Like so many cultural events that were scheduled before the November 8, 2016, presidential election to take place afterward, playwright Tony Kushner and author Sarah Vowell’s initial public appearance together as experts on Abraham Lincoln took on new meaning when the votes were counted. Originally intended as a tribute to the 16th president of the United States, the evening inevitably evolved when confronted with the new reality represented by the country’s 45th president, a man who has, in his own way, redefined what it means to be a Republican president just as drastically as his distant predecessor.
A little more than a year later, the duo of Vowell and Kushner take to the stage again, this time on a nationwide tour to discuss The Lincoln Legacy: The Man and His Presidency. Fortuitous timing (along with UCSB Arts & Lectures) brings them to Campbell Hall on Tuesday, February 20, one day after the President’s Day holiday and eight after Lincoln’s actual birthday. Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award–winning author of the epic play Angels in America, wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Vowell, a renowned essayist and familiar voice from her years as a contributor to the This American Life radio broadcasts, has written several nonfiction books on American history, including Assassination Vacation, in which she retraces the steps of the men who killed presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Together they command an extraordinary range of knowledge about the man who many consider the greatest of all American presidents, and what’s more, they bring the wit and passion of truly great writers to the task of translating Lincoln’s legacy into contemporary terms.
I was fortunate to speak with Vowell and Kushner in successive phone calls over the weekend of February 10-11, and what emerged from those conversations was a profoundly moving sense of their personal love for and devotion to the memory of a man whose unsurpassed eloquence set a standard for American leadership that has yet to be equaled. As Vowell put it in the opening moments of our talk, and in regard to the inevitable comparison of Lincoln’s verbal dignity to Donald Trump’s mendacious and vulgar blather, “Lincoln is very quotable, and it’s probably not nice of us to keep bringing him up because pretty much every president is lacking in comparison, but yes, this one more so than most.”
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Vowell’s own rhetorical style, apart from the sparkling wit that has made her books best sellers, is the restraint illustrated during our interview. She has a considerate and patient approach that has been honed through countless hours of debate with, for example, the proprietors of the Dr. Samuel Mudd House, a historic location in the deep woods of Maryland where Dr. Mudd set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot and killed Lincoln. For Vowell, conversing with Confederate apologists has been a kind of training for this tour, a way of deepening and sharpening her feeling for the telltale nuances that separate the rogues from the heroes in our national saga. Mudd, for example, went on to provide valiant medical assistance when the government prison he was sentenced to on Dry Tortugas was afflicted with yellow fever. Wrestling with these types of contradictions is in part what led Vowell to the conclusion that “the presidents and their assassins are a lot alike in a way; someone who thinks he or she should be president of the United States has to be a little different, even a little mentally unstable, and so does a person who thinks he or she should have the right to kill the president. As a nation, we have always had this streak of extreme entitlement running through us.”
Fear not that this evening will dwell on the parallel grandiosities of presidents and assassins, however, as Vowell and Kushner agree that Lincoln’s gift for articulating the core principles of American democracy is the heart of what he offers to posterity. Both writers spoke with reverence of the “Lyceum address,” a speech that Lincoln delivered in Springfield, Illinois, in January 1838, when he was just 28 years old. His subject that night was “the perpetuation of our political institutions,” and in response the young lawyer developed an idea of our country as an unfinished project requiring vigilance and sacrifice on the part of its citizens. With the image of a recent lynching of an abolitionist publisher in his head, Lincoln cited mob violence and authoritarian leadership arising from within the United States as the chief threats to our liberty, saying that even “with a Bonaparte for a commander” the nations of Europe “could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.”
What Americans do have to worry about, according to the young Lincoln, is the homegrown despotism of unprincipled ambition — “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” From this historical distance, and in light of the seemingly intractable ideological conflicts that plague us today, Lincoln’s early admonition appears remarkably prescient. The fact that, as Vowell said, of all our presidents, Lincoln was “the one who provided the most profound link to the founders” is abundantly clear in this speech, even darkened as it is with multiple foreshadowings. “He cleaned up our mess,” Vowell said, referring in particular to emancipation, “and he paid for it with his life.”
Vowell advised me that with Kushner, I would have to “break out the italics,” because, as she put it, “I love Lincoln, but Tony loves Lincoln.” Referring to 2017 as “obliteratingly hard, a year like no other,” Kushner cited Republican support of Trump’s policies as the work of “henchmen, henchwomen, and hobgoblins” and a further negative consequence of the 2016 election that even he “didn’t see coming.” For Kushner, American democracy is “a project with something strong at the center,” a “kind of mystical power that can’t just be accepted at face value” but that instead requires an effort on the part of every citizen to stay true to the proposition of equality first articulated by the founders, and then made “more perfect” by Lincoln.
In his tremendously engaging script for the film Lincoln, Kushner focuses on the scramble for votes that led up to the passage of the 13th Amendment, a legislative achievement that highlights Lincoln’s abilities as a politician. For Kushner, Lincoln’s admonition in his December 1862 message to Congress that as fellow citizens we can’t escape our history is the driving force behind this tour, and behind all his and Vowell’s efforts to keep Lincoln’s example in front of the public at this time. Quoting the great historian and theorist of memory Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Kushner observed that “the antonym for ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering’ but justice.”
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents The Lincoln Legacy: The Man and His Presidency, featuring Tony Kushner and Sarah Vowell and moderated by John Majewski, Michael Douglas Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts at UCSB. The event takes place Tuesday, February 20, 7:30 p.m., at Campbell Hall, UCSB. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.