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If you like David Herbert Donald's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Shelby Foote,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Frank McCourt,
David McCullough,
James Michener
and Gore Vidal

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David Herbert Donald
David Herbert Donald
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David Herbert Donald Interview

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

October 19, 2007
Lincoln, Massachusetts

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  David Herbert Donald

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Professor Donald, you've spent much of your career studying and writing about Abraham Lincoln. Among other things, you've characterized him as a consummate politician. What made this so?

David Herbert Donald: Well, his whole life in politics, that was the one thing that really absorbed him outside the profession of law. He was very good at it, though. He enjoyed politics. He enjoyed meeting people, shaking hands, introducing himself. He enjoyed traveling around Illinois for so long, getting large groups of people to talk to, and he knew everybody by name. He liked people. He liked to work with people. He liked to help people, and those I think are attributes of a good politician.

His penchant for storytelling played such a role in Lincoln's public and private persona. How, in particular, did this serve him in the White House?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln loved to tell stories. He would tell stories at the drop of a hat at all occasions. So it was not something that he did just for show, but he just did it naturally. He was a good storyteller, and he enjoyed his own stories. So that when somebody came to see him, he was often reminded, "That reminds me of a little story," and he would start talking, and then, as he went along, his face would light up. He usually had a rather somber face. His face would light up, and he showed that remarkable set of white teeth and a huge smile, and tell the story, and when he got to the punch line, he would often slap his thigh like that, and that's the way it ended.

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
David Herbert Donald Interview Photo

Did he sometimes use these stories for political purposes?

David Herbert Donald: He told stories, often it involved political reasons, as in the White House, for instance. He insisted on keeping open doors. So anybody who wanted to could come to the White House, and they did, and they came in wanting one thing after another. People would come in with some great scheme they wanted. They wanted to interest him to do so and so, and he would say, "You know, that reminds me of a story I heard out in Indiana when I was growing up," and he would start telling it and would go into great detail about who it was that was telling it, and where it was, and how long it went on and so on, and at the end of it, his face would break into that marvelous smile, and he'd slap his thigh like that and get up and say, "Oh, Mr. So-and-So, it's so nice of you to come see me," pushing them gradually out the door, and his visitors often had no idea. "What happened to me? I was making an appeal for something, and I'm shown out of the room in the most genuinely gentlemanly way that you could think of." It was useful for him. Telling stories also was a useful way of avoiding quick answers, easy answers, and finally, telling stories on himself was one of his favorite devices to put himself down. This is a good thing for politicians to do, to minimize the ego. For instance, one of his favorite stories, one of my favorite stories, too, has to do -- he'd tell it, "When I was a boy growing up in Indiana and I was chopping wood out in the woods by myself, a woman came by on horseback, and she stopped and she looked at me and said, 'My lands, you are the ugliest creature I have ever seen,'" and taken aback, Lincoln said, "Well, ma'am, there isn't a lot I can do about it." She said, "Well, you could have stayed at home." And I have often thought that's a wonderful retort for a politician or a public figure: "You could have stayed home!"

Lincoln's ability to communicate his opinions and ideas so eloquently is crucial to the way we remember him today. What made his speeches and his letters so impressive and memorable?

David Herbert Donald: It's hard to explain how any great writer comes to have the gift that he does, and when you don't know, you'll explain -- we'll say Shakespeare or Racine -- by saying he did this, that, or the other. So you can't pinpoint Lincoln as this was influential, but there were things that were influential. First of all, as a boy, he had very few books, and they were, as it turned out, the great books. He had the Bible, he had Pilgrim's Progress, he may have had Robinson Crusoe, just a few books like that he memorized by heart, because he had no others. He loved to read. So that the patterns that he learned growing up were those of simplicity and directness, as well as eloquence, but there were other forces, too. When he became a lawyer, his first law partner didn't teach him much, but his second one was Stephen Trigg Logan. Logan was a little dried-up man who had a hot temper, was nevertheless a master lawyer, and he would go over briefs that he and his partners drew up, and he would cross out page after page of nonsense, of legal formalities and so on, to say, "This is what we want to say, just these 12 lines, not these 14 pages," and Lincoln watched, and he learned. There's a great difference between the briefs Lincoln drew up before he met Logan and the ones after he practiced with Logan. He gained in succinctness, in clarity, in avoidance of technicalities, so that many of his briefs are really, literally short essays, works of art.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Did this influence his later career?

Lincoln carried over the skills that he learned from Stephen Logan into his public life as well. His early speeches were often, like most early 19th century speeches, full of flowery images and big words and long wind-up. He learned from Logan, forget all of that, get directly to the point, and people will listen to you. So he did, and he became a master of direct approach to his audience. They thought, "He's talking to me personally, not some abstract body out there." Now, this carried over particularly as he became a public figure and as he became president. No other president has equaled Lincoln as a master craftsman. When you look over his drafts, you realize how carefully he revised, how thoroughly he looked at words, how he decided on this word versus that one as being the appropriate word, not necessarily any old word. So he was a craftsman and worked at it. He knew that his success depended on his skill with language. This is the more important because, in those days, of course, there was no radio. There was no television. How do you reach people? You reach people primarily through some public speaking, but mostly through public documents, which are printed in the newspapers. People read a lot of newspapers in those days. In order to read a story in the newspaper, it's got to be short. It's got to have a structure. It's got to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it's got to be logical. One thing has to follow after another. He learned this lesson very early. By the time he became president, his presidential messages are models of what a president ought to be saying.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

David Herbert Donald Interview Photo
David Herbert Donald Interview Photo

How did riding the circuit as an attorney in Illinois -- knowing people's first names, shaking a lot of hands, spending a lot of one-on-one, face-to-face time -- how did that shape Lincoln's identity as a lawyer and as a politician?

David Herbert Donald: Lincoln loved to ride the circuit over many counties all over central Illinois. He turned up at circuit after circuit. This was not altogether enjoyment. This is the way he made his living, and often he was away from his wife and his family for weeks at a time, and poor Mary suffered as a result, but this is the way he made his living. It was very important for him to be able to go into a county that he didn't live in, quickly identify himself, and have young attorneys come up to him and say, "I have this kind of case, and I am not sure about my brief. Would you be co-defendant with me?" And he would pick it up, and within a day, he would have a marvelous way of putting the issues, so the judge would be able to follow. Now, this gave him, first of all, a very wide constituency. In central Illinois, there was hardly a person who did not know Abraham Lincoln at least by sight, and in turn, Lincoln had a very wide following of people that he knew. He had a tenacious memory. So that he would encounter somebody in the streets of Springfield and say, "Oh, I remember we were in Logan County together, weren't we?" And the fellow would say, so proud, "Mr. Lincoln remembers me." All of this built up a constituency for him. He understood very well that a public man has to have that kind of following, and he had it as a lawyer. He had it as a state representative. He had it as he ran for the Senate, and especially after he became president.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

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