Our middle school-aged son Matt is a history buff, and this past week my wife Carol and I enjoyed watching Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln with him, fittingly concluding the screening in our living room on Feb. 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and just days before the Feb. 18 Presidents’ Day holiday.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar winning performance as the 16th president made all of us feel as if we were in Lincoln’s presence, hearing his voice as he cajoled recalcitrant members of Congress and his cabinet while interjecting humorous asides to break the tension, viewing his uneven beard and craggy features and lanky frame lengthened by his stovetop hat, and most importantly, witnessing his resolute determination in convincing Congress to pass the 13th Amendment and legally abolish slavery. The film also highlights how Lincoln, while he faced pressures in his family life, personally bore the weight of the bloody cost of the Civil War to end the evil of slavery and to preserve the union.
The movie ends with a flashback of Lincoln delivering his second inaugural address in March 1865, the month before his assassination at Ford’s Theatre, concluding that speech with the words, “With malice toward none, with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
The words of that address are chiseled on the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Ironically, it was in that place where President Lincoln helped welcome me to Washington in the summer of 1984.
I had just graduated with my journalism degree from the University of Missouri, and I took the first plane flight of my life to Washington, D.C., for my reporting internship with the Catholic News Service. My Aunt Joyce, Uncle Paul and teen-aged cousin Bryan were there at the gate of National Airport to greet me.
That evening, they drove me around downtown Washington to see the illuminated monuments, and I was awestruck to step out and climb the steps to the Lincoln Memorial and look upon the gleaming white marble statue by Daniel Chester French of Abraham Lincoln, seated but still nearly about two stories high, looking out serenely toward the Reflecting Pool, Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol in the distance. That remains my favorite statue in the nation’s capital, and my first glimpse of it remains one of the favorite memories of my life.
Growing up in rural Missouri, the closest that I had gotten to those landmarks was be viewing photos in my social studies book. To see them in person was, and still is, a thrill for me.
As a boy, I had a keen interest in the U.S. presidents, after my mom starting buying a set of three-inch tall plastic figurines for me that depicted the nation’s leaders from #1, George Washington, to #37, Richard Nixon, the president at that time. My gallery of U.S. presidents stood row by row on a Styrofoam platform that resembled a Greek temple, complete with columns. The set came with an informational booklet with a photo and a capsule biography of each man, and by the time I was a fourth grader, I had memorized all the U.S. presidents in order.
As I grew older, some of my idealistic views of the presidents began to dim, as President Nixon got mired in the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. I also learned that some of the presidents whom I most admired as a child did terrible things, like Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, who was the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, but who as president was the architect of the Trail of Tears forced relocation of the people of the Cherokee nation. And many of the founding fathers of our nation, including Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Madison, were slaveholders.
Since arriving in Washington more than three decades ago, I have witnessed the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. The intensive news coverage in newspapers, on radio and television and now on social media, captures our presidents’ legislative and diplomatic triumphs, but also magnifies their personal and moral failings and occasional scandals.
Now I have an adult perspective on the presidency and its opportunities and difficulties, and I’m glad that at Mass, we Catholics pray for the leaders in our Church and in our nation.
And on a shelf at home, I still have proudly displayed that set of U.S. president figurines, a reminder of the idealism that I still hold regarding our country, its leaders and its people.
On Jan. 20, 1961 – nine days before I was born – President John F. Kennedy, our nation’s first and so far its only Catholic president, expressed that idealism in the closing words of his inaugural address, when he said, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”