This will please some folks I know:
I picked up the newspaper one day, in 2003 or 2004, and there was a headline in the Post, or maybe it was the Washington Times, that said, “Lincoln Statue Stirs Outrage in Richmond.” And to find the words outrage and Lincoln in the same sentence—it's kind of oxymoronic. The city fathers in Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy—decided to put in a statue of Lincoln, and it touched off a firestorm. There were protests in the streets and letter-writing campaigns and ads in the newspaper.
This was so beyond my understanding of Lincoln and so alien to my intuition about Americans and our past. I mean, we're supposedly so indifferent to history. It's not supposed to stir our blood at all. We're supposedly so very present-oriented and future-oriented and commercial-minded and so on. And here in Richmond was a standing rebuke to this idea.
So I went down there. Two things happened. The anti-Lincoln people held a big anti-Lincoln conference. They brought in these scholars to sort of have a big hate against Lincoln.
I was expecting a bunch of crackers and hillbillies. But they were actually, you know, just regular ole American guys. They could've been airlifted off any suburban golf course in America and transplanted to this hotel in downtown Richmond. They were wearing the Izod shirts, the khakis, the brown loafers, you know, the native dress of my people.
They weren't stupid. They weren't even really hateful. And they knew a hell of a lot more about Lincoln than I did. And this was extremely unnerving. But the second thing was even more unnerving. To rebut these anti-Lincoln people, the Virginia Historical Society and the city fathers in Richmond put on a pro-Lincoln conference. They brought down their own Lincoln scholars to explain why Lincoln was great, and why it was such a good idea to build a statue to him. And they were terrible.
I sat there in the audience, hoping to hear what it was that Lincoln had done that was so essential to the country's greatness. And instead they would say things like, “He was very tolerant of ambiguity.” “Lincoln was very non-judgmental.” My favorite was, “He eschewed nationalistic triumphalism.” And sure enough, the Lincoln statue that they were bringing in was, in fact, quite a small life-sized affair, very humble, placed at ground level. They loved the fact that it was so small and diminutive, because it showed us a sensitive Lincoln.
Now, I may not know, and certainly at the time did not know, that much about Lincoln, but I did know that he waged one of the most savage wars in our history. And non-judgmentalism is generally not high on the list of priorities for guys who wage wars like that.
I realized in Richmond that we'd lost the capacity, we'd lost the language even to describe his greatness. These pro-Lincoln scholars were his friends, and they couldn't tell you why he was great. I realized I was at the beginning of a story, not its end. There was a book to be written here about how we think of Lincoln, why we love him or hate him, what he means to the country at large.