HISTORY LESSON

03.12.14

Yes, Lincoln Would Have Done ‘Between Two Ferns’

Bill O’Reilly attacked President Obama for making a viral video, saying the Great Emancipator wouldn’t stoop so low. History proves the opposite.

It was said with all the certainty that defines the Master of the Cable News Universe.

“All I can tell is you is Abe Lincoln would not have done it,” Bill O’Reilly said Tuesday night.

“It,” of course, was President Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns, the Zach Galifianakis-hosted Web show that streams on funnyordie.com. Obama had chosen the venue to urge younger viewers to sign up for heath-care coverage. (Without younger participants, the whole structure of the Affordable Care Act turns shaky at best.) And Obama was fully engaged in the atmospherics of the program: snapping back at Galifianakis, grimacing with exasperation at the host’s scornful treatment of the health-care website, feigning shock at the “reveal" that the broadcast had been done inside the White House itself.)

So is the author of Killing Lincoln right in his assertion that “Lincoln wouldn’t have done it?” More broadly, did Obama cross some line of dignity that other presidents would have rejected?

Not hardly.

What presidents do—what almost all politicians do—is use whatever method of communication gives then the best chance to connect with the citizenry. Methods—and standards—change over the decades: Lincoln would have understood a “website” to mean a home for spiders—but the attraction of “unconventional” means of communication is a constant.

For Lincoln, that method was storytelling. He used them to illustrate a political point, or, more frequently, to humanize himself with his audience. Long before analysts noted the appeal of “self-deprecating humor:” Lincoln was telling audiences: “I feel like I once did when I met a woman riding horseback in the woods. As I stopped to let her pass, she also stopped, and, looking at me intently, said: ‘I do believe you are the ugliest man I ever saw.’ Said I, ‘Madam, you are probably right, but I can’t help it!’ ‘No,’ said she, ‘You can’t help it, but you might stay at home!’”

Many of his stories reflected his roots as a salt-of-the-earth rail-splitting everyman—an image, by the way, that icon was careful to cultivate. Historian Harold Holzer has written: "Lincoln's admirers loved his down-to-earth style and earthy way with a comic tale.” And not all of his stories were fit for family consumption. In the movie Lincoln, the president regales his friends with what is euphemistically labeled “scatological” humor (spotting a picture in the bathroom of a home during a visit to London, Lincoln tells his British host that he understands because “nothing makes an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of George Washington.”

Lincoln’s humor, as Holzer notes, was not an unalloyed political asset. “Foes leaped on such qualities as evidence of Lincoln's coarseness and lack of dignity.” A cartoon published during the Civil War shows “Columbia”—a symbol of the nation then as familiar as Uncle Sam—demanding the return of her “500,000 dead,” and Lincoln responds by saying: “That reminds me of a funny story.”

Indeed. Presidents and potential presidents have often been accused of crossing some line of propriety. Campaigning itself was once thought of as beneath the dignity of the land. In 1860, the Jonesboro (Illinois) Gazette scorned Sen. Stephen Douglas for “going about peddling his opinions as a tin man peddles his wares… small business it is for a candidate for the presidency to be strolling around the country begging for votes like a town constable.”

Flash forward a century to Sen. John F. Kennedy, Democratic nominee for president, appearing on The Tonight Show as a worshipful Jack Paar asks questions that make a sotfball feel like a rock. Leap ahead  eight more years, and there is Richard Nixon on Laugh-In asking self-mockingly, "Sock it to ME?"

Move ahead another quarter-century and there is Bill Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, appearing on Arsenio Hall’s late-night television show, sporting sunglasses and a tenor sax, performing “Heartbreak Hotel” in recognition of his nickname: Elvis. And after winning the White House, Clinton went on Don Imus’s radio show, where he traded jokes about the purpose of AstroTurf in the back of his pickup truck.

A decade later, George W. Bush presented a slide show at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, an event covered by C-SPAN. One of the pictures showed Vice President Dick Cheney outside the Oval Office, hands cupped in front of his groin.

“Dick," the president said, “I hope you're not doing what it looks like you're doing.”

Beyond the obvious reason for such “transgressive” political behavior, appearing on Leno, Letterman, The Daily Show, The View, Howard Stern, and other outlets is now a standard method of conveying “regular guy” status. Candidates and officeholders sometimes make a tradeoff: Ill play along, but then I want the chance to make a point. After Clinton played his sax on Arsenio Hall, he sat down and talked about the problems of crime and poverty. On Ferns, Obama urged his viewers to sign up for health-care insurance, which apparently led to a significant spike in inquiries.

So, Bill, even though you sold a mountain of books on Lincoln, I think you got this one wrong. Not only would he have gone on Between Two Ferns, had he stayed away from Ford’s Theater that fateful night, he might have wound up hosting it once his presidency was done.