Nothing could match the awe I felt when a special collections curator handed my friend Garry Greenberg and me the white gloves. I love American history and Garry, who loves Lincoln, asked me if I wanted to tag along on a visit to the Library of Congress. I've sprinted through Springfield, fawned over Ford's Theater, lingered in Oak Lawn at Lincoln's tomb, and walked among the ghosts of Appomattox. I've squinted in Jefferson Davis' dark prison cell and I've sat on the porch where Mark Twain helped a dying Ulysses Grant tell his tale. I thought I'd seen it all.
The white gloves were something new. The curator opened the small wooden box in front of us and handed me the first item. It was a linen handkerchief. I turned it over in my hands and saw "A. Lincoln" stitched in red. The 10-year old boy in me couldn't believe it. I was holding Mickey Mantle's bat, the Iwo Jima flag and Ben Franklin's kite all rolled into one iconic object.
One by one, the contents were handed to Garry and me. Feeling like an ape inspecting pearls I reverently passed the sacred objects back to the curator. A Confederate five dollar bill. Two spectacles. A pocketknife and a watch fob. A leather wallet and some newspaper clippings. These were the things President Abraham Lincoln was carrying in his pockets the night he was shot. Writer Sarah Vowell described the feeling washing over me when she wrote: "We memorized the Gettysburg Address, reciting its 10 sentences in stovepipe hats stapled out of black construction paper. The teachers taught us to like Washington and to respect Jefferson. But Lincoln - him they taught us to love."
Lincoln is loved for preserving a union and remembered for emancipating a people. Completely forgotten is his wooing and wheedling Congress into action when the nation was tumbling over a cliff.
This week my pocket contained car keys, a wallet, a smuggled can of soda pop and a cellphone. After the movie theater management reminded me to turn off my cellphone I opened my soda, munched popcorn and watched Daniel Day Lewis channel Abraham Lincoln like a psychic medium. When President Obama sees Spielberg's "Lincoln" I hope he studies it like my daughter Sarah studied "The Little Mermaid" because the film is the great American tutorial in the art of persuasion.
If Sarah watched Ariel fall for Prince Eric at least 30 times, our president can put up his feet and watch how Lincoln wrings results out of a surly Congress.
I sometimes think Professor Obama expected Washington, D.C., to be a senior-level law seminar at Georgetown and instead has discovered it's a game show hosted by Jerry Springer and the Daily Double Question is "Birth certificates and Muslims" for a trillion.
Lincoln did not wrench action out of Congress by being the great discussion-group facilitator. There is within the House majority an intransigent confederacy of dunces with whom dialogue may be futile. Yet undeterred, our president must befriend, backslap, backstab, bribe and bewitch this Congress like Lincoln, Roosevelt and LBJ bargained with Beelzebub.
In the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill., there is a dark hallway covered from floor to ceiling with more cartoons than I have ever seen in one place, and every last one vilified Lincoln. A docent told me a beleaguered President George W. Bush was so mesmerized by this vast display of vicious vitriol Bush had to be reminded he was due to deliver the opening day speech out front.
The partisan press makes "negotiating with the enemy," also known as reaching across the aisle, impossible.
Today Rush Limbaugh's brutal ridicule of liberals and their causes, Hollywood's ridicule of Christians and conservatives, Ronald Reagan's shameless flogging of all governance, the meteoric rise of Fox News and the shrill antidote, MSNBC, all promote a poisonous political division and a trench warfare mentality.
The cultivated enmity within these bubbles are so great we may as well occupy worlds as different as Atlanta and New York in 1860. Angry extremist tails wag the dogs in Washington; moderates are extinct; our president is called the anti-christ; arguments are cocked; and we partisans stare at each across a vast digital Gettysburg. This is the political landscape Lincoln sought to master.
Political discourse has always been a bloodsport punctuated by insults and meaningless scandals that dull us into relying on our gut to divine the victor. The fault lies in ourselves as well as in our leaders. Senatorial candidate Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas seven times. The debates went on for hours and, by torchlight, the crowd was riveted.
Today, voters reject empirical evidence and are repelled by serious policy dialogue if it takes more than a nanosecond away from amusement. This is the field, littered with lies and distortions and half-truths, upon which today's uncivil war is being fought. The man in the stovepipe hat knew with granite certainty a house divided against itself cannot stand.
When President Obama announced his candidacy in 2007 in Springfield, where a brilliant country lawyer announced his run in 1858, I don't know what was in his pockets, but I hope today President Obama has a wallet, some movie tickets, a list of showtimes and the key to Congress' front door.
Email Star cartoonist David Fitzsimmons: firstname.lastname@example.org