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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks Introducing the Presidential Lecture Series

1990-01-07

Professor Donald and Mrs. Donald; Mr. Chief Justice and Mrs. Rehnquist; Chief Justice Burger, I understand, is here; Secretary Cheney and the Honorable Lynne Cheney; distinguished Members of the Congress; General Powell: Let me welcome you to the White House. And Barbara and I are very pleased to have you here. It's a privilege.

We're proud to host this lecture on the Presidency of the United States. And this is the first in a series of lectures on the men who have held this office. And it seeks to make them come alive: What were they like? How did they live? How was history, the history of America's house, molded by their dreams? To occupy this office is to ask those questions, and certainly to feel a kinship with those who have gone before -- for each in his own way sought to do right and thus achieve good. And each felt a sacred trust with every American and often wondered, I suspect, how they could be worthy of that trust.

Perhaps no President had greater doubts or more brilliantly resolved them than the subject of this inaugural lecture: Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois. As President, Lincoln abolished slavery, and he saved the Union. Perhaps no leader has been so severely tested before or since. And yet we remember Abe Lincoln not merely for what he did; we revere him for what he was. Lincoln was a strong man -- an arm wrestler, a rail splitter -- and yet also a mix of kindness and humility. He was at once a hard and gentle person, a man of grief and yet of humor; for he knew, as he told Secretary of State Seward, that if he did not tell stories, he felt his heart would break.

Tonight we have with us a distinguished man who undoubtedly will tell stories. His name is David Donald, the Charles Warren professor of American history at Harvard University. A native of Mississippi, Mr. Donald graduated from the University of Illinois, where he was a student of the great Lincoln scholar J.D. Randall. He has taught at some of America's greatest universities and has written eight books about Lincoln and the Civil War, twice receiving the Pulitzer Prize in biography. Moreover, our guest is now working on a new biography of America's 16th President.

Earlier, I spoke of kinship. Well, I'm sure David Donald would agree any President's kinship with Lincoln is perhaps the most personal of all. So often Barbara and I go down to the Lincoln bedroom, which then served as Lincoln's cabinet room and office. And on his desk, to the left of the fireplace, is an original copy of the Gettysburg Address, written in his hand, which you will see in the East Room. And on the mantel is a plaque marking an equally noble legacy -- here the Great Unifier signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet perhaps nowhere do we learn more about Lincoln even now than in a portrait that I talked about last month off the coast of Malta before meeting Chairman Gorbachev. It is, as this one is, by George Healy, and hangs on the wall of my office upstairs. And in it you see the agony and the greatness of a man who nightly fell on his knees to ask the help of God. The painting shows two of his generals and an admiral meeting near the end of a war that pitted brother against brother. And outside at the moment a battle rages. And yet what we see in the distance is a rainbow -- a symbol of hope, of the passing of the storm. The painting's name: ``The Peacemakers.'' And for me, this is a constant reassurance that the cause of peace will triumph and that ours can be the future that Lincoln gave his life for: a future free of both tyranny and fear.

One hundred twenty-nine years ago, leaving Springfield to assume the Presidency, Lincoln addressed his home people at Great Western railroad station. And he told them, ``All the strange checkered past seems to crowd now upon my mind.'' Even now, the memory of Abraham Lincoln crowds upon our minds. It's a great privilege, then, to introduce a man who has devoted his lifetime to the study of its tragedy and its glory, one of the great scholars of perhaps our greatest President, Professor David Donald. And thank you, sir, for being with us.

Note: The President spoke at 5:30 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney; Lynne V. Cheney, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The remarks were released by the Office of the Press Secretary on January 9.

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