Among Abraham Lincoln's remarkable achievements you can count the emancipation of a people, the restoration of a nation and the delivery of one of the great speeches in American history. Given those accomplishments, it's easy to overlook another of Lincoln's distinguishing characteristics: his dealings with the press.
Chosen by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to host a series of events commemorating the former president, Miami in the coming months is hosting book readings, concerts and a museum exhibition on Lincoln. Considering the recent quarrels between public leaders and the media, a lesson on Lincoln's treatment of the fourth estate would be a useful addition to the repertoire.
Last week, the Miami-Dade Commission tossed about alternatives to The Miami Herald for placement of public notices. One commissioner estimated that the county spends about a million dollars a year with the paper, which has recently run stories critical of spending by county leaders. Commissioner Jose Diaz capped the thinly veiled shot at the paper by saying: "There's a lot of love coming from the paper and this is a little love back and making sure that we give back to the community and to the people that need the money. And I think we shouldn't be forced to go to a certain media."
The discussion came just as the White House engaged in a volley of semantics about what is and isn't a news organization. Administration officials tried to freeze out Fox News from coverage of a pooled press event. The cable news network was allowed to stay only after other news organizations refused to participate unless Fox News was included.
Yet today's media are like tender-tongued toddlers compared to the deeply partisan corps that dogged Lincoln 150 years ago. Even before the start of the Civil War, newspapers had so much disdain for the lanky Kentuckian that during a debate in 1858 an owner of the Chicago Press and Tribune stopped Lincoln as he was about to begin speaking. "Hold on, Lincoln," he yelled. "You can't speak yet." It turns out the paper's reporter wasn't present, and the paper saw no point in Lincoln speaking unless it was to produce a story.
The press treatment of Lincoln grew worse after the start of the Civil War. A newspaper editor in Wisconsin once described Lincoln as "a blockhead, flatboat tyrant, despot, fanatic, fool, imbecile, moron, orphan-maker and widow-maker."
Such verbal abuse was common.
A Massachusetts paper once reported that someone had sent Lincoln a batch of newspapers highly critical of the president and quoted Lincoln as saying: "Having an hour to spare on Sunday I read this batch of editorials and when I was through reading I asked myself, 'Abraham Lincoln, are you a man or a dog?' "
Lincoln's sense of humor about the criticism may have been wrought of necessity, his priorities being such that biting press coverage was the least of his worries. Mrs. Lincoln had a harder time of it and once chastised a particularly critical Times of London reporter who showed up for a White House reception. After the gathering, a Lincoln aide reported: "I doubt if he will make many more calls there."
Apparently, not everyone is endowed with Lincoln's cool disposition and self confidence -- not Mrs. Lincoln, and, certainly, not some of today's public leaders.