the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” I enjoy Ms. Goodwin’s style and insights. The observation upon which this book revolves is the notion that Mr. Lincoln brought into his administration many of his rivals—not only for the Republican nomination but generally. He used the “best and the brightest,” utilized their strengths and advice and effectively neutered competition from within the party at a time when a unity government was most needed.

• Abraham Lincoln, by George McGovern. Yes, that George McGovern. This is a short volume, part of a series called “The American Presidents,” which has been issued over the past ten years. McGovern notes the over-reaching of Lincoln, particularly the suspension of habeus corpus and other restrictions on civil liberties, yet shows a human, towering Lincoln. McGovern quotes William Tecumseh Sherman, “Of all the men I ever met, he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.” I think that goodness informs why he is great and not merely above-average. As McGovern says, “We wish our leaders could be more like him; we wish we all could be.” Hear, hear. We need some of that now.

• Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald. This biography, by Pulitzer Prize winner David Herbert Donald, is one of the Presidential biographical “tomes” of recent years (e.g., Adams, Truman, Eisenhower, Grant). It is expansive and thorough; if you want to know Lincoln, I think this among the best ways to make his acquaintance.

• Stealing Lincoln’s Body, by Thomas J. Craughwell. Not actually about Lincoln, per se. But the weird story of this attempt also speaks to the reverence in which Lincoln was held after his death.

• Land of Lincoln, by Andrew Fergusen. This is a meditation on Lincoln’s continuing fascination to the American people. Part travelogue, part history, part a sociological study of collectors of Lincoln memorabilia. Fun, short, and instructive.

• Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. One of his novelizations of eras in American history. Nearly as good as Burr. Better than Hollywood and The Golden Age. The character Charles Schuyler, a narrator in the book, when asked where Lincoln places among the Presidents, says:

“Oh, I would place him first. Mr. Lincoln had a far greater and more difficult task than Washington’s. You see, the Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union. But Lincoln said no. Lincoln said this Union can never be broken. Now, that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won. So he not only put the Union back together again, but he made an entirely new country, and all of it in his own image.”

There are more books about Lincoln than one can do justice to, but this is a diverse selection of a few good ones. There are some 15,000 titles devoted to Lincoln, including Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Garry Wills, Tried by War, by James M. McPherson, and Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln). Then there is Battle Cry of Freedom, the Pulitzer Prize winning classic of the Civil War, part of the Oxford History of America series. It’s technically about the Civil War and not Lincoln specifically. It is a magnum opus of the era and extremely well written.



Most Jewish services include a prayer of healing, called “Mi Sheberach.” Loosely translated this means “He who blesses us.” Those who attended on-line Rosh Hashana services at Stephen Wise Temple had the pleasure to hear Andrea singing this haunting melody in Hebrew and English. The video intersperses first responders and medical workers. Here it is (sorry but I’m the proud husband): Indulge me…



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