Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Abe Lincoln would not have done it."


     The general ignorance of the American people cannot be overstated, and should come as no surprise.
     And yet, sometimes, particular instances do gall.
     For instance, Bill O'Reilly, the TV host and author of best-selling clip job histories, noted on Fox Tuesday that Barack Obama had gone on a humor program with Zach Galifianakis called "Between Two Ferns" on the comedy website Funny or Die. The president was encouraging young people to sign up for health insurance. O'Reilly said he found the appearance "a little bit desperate," perhaps "demeaning" and something that Abraham Lincoln would never do.
     "But the president of the United States?" O'Reilly scoffed. "All I can tell you is Abe Lincoln would not have done it. There comes a point when serious times call for serious action.”
    Despite all the ill-informed bile that has flowed for years like a mighty river from Bill O'Reilly's mouth, we in the fact-based world have to stand back and marvel, if not gape, in shock, almost awe. Really? Lincoln? The 16th president? The man O'Reilly wrote a book about? The president who, if he was known for one thing, was famous as a clown and a story-teller who "in serious times" would tell jokes under almost any circumstance.
     "In the midst of ... death-giving news," observed Count Adam Gurowski, a Polish born writer who lived in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, "Mr. Lincoln has always a story to tell. This is known ... by all who approach him. Months ago I was in Mr. Lincoln's presence when he received a telegram announcing the crossing of the Mississippi by Gen. Pope at New Madrid. Scarcely had Mr. Lincoln finished the reading of the dispatch when he cracked ... two not very washed stories."
     Not just jokes, but "not very washed stories," aka, dirty jokes. 
     Two basic default misperceptions about the past among those with scant knowledge of it are 1) that people were all chaste prudes back then. And 2) that they had no sense of humor, as if the real Lincoln were the stiff portrait on the $5 bill, or the serene face on Mount Rushmore. O'Reilly no doubt invoked Lincoln's name because, to him, Lincoln represents all that is grave, serious and Biblical about America.
     Lincoln loved puns, introducing himself and his stout wife as "the long and the short of it." He might not have really told job seekers that they had as much chance of getting a federal appointment "as you have of sleeping with my wife," but several contemporaries claimed he did. No event was too solemn, such as on April 30, 1863, which Lincoln had officially proclaimed as "a national day of prayer, fasting and humiliation" for the proud but shattered country to humble itself before the offended Almighty God and beg for forgiveness, seeking relief from the divine punishment of the Civil War. 
     "Gentlemen, this is a fast day," he observed to his staff,  "and I am pleased to observe that you are working as fast as you can."
      Just as Obama's humor draws the hoots of his relentless ideological enemies, so Lincoln's jests provoked the scorn of their equivalents at the time. "A low-bred obscene clown," sniffed the Atlanta Intelligencer which, like O'Reilly, spoke to an audience in self-destructive open rebellion.  
Cartoon criticizing Lincoln, who replies to Columbia demanding her sons
slain in the Civil War with "That reminds me of a story." The New York
World had published a false report that he joked surveying the carnage
 on the battlefield at Antietam.
     The tales are endless, and while some are certainly false or exaggerated, enough come from eyewitnesses, diarists, reporters and Lincoln himself that we know that here was a man who liked to jest. O'Reilly saying what he did would be like his saying that Obama's playing basketball is something former Senator Bill Bradley is too dignified to ever do. 
    As with Obama, Lincoln's jests were twofold—he enjoyed telling them, and they served a purpose. This was true throughout Lincoln's life, even as a young man, when he worked as an attorney.
    Once, at the summation of a trial he was arguing, Lincoln referred to the punch line of a popular joke.
     "They have their facts right," he said, "but are drawing the wrong conclusion."1
     The full joke went like this: a farm boy runs to his father and says, "Pa, pa, the hired hand and sis are in the hay loft! She's a liftin' up her dress up and he's a pullin' down his pants and affixin' to  pee all over the hay." 
     The farmer put his hand on the agitated boy's shoulder and replied, "Son, you've got the facts right but you're drawing the wrong conclusion." 
      O'Reilly is worse than the naive farm boy. He both has his facts wrong and is drawing the wrong conclusion. But then, he's built a career out of doing that, spinning folly from error for an audience of  belligerent  yokels who lap it up. Too late for him to change now. 


     After I wrote the above, I was still looking through materials I had gathered about Abraham Lincoln and humor, and came upon this, written by Lincoln in a letter to Col. John D. Van Buren, dated June 26, 1863:
I believe I have the popular reputation of being a story teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense, for it is not the story itself but its purpose, or effect, that interests me. I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others or a laborious explanation on my own part by a short story that illustrates my point of view. So, too, the sharpness of a refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate story, so as to save the wounded feeling and yet serve the purpose. No, I am not simply a story teller, but story telling as an emollient saves me much friction and distress.
     In other words, Lincoln's humor has a point, which of course Obama's does too—in this case, saving American lives by promoting health insurance. When you realize what he was doing—nudging young people toward health care—the appearance becomes more than not "demeaning," but laudable. 
     And you realize, again, how loathsome the opposition of the O'Reillys of the world truly is. Not just ignorant, but disingenuous. They are against not only his method in this instance but in all instances, and not just the purpose behind it, but against whatever his purpose happens to be.  Against literally anything he does. Someday, when the history of attacking Barack Obama is written—and what an interesting book that will be—future historians will marvel how his kneejerk opponents, who decried everything he said or did, somehow managed to maintain the fiction that each new vibration of their pre-determined condemnation was a fresh reaction based on a fair analysis of the latest evidence, and not just the chiming out of their single, set, tuning fork quiver of continual opposition. 

1. From "Abe Lincoln's Legacy of Laughter," Edited by Paul M. Zall (University of Tennessee Press: 2007)


  1. You forgot to add that O'Reilly's book on Lincoln had so many factual errors, the National Park Service refused to stock it at any of the bookstores it runs.

  2. Unfortunately, it's inevitable for someone like President Lincoln to become a caricature. Even someone who wrote a book about him will mischaracterize him. That assumes Mr. O'Reilly actually wrote the book, or even read it.

  3. My favorite Lincolnism: when accused of being two-faced, he replied "if I had two faces, do you seriously think I would using this one?"

  4. You are stretching the overused moral equivalence argument to the extreme. Lincoln's folksy stories, funny jokes and sense of humor are part of what made him a man of the people and of his time. Do you really think Lincoln's jokes would be considered dirty today?. The president does lessen what is left of the dignity of the office with this stunt. I am not sure how much dignity is left. The dope loving actor was doing what he does. The president does not have to take all the invites. He will soon be like a latter day Bob Hope, craving attention wherever he can get it, but with excellent comic timing.

    1. "The general ignorance of the American people cannot be overstated, and should come as no surprise."

      I'll bet your comment didn't surprise Neil.

      -- MrJM

    2. JPF -- Let me take a wild guess: You didn't like Obama before, right? And now you like him even LESS. As if that were possible...

    3. Really, JPF, are you paid to write this stuff, or is this an audition for the Koch Bros? The president took an unorthodox approach to achieving a serious goal: getting young Americans (who would be befuddled by your reference to the latter day Bob Hope) to sign up for health care through the exchanges.

    4. Your wild guess is wild. I voted for the president. I just feel he has not fulfilled his promise. He runs a great election campaign which never ends but his administration is full of holes and ethical question marks. He ran in part saying he could bring the sides together in compromise solutions. He does not have a compromising bone in his body, much like his adversaries.
      Sorry if my age is showing. Substitute Drew Carey if you like. If you only want lockstep comments post the rules. Your knees are jerking.

    5. JPF,

      "The president does not have to take all the invites." Yeah, I bet that's just what happened. They were going through the media requests in the White House and said, "No, screw Charlie Rose, we're going with Galifianakis this time, 'cause he asked nicely."

      Let's see, off the top of my head -- Clinton responding to a boxers/briefs question, Reagan playing straight man for your buddy Bob Hope, Nixon saying "Sock it to me?" on Laugh-In -- seems to me that, dignity-wise, Obama's performance was no worse than any of those, and this was done to promote a specific program to the young audience he was targeting, not just for the heck of it. How about George W. Bush looking under chairs and tables for weapons of mass destruction in a video for the White House Correspondents' Dinner? Oh well, whatevs...

    6. You are helping him make his point. Hard to believe the very angry responses.

    7. Well, to run a popular blog, you need to welcome in the crazies, so yes, JPF, thank you for your observation that Obama did not fulfill his promise to bring the two sides together. The Republicans were ready to work with him (aside to non-deranged readers" I'm joking) but he just, as you said, doesn't have a compromising bone in his body. Which is how his Manchurian overlords trained him. God, it's so clear to me now...

    8. Neil: I am a long time reader. I buy your books and recommend them to others. I think your recent article on Rahm was great. Maybe I am crazy. Hard to believe the mildly critical opinion on the continuing loss of dignity of the office and an honest opinion has elicited such angry Fox News type responses. "He does not have a compromising bone in his body, much like his adversaries. " Did you miss the last part? It saddens me that you are so angry and abusive. I respect the president but have a right to view him as I see fit. Maybe not on your dime though.

    9. Nobody's angry, nobody's abusive. You said something patently dumb, people called you on it, now you're going all sad and passive aggressive. If you are indeed a long-time reader, you know that flattering people in the wrong is not a skill set of mine. If you are sincere, you'll look within, and stop flailing around here, seeking pity you don't deserve. If it's asking too much, nobody has a gun to your head to read my stuff.

  5. Who is this JPF, a right wing idiot and racist nut- anyone who pays attention to Fox news or Rush type nuts, or Pat Robertson either has to be a Wall st, millionaire or one of those hicks or a born again nut. I wasn't writing at this time but saw the link in the 2015 blog. Glad he doesn't seem to be around anymore.

    Why would you possible vote repub otherwise?

  6. JPF is a right winger

  7. must you use the D word?

  8. To say nothing of insurance not being an issue at the time. So glad O'Reilly went down. Now Hannity and especially Carlson have to go, at that right wing propoganda channel. Wish that Ann Coulter would disappear too.

  9. No surprise an Atlanta paper would have said that of Lincoln then. Yet today, hypocritical So. repubs act like Lincoln is their hero or can be compared to today's Repubs. I love Gen. Sherman and am glad Atlanta burned.

  10. Happy I came across this again - I missed the comments the first time. "To run a popular blog, you need to welcome in the crazies" should wind up in Bartlett's.


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