On the subject of Abraham Lincoln, Harold Holzer—like Lincoln himself—is largely self-taught. In fact, Holzer remembers that his Civil War professor at CUNY did not even like him.
“I decided then that I wasn’t going to be a history academic. I was going to get into it my own way,” he said.
Decades later, Holzer is one of the country’s leading Lincoln scholars. He has written and edited more than 30 books on Lincoln and the Civil War, has toured the country giving lectures and is co-chair of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
A former press secretary for Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo, he comes at his topic not just with an
encyclopedic knowledge of all things Lincoln but also with his own experience in politics to lend his insight a little more weight. His interest in Lincoln also informs the décor of his office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he is senior vice president of external affairs: Lincoln statues and lithographs are scattered everywhere, and lining the walls are photos of Holzer with politicians, movie stars and authors with whom he has collaborated in his lifelong study of America’s 16th president.
His latest book, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, was celebrated at a Nov. 10 publication party.
The book chronicles one of the most difficult transitions in American history. The Union was on the verge of collapse, with forces in and outside of Washington hoping to sabotage Lincoln’s presidency. Wild speculations flew back and forth on the new president’s intentions, qualifications and character. Throughout the entire period Lincoln remained silent, making no speeches and issuing very few statements for public consumption, following a deliberate tactic that Lincoln called “masterly inactivity.”
Not only did he face resistance in the South, where state legislatures were moving to secede, but in Washington, several members of the outgoing James Buchanan administration were conspiring against him from within the White House.
The efforts were much more serious, Holzer quipped, than when members of the Clinton administration allegedly removed the “W” keys from White House keyboards while packing up before the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2000.
Thinking about his own history in New York politics, his study of Lincoln and his knowledge of where things are now, Holzer recounted one story from the book where Lincoln traveled to Albany after being elected: “The legislators were all fighting with the governor about who should sit where; who should go to the dinner,” he said. “I mean, nothing has changed!”
Holzer, in an interview before the election, said his book holds several important lessons for the next president who, like Lincoln, will likely be facing a major crisis from the moment he takes office.
“He was the model president-elect,” Holzer said of Lincoln. “What he has is something that people don’t have today, and generally CNN and FOX and blogs make it very difficult to have—and that’s patience,” said Holzer, citing the quality as one of the most important aspects of a president.
Holzer also points to Lincoln’s desire for diversity in his cabinet as a value the next president should look to adopt.
“More than rivals, Lincoln went in a huge way for diversity,” he said. “He would let everybody else squabble and fight, listen to everybody and finally do the decision.”
As for an inaugural address, Holzer noted that Lincoln wrote an angry first draft, excoriating those who wished to expand slavery and delivering an ultimatum to choose “peace or the sword.” But he recommended the next president follow Lincoln’s example of moderating the tone over the course of editing—by the time the final draft was written, Lincoln asked Americans to look to “the better angels of our nature.”
Another key piece of advice from Lincoln, according to Holzer: “Leave your hometown advisers at home.” Lincoln only hired one friend from Springfield when he was elected and rarely heeded that man’s advice. Holzer said presidents like Jimmy Carter, who brought their entire network of advisers from home and tried to transplant them to Washington, tended to face calamitous results.
Finally, Holzer advised, “Stick to the principles that got you elected.”
The next president will have difficulty achieving many elements of his agenda while navigating the fallout from the current economic turmoil. Lincoln’s example of dealing with a crisis greater than any other in American history—while nonetheless holding fast to what had guided him during the campaign—was crucial to his success, Holzer said.
The timing of the release is fortuitous—Holzer worked on the book for four years, aiming for Lincoln President-Elect to hit the shelves when it could have maximum impact.
“I always hoped that it would come out when there was a president-elect,” he said. Though a committed Democrat who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Holzer is comforted by the fact that the new president-elect is a Lincoln admirer.
“Obama loves Lincoln,” he said. “He quotes him all the time.”
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