Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lincoln's Jokes

At a recent presentation at the Philadelphia Union League, author and scholar Dr. Gene Griessman provided a rare window into Abraham Lincoln, the man.

Portraying the 16th President, complete in period-correct wardrobe, Griessman told a lot of funny stories. He explained how Lincoln used humor to deflect his somewhat severe appearance. And it became one of his sharpest tactics to disarm adversaries and put his audiences at ease.

Griessman opened his talk with a promise. “I’ll tell you a story or two. And if you laugh, I’ll probably tell two or three more.”

A few examples:

On the subject of age:
You know, I’m over 200 years old. The best thing about that? No peer pressure.
On the subject of appearance:
I sat for a portrait in Mr. Brady’s photographic studio. The assistant charged with making the photograph said, “Just look natural, Mr. Lincoln.” To which I replied, “That is precisely what I am trying to avoid.”
A woman walked up to me and said, “Lincoln, you’re about the ugliest man I’ve ever seen.” I said, “I can’t help it.” She said, “You could stay home.”
On my birthday, folks said the prettiest baby in three counties had just been born. Unfortunately, my father traded that pretty baby for me. And three cows.
On accomplishment:
A small boy approached me the other day. He said, “Mr. Lincoln, you’ve inspired me to become President of the United States.” Well I was flattered and delighted. So I asked, “What exactly did I do to inspire you?” He said, “Nothing … it was something my daddy said. He said if Lincoln could be president, then anybody could.”
On conflict and language:
That reminds me of a little church in the mountains of southern Georgia. A huge rift had formed over the existence of hell. It had split the congregation into two camps, one firmly believing that hell exists and the other, unconvinced. No compromise, no settlement. It got so bad that the skeptics left that church and built their own, just down the road. The minute the last brick on the new church was laid, they erected a sign out front, which read: “There ain’t no hell.” So the other church erected their own sign in reply: “The hell there ain’t.”
On music:
Apparently General Grant is a bit tone-deaf. He told me, “Sir, I can recognize two songs. One of them is Yankee Doodle. The other is not.”
On brevity:
A man had lost his way and asked a local farmer for help. “Does it matter which road I take?” he asked. The farmer replied, “Not to me.” The man said, “Have you lived here all your life?” And the farmer said, “Not yet.” So the man said, “You don’t know much, do you?” To which the farmer replied, “Well, I ain’t the one who’s lost.” So the man asked, “Why did you take an instant dislike to me?” And the farmer said, “Saves time.”
On psychiatry:
A man walked into the psychiatrist’s office and shouted, “Bugs! I’ve got bugs crawling all over me!” And the psychiatrist said, “Well, get out of here, I don’t want them getting on me!”
On death:
I was walking through the churchyard the other day and saw an interesting gravestone inscription. It read:
Behold and see as you pass by;
For as you are, so once was I;
As I am now, so will you be;
Prepare unto death and follow me.
What struck me was the hand-written reply, scratched underneath:
To follow you I'm not content;
Until I know which way you went!

Breakfast with President Lincoln

By Sal Emma

Had breakfast with President Lincoln the other day.

Well, not exactly. It wasn’t a séance. It was Dr. Gene Griessman, author, teacher, actor and raconteur.

A writer who also does public speaking, Griessman does it with a twist. He has built a career becoming Abraham Lincoln. He trims his beard to match his long coat and stovepipe hat.

Greissman addressed a group of business leaders at the Union League in Philadelphia. A member and good friend invited me. And, I have to admit, Greissman surprised me. His schtik wasn’t at all what I expected. Well, not totally, anyway.

If you’ve never been to an event at the Union League, it’s largely paunchy, middle-aged, wealthy Republican WASP guys. I don’t exactly fit in. I’ve got the paunchy, middle-aged bit covered. It’s the wealthy Republican WASP part that makes me a fish out of water. I’m Italian. I have no money. I’m a left-leaning independent. And I don’t own a single $1,000 suit. Imagine Louie de Palma at Jenna Bush’s wedding.

That’s not to say there aren’t folks at the Union League representing other ethnic, religious and political groups. (Women, even!) They’re there. But I think they’re outnumbered.

Considering this gaggle of powerful attorneys, financial advisors, bankers and other opinion-makers, I expected something cheesy, uber-patriotic and over-the-top romantic. Draped in red, white and blue bunting.

Plus, it’s the Union League, for crying out loud. Some within their ranks describe President Lincoln as their “patron saint.” Not a surprise, considering the Union League was founded to support the president during the Civil War.

My worst fears seemed reality when Griessman was introduced as “the 16th President of the United States,” complete with a canned rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” Oh, brother.

But once the music and undeserved standing ovation faded, Griessman surprised me. He talked about Lincoln’s lifelong challenges – as a boy supporting his family, trying to make a living in rough country. His lack of formal schooling. His bouts with depression and melancholia. His feelings of inadequacy. Griessman brought dimension, familiarity and human frailty to a history book character we tend to lionize.

With photographic evidence, we know Lincoln was not the most handsome of presidents. Apparently Lincoln was all too aware of his severe appearance. It was often the root of jokes he is reported to have retold. He used humor to disarm and embrace the people he came in contact with.

Apparently, his reputation as a jokester occasionally got him into trouble. According to Griessman, Lincoln opened a cabinet meeting with a joke shortly after the battle of Antietam. To this day, Antietam remains the bloodiest day in American history – a slaughter of 23,000 Americans. That’s nearly half the total killed over 10 years of America’s involvement in Vietnam, in just one day.

When one of his cabinet members asked how he could possibly laugh at such a time, Lincoln responded: “I laugh to keep from crying.”

As a writer, what intrigued me most was Lincoln’s devotion to the written word and his scholarly treatment of iconic writing, like the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

A bit of trivia: Lincoln read out loud. Seems an odd habit, but it makes sense when you consider his upbringing. There were no public schools in the woods of Kentucky and Indiana where Lincoln spent his formative years. Instead, parents pooled their money to pay a teacher to train their young charges in the three Rs. These humble little log cabin one-room schools earned the nicknamed "blab school." It was common for all the children to recite their lessons, out loud, in unison. It’s said you could hear a blab school a mile away.

In President Lincoln’s case, the payoff was profound. He wrote for the ear, because to him, words were always recited out loud. He learned cadence and rhythm from history’s greatest authors. It made him a better attorney. And it certainly cemented his place as one of the finest writers among those who have held the office of president.

Griessman demonstrated Lincoln's mastery of the spoken word with his most famous speech: the Gettysburg Address. The program turned to cheese again here – but thankfully it was brief. Griessman’s delivery was excellent and should have been unaccompanied, as the original audience heard it. But the presenters succumbed to temptation and put patriotic music behind it, which diluted its impact significantly.

Weighing in at just around 280 words, the speech ran under two minutes. It’s a polished, carefully constructed work of oratory that truly showcases Lincoln's incredible skills. Made more incredible when you realize that he pursued most of his advanced learning on his own, with no college or university.

Following his Lincoln portrayal, Griessman returned as himself, as it were, and spent some time discussing how businesspeople might apply Lincoln's leadership techniques. The entire program was informative and completely enjoyable. Griessman performs the Lincoln show at various gatherings throughout the country. If you have the opportunity to see it, I heartily recommend it.