A friend of the Clintons and former Boston-based journalist, Sidney Blumenthal joins Jim with his new book about a pre-president Lincoln, A Self-Made Man. And of course, they talk about current politics, too.
Jim Braude: So the legendary figure virtually everybody in America reveres, bears not that much resemblance to much of what we see as Lincoln in the 1830s and 40s, the slasher he's called a lot. Why the slasher? What did that mean?
Sidney Blumenthal: Well he wouldn't become a legendary figure unless he had been the slasher. That was a phrase used to the sort of up and coming rough and tumble politicians of the early period of party politics on the frontier you know, and Illinois was a frontier.
JB: How was he a rough and tumble?
SB: He would be sarcastic. He would take down his opponents. The phrase takedown comes from that period.
JB: Is that really true?
SB: Yeah it comes from it. They would talk about taking people down. They did and they did. Politics was a form of popular entertainment and they would stand before crowds and they would debate and shout and sometimes those events would turn into wrestling matches. Lincoln was also the virtual coeditor of the local newspaper in Springfield and he wrote hundreds of anonymous, vicious editorials. Stephen A Douglas his great rival was the owner of the other paper and they were like rival gangs and at one point they fought in the streets of the dusty streets of Springfield.
JB: It's pretty obvious you're obsessed, I think in a wonderful way, with Lincoln. Lincoln was obsessed with Douglas, was he not?
SB: Lincoln regarded the Little Giant. He's always making a disparaging clever remark about how little Douglas is. It's his great rival. Lincoln is not the only self-made man in Illinois in this period his rival is Stephen A Douglas who comes from Vermont. He's a New Englander and he makes himself into a Westerner. He's a self-made man too but Douglas rises farther and faster than Lincoln. It's a Democratic state not a Whig state.
JB: He never referred to him as Little Stevie did he in these debates?
SB: They're the equivalent. He said he's such a little thing.
JB: Did he really?
SB: Yeah. Lincoln would say things like that and you know I can't bother myself with such a small matter. He would he would disparage him.
JB: Would there be a Lincoln without a Douglas?
SB: No, not at all. Lincoln was envious of Douglas. Douglas rose to the firmament. He rose to the highest levels. He you know he became a judge on the Supreme Court, he became a senator. Lincoln never made senator, he was a one term congressman. And then Douglas blazed the path for Lincoln by actually sort of blowing up the country with the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the extension of slavery.
JB: But when I first started reading your book I almost said why am I doing this I think I know a decent amount about Lincoln. I was also a history major which is really embarrassing.
SB: Not embarrassing.
JB: All of us knew about Mary Todd's bouts with depression, mental illness. I know virtually nothing about young Abraham Lincoln and his mental health issues. What were they?
SB: Well quite extensive. We know about Lincoln's melancholy. That's how we famously talk about it as though it's some romantic 19th century problem. But in fact he was a depressive. He had a terrible tragic upbringing, terrible relationship with his father who he thought treated him like a slave. His mother whom he loved died when he was a child, his sister, who, his older sister, who took care of him died. His sweet heart Ann Rutledge dies. He has hard time. He's really a man without a family and he turned suicidal at one point his friends said they kept razors away from him.
JB: Could a Lincoln in 2016 with 24/7 cable be president in the United States with that background?
SB: Well Tom Eagleton couldn't have been the vice presidential nominee.
JB: That's a good point. The electric shock thing.
SB: Yeah, in 1972. So I think that it would be an incredible scandal to discover the past of Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860, and maybe it would upend him in the New Media Age.
JB: Where did the anti-slavery passion come from?
SB: It's Lincoln's anti-slavery passion is deeply rooted. He was not a radical abolitionist and in some ways his politics involve the tension of the movement and the professional politician who wants to move toward something but sees practicality and sees circumstances. But Lincoln is born to this because his family leaves Kentucky a slave state for Indiana. His father was really oppressed as a white man by slavery, had to compete with slaves for wages. And Lincoln regarded himself as naturally anti-slavery. The family belonged to emancipationist Baptist churches. So he had this in him. And it develops slowly as a politic because there are very few blacks in these early northern free states on the frontier and the politics of slavery don't become crucial and pressing until much later in his, in Lincoln's life.
JB: Fiercely ambitious which I don't consider to be a negative, I think it's a pretty good quality in most. How do you compare the ambition quotient in the guy you worked for who became president and Abraham Lincoln who you got to know through ten years of research. Two very ambitious men, no?
SB: Yeah I worked with Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton is a highly ambitious person. The first conversation I ever had with Bill Clinton, I was a reporter for The Washington Post and I was a little taken aback because he said to me how can you help me.
JB: Was he president then or Governor of Arkansas?
SB: No he was governor of Arkansas. We had mutual friends.
JB: How can you help me become president of the United States.
SB: Well I think it comes from being decades in the public and in the public eye and being subjected to repeated concerted attacks and there's never been a real scandal. We all know that many of them are pseudo scandals. Almost all, all of them are in my view.
JB: All the Whitewaters, all those things?
SB: Y'know back to Vince Foster and so on. Nothing ever panned out about Hillary and I think there's another element and that element is sexism. I think that there's a feeling of prejudice against a woman rising this far and high and a woman who has made herself into the most formidable qualified woman to be president in American history.
JB: But even if you believe it's unfair, and obviously you do, the unfavorable view, Hillary Clinton's elected on November 8th with assuming this holds a significant majority the American people viewing her unfavorably. A decent number not trusting her. How does that bode for a Clinton presidency starting in that way. Now you can say Bill Clinton high unfavorables too but I think even Hillary Clinton has admitted repeatedly she's not the same kind of politician that her husband was, a master politician. How do you govern, how do you inspire trust and followership from the American people when that level of distrust and dislike exists?
SB: I think there are two aspects to it the first one has to do with unfavorabilities I think her favorabilities will change and people will give her a break especially if they elect her president. And it will depend upon then her actions and people seeing her earnestness in pursuing her goals and what the complexion of the Congress is at the time. I also think that if I can just sort of adopt the historians mode right now this is a decisive election. As Lincoln said a house divided against itself cannot stand. And then he said and the country will either become all one thing or the other. Well it's not quite like that here we're not going to have a civil war but the country will be all one thing or the other and everything will be decided including the Supreme Court. This is a decisive election following on the election of Barack Obama and it's a question of continuing that change and moving it forward.
JB: You know there is a guy who I hope I get this right who you described in an email I think as lazy alcoholic and no commitment to principles that accurate how you would describe John Boehner?
SB: I think there were additional words.
JB: OK. fine so you said of John Boehner -- John Boehner this week said he could imagine a scenario in which Hillary Clinton has to withdraw obviously because of the emails. You've said whatever whenever you've been asked about the ongoing Justice Department investigation not only is there no there there. There's going to be no criminal conclusion. How do you say that other than your respect for the woman you know quite well. How do you say that with such certain what do you know that we don't?
SB: Well it's my belief that nobody deliberately, consciously, intentionally, put classified information where it shouldn't be and that's the legal issue involved here.
JB: You described it the other day as a security investigation not a criminal investigation. James Comey when the head of the FBI was asked about your terminology said I've never heard the term security investigation don't even know what that is.
SB: Yeah there's a question of nomenclature. No one has said this is a criminal investigation.
JB: That's correct.
SB: So if you want to however you want to however. They call it the Federal Bureau of Investigation if the director of the FBI wants to call it an investigation so be it. If but if other people want to describe it in their own way as a security review or inquiry that's that's their idea of how to describe it.
JB: One last thing about Hillary Clinton. I want to ask you if she's asked your advice on this because you won't tell me if she were to ask your advice about releasing the Goldman Sachs speeches what would you say to her.
SB: I don't have an opinion on it.
JB: And if Donald Trump said her tomorrow I'll release my tax returns which you were excoriating me for not releasing last week if you release your Goldman Sachs speeches what would you say?
SB: Well I'm dying to see Donald Trump's tax returns to see just how liquid it is.
JB: Would you make that deal if you were her?
SB: Would I make the deal?
JB: Release Goldman Sachs in return for the tax returns.
SB: I'm guessing Trump's not going to say that because I think he doesn't want to release his tax returns.
JB: Before you go you have Boston connection. Boston Phoenix which we love in this building and its predecessor Boston After Dark.
SB: I was Boston After Dark and then I worked at the Real Paper.
JB: You were a kid reporter I mean you were like a cub well not cub but you were a young reporter doing this.
SB: I learned journalism here. That's how I learned it.
JB: How much of who you are is your experience here in Boston?
SB: A lot of my identity is in Boston. On every level I became a journalist here. I learned my profession here I learned how the world worked in many ways you know following my craft here in Boston I covered politics covered the State House covered all kinds of races up and downs. I went and covered the courts wandered around the combat zone. I met my wife here she lived across the street from me in Cambridge.
JB: Any politician you've ever covered turn to you and said Sidney what can you do for me?
SB: Well I'll tell you a funny story. I was always very friendly with Ed Markey Senator Markey. and I used to cover him when I was at the Phoenix and my wife and I moved to Washington. I became a reporter for The Washington Post and Ed Markey was courting a doctor named Susan Blumenthal and he wanted to impress her. And so Ed Markey who's an Irish Catholic held a seder and he invited everyone he knew whose last name was Blumenthal.