Historian Harold Holzer and Mario Cuomo on Modern Politics and Abraham Lincoln

Roundup: Historians' Take

From WNBC-TV's 'News Forum" (July 4 2004):



It's the 228th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a day to celebrate the beginning of our nation and the succession of great leaders who've led this country through the generations, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the declaration, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Our guests on this Fourth of July are two Lincoln scholars, former Governor Mario Cuomo, who's written a book called"Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever," and Harold Holzer, the author of 23 books on Lincoln, including his latest,"Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President." How would Lincoln, a brilliant orator, look at today's America?

Announcer: From Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, this is a presentation from Newschannel 4, Gabe Pressman's NEWS FORUM. Now your host, senior correspondent Gabe Pressman.

PRESSMAN: Good morning and welcome, Mario Cuomo and Harold Holzer. How do you think Lincoln, whose debates with Douglas became legendary, would look at the presidential election campaign of 2004? Do you think, for example, that he'd appreciate the 30-second or 13-second soundbites?

Former Governor MARIO CUOMO (Author,"Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever"): The--first, let me clarify your credits. You--you said the--two Lincoln scholars. I would say that Harold Holzer is a true Lincoln scholar. I wouldn't put myself in that category, although I know an awful lot about Lincoln and have read him for longer than Harold has because I'm considerably older. But I think Lincoln would be very uncomfortable with today's politics and I can--I can't imagine any politician doing what Lincoln did at Cooper Union which--which Harold's book, you know, describes so beautifully.

The--that speech, Harold will argue and many of the real scholars will argue, made Lincoln. But it made him by demonstrating his extraordinary in--intelligence, his subtlety, his personal command of ideas and words. It was a--a tour de force by an individual.

PRESSMAN: How long were the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the average debate?

Mr. HAROLD HOLZER (Author,"Lincoln at Cooper Union"): Each one was three hours.


Mr. HOLZER: A 60-minute opening statement and then a 90-minute rebuttal and then a 30-minute re-rebuttal.

PRESSMAN: So how do you think he'd look at 13-second l--TV commercials?

Mr. HOLZER: Well, you know, i--the governor's right about the candidates being able to hold attention for that long, but there was also a different political culture in operation. And one in which people really demanded that candidates and leaders exhausted themselves and challenged them with rhetoric. People came to political events expecting to be entertained, informed, enlightened, convinced. They were prepared to spend a couple of hours of their day listening to politicians.

PRESSMAN: Is it less of a thinking culture today?

Mr. CUOMO: I don't think there's any question about that. I--I don't think in these upcoming conventions you're going to see any really long speeches. I remember a convention or so ago, the Republicans announcing their speeches would all be no longer than 15 minutes, I think. But what was the point of that? And they said, 'Well, people don't pay attention beyond that.' Now I...

PRESSMAN: How long was your famous speech in 1984?

Mr. CUOMO: Oh, much longer than that. It was 45, 46, 47 minutes at least, I guess, maybe. And there were an awful lot of--excuse me--interruptions so--well, it was closer to an hour probably.

PRESSMAN: Interruptions? There were cheers.

Mr. CUOMO: Well, it was closer--I think it was closer to--to an hour, but I--I don't remember. Then, of course, President Clinton, then--then Governor Clinton, gave a speech in '88 that was just as long.

PRESSMAN: It was...

Mr. CUOMO: It didn't go as well, but...

PRESSMAN: It was--it was ponderous.

Mr. CUOMO: Well, yeah. But at least--but the--but the difference was you could get away with long speeches in those years. I don't think you can do it now. I--I wish John Kerry would have--as a Democrat, I wish he'd have an hour to get up and--and describe exactly what he's all about. But I think the assumption is people wouldn't pay attention to that long.

PRESSMAN: Isn't it a fact, though, that 'letters of faith,' that 'right makes might,' those words by Lincoln s--said here in New York at Cooper Union in 1860, that that was a pretty concise summary of his feelings and--and his policy?

Mr. HOLZER: It was--it was concise, but it came at the end of 90 minutes of very careful legal and historical justification for the federal authority exercising its right to stop the spread of slavery. It came at the end of a--of sort of a--an imagined dialogue with the South in which he chastises them for anything they might do in the future to threaten the sanctity of the union and the idea that the country was based on the aspiration for human freedom....

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