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A Filtered Portrait of Lincoln Comes to the Small Screen

(c) New York Times

March 20, 1988

By Harold Holzer

On April 4, 1865 - 123 years ago, almost to the day - Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond, for the only time. The very morning after the Confederate capital fell to his Union forces, Lincoln walked, unannounced, into the heart of the city. To his surprise the newly freed black population turned out to greet him with "wild, indescribable, ecstatic joy," in the words of one contemporary journalist. Some white residents, however, shut themselves inside their homes, glowering at the scene through drawn curtains, "as if it was a disgusting sight." Ten days later, in Washington, a Southern sympathizer assassinated the President.

The two-part NBC mini-series "Gore Vidal's Lincoln," which begins next Sunday evening at 9, was filmed almost entirely in Richmond. "It had the best 'look,' and required the least construction," Bob Christianson, the co-producer, explains. Gathered there during months of location filming was an impressive cast: Sam Waterston as Lincoln, Mary Tyler Moore as his wife, Mary, John Houseman as Gen. Winfield Scott and Richard Mulligan as Secretary of State William H. Seward.

The four-hour, $8 million production - like the novel - focuses exclusively on Lincoln's Presidency. It begins when he arrives, unrecognized, in Washington for his inauguration and ends with his assassination four years later.

The cast and film crew of "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" soon found that architecture wasn't the only aspect of Richmond that recalled an earlier time. When Mr. Waterston, in full beard and frock coat, was filmed visiting wounded Confederates at a soldiers' hospital, a local man, hired as an extra for the scene, stared at the actor between takes and declared through clenched teeth: "If you were really the man you are playing, I would want to shoot you myself!"

The incident reflects more than lingering animus among some Southerners toward Lincoln. It also touches on that finely drawn border any biographical dramatization inevitably straddles between fact and fiction. In translating Mr. Vidal's novel into a mini-series, the producers strove for historical accuracy but at the same time were adapting a work that had already drawn fire from historians who charged that Mr. Vidal had taken liberties with history.

"What we have here," Lamont Johnson, the program's director, said, "is as respectable a piece of history as any novel can ever be - in some cases as history itself ever is. After all, history is only truth in the eyes of the historian writing it. Going all the way back to Herodotus, history is different views of different events."

Nonetheless, viewers with knowledge of the Civil War era may notice errors of fact and detail in "Gore Vidal's Lincoln," as well as a degree of questionable historical interpretation. As is often the case with any dramatized biography, millions more with no special understanding of Lincoln will likely accept what they see as historical gospel. Indeed, no Lincoln book since Carl Sandburg's biography has been as widely read as Mr. Vidal's, and it possible that no Lincoln drama will be as widely viewed as next week's presentation. What that might mean to Lincoln's reputation is impossible to calculate but troubling to consider.

Mr. Vidal's novel was an unqualified commercial success, with more than a million copies sold. Yet, many Lincoln scholars have criticized it, and scholarly symposia these days invariably boast a session devoted exclusively to the Vidal novel.

Mr. Vidal himself had no involvement in the final script of "Gore Vidal's Lincoln." "Not many people know this, but Gore first wrote his 'Lincoln' as an eight-hour mini-series," Mr. Christianson said. "Only when that project fell through did he turn it into a novel. So, when we made the deal for our show, he was kind of written out on Lincoln."

The producers turned to Ernest Kinoy, whose credits include such biographical dramas as "Murrow" for HBO. Mr. Kinoy described his "collaboration" with Mr. Vidal as harmonious. "My goal," Mr. Kinoy said, "was to avoid falsifying Lincoln's position or Gore's position." Happily, he added, "I did much reading on my own and could not find a single conflict between the novel and history." Mr. Vidal, the producers said, read and applauded the final script.

"Don't get me wrong," Mr. Kinoy continued. "I believe in dramatic license. When the bizarre people at the network came to me and said, 'What's your background for a line?' I felt free to say, 'I made it up.' My own feeling is that you must have a responsibility to the essential political, philosophic and social truth - and that's all. Fortunately, my own view of the period happens to be the same as Gore's. I recently watched Raymond Massey in Sherwood's 'Abe Lincoln in Illinois.' I remember having loved that movie. Suddenly, it seemed so mythic and childish. We tried for a real feeling of the period."

While offering, among other attributes, a perceptive analysis of Lincoln's emergence as a strong commander-in-chief, "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" has its troubling moments. For example, when Mr. Waterston as Lincoln reminisces about the day that Seward, his future Secretary of State, regaled the 1860 Republican National Convention with his provocative "irrepressible conflict," speech, the character is in error both chronologically and geographically: The speech was delivered two years earlier, but even had it been uttered at the convention, Lincoln wouldn't have heard it. "Not quite enough of a candidate" to attend, as he explained it, Lincoln stayed home. But much more importantly, Seward's speech so frightened moderate Republicans that they denied him the Presidential nomination that year. In fact, without the "irrepressible conflict" speech, Seward, not Lincoln, might have been president.

The creators of "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" logically portray Seward as somewhat bitter, but again take considerable liberty when their Seward condemns Lincoln's conciliatory first inaugural address as "weak." Seward had not only helped Lincoln write some of it, he suggested it be even weaker.

To help assure historical fidelity, the producers of "Gore Vidal's Lincoln" brought in Mark K. Greenough, vice president of Living History Associates, a Richmond firm specializing in Civil War re-enactments, lectures and tours. Mr. Greenough, who was often seen on location dressed in an unerringly accurate Civil War uniform - in case he was called upon to go before the cameras as an extra -was relentless in scouring each set for modern anachronisms.

While describing himself as "the production conscience on the issues of social etiquette, clothing, military details and dialogue," Mr. Greenough shunned responsibility for the project's overall accuracy. "I offered advice," he said. "Other people made the creative decisions. I only hope that, because of me, they were informed decisions." But Mr. Greenough cautioned, "People should watch the mini-series as entertaining drama. It would be inappropriate to judge it as a documentary."

In fact, documentary evidence is occasionally at odds with dramatic events depicted in "Gore Vidal's Lincoln." For example, the television Lincoln declares, after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, "I have always believed the colored race to be inferior to the white." The dialogue is based an actual event - a Presidential meeting with a delegation of free blacks - but one that occurred before, not after, Lincoln publicly announced his emancipation policy. "On this continent," he had carefully told them, "not a single man of your race is made the equal of a single man of ours."

Worried that his forthcoming edict might frighten loyal slave states out of the Union or, worse, incite a race war, Lincoln was trying to calm the waters by halfheartedly suggesting the idea of voluntary colonization, an option he soon discarded - but not before angry New Yorkers, protesting the draft, lynched innocent blacks and set fire to an asylum for black orphans.

Later, it is Lincoln's 24-year-old private secretary who teaches the on-screen Lincoln his watershed lesson in equal rights. "Given the same opportunities as a white man," he lectures the President, "a Negro is probably every bit as capable." Lincoln remains unconvinced. The notion that Lincoln - who would soon be talking publicly about enfranchising freed blacks and providing them equal access to education - required the advice of his youthful assistant to show him the way, will likely raise more eyebrows among informed viewers than any other scene in the mini-series.

To prepare for his portrayal of Lincoln, Sam Waterston borrowed several biographies from his local Connecticut library and consulted folklore and spoken-word collections for examples of the Kentucky accent Lincoln used.

"I went into this looking for a hollow shell," the actor said during the final day of shooting, "or at least for a fabulous public-relations man who invented Lincoln. But there wasn't any.

"I found you can turn Lincoln inside out and stand him on his head," Mr. Waterston added. "You can play him human or play him flawed. But he still comes out bigger than all of us. You can't mess him up."

Mr. Waterston said he watched none of the portrayals of Lincoln by his predecessors: Walter Huston, Raymond Massey, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook or Gregory Peck. "That would have been fatal," he said. Instead, he looked for what he called "a buzz on Lincoln" in his individual way - holding in his hands Lincoln's watch and spectacles and practicing Lincoln's signature. "You have to be a careful man to write the way he did."

Like Mr. Waterston, Mary Tyler Moore, who plays Mrs. Lincoln, read widely but avoided the archives of film and television. Wearing a tight-fitting brown wig and a swirling, hoop-skirted dress for a scene in which Lincoln's re-election is celebrated at a telegraph office - a gathering Victorian propriety most likely prevented the real Mrs. Lincoln from attending - Miss Moore said: "Mary was an enigma, an educated woman in an age when women weren't supposed to be educated, obsessed with spending in a European tradition that royalty must impress their subjects. She also slipped into insanity. Yet, I am convinced that Mary was important to Lincoln - an integral part of his life and a great influence on him."

Miss Moore added: "When I first read the script, all I asked was to see more of my character."

The actress got her wish. But, occasionally, the resulting overemphasis may misrepresent history. In one scene, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln are shown together attending the funeral of their 11-year-old son. In reality, Mary was too grief-stricken to attend and stayed home.

"Well, if you showed it that way," Mr. Waterston argued, "you would need a scene that explained that in those days women didn't always go to funerals, then another scene to show how Mary felt. Here we can show everything at once." Mr. Kinoy agreed, adding, "The network people insisted on a funeral, so we gave them one."

The most potentially confusing result of Miss Moore's eagerness to enlarge her role comes in the finale of the mini-series. The lines are right out of Mr. Vidal's novel: " [Lincoln] willed his own murder as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing he had done for giving so bloody and absolute a rebirth to the nation."

In the book, the sentiments came from the mouth of Lincoln's private secretary. When Mary utters them instead, at the conclusion of the mini-series, she demonstrates a fatalism and historical perspective hardly possible in her state of hysteria and self-pity following her husband's murder. It was in just such a state that the real Mary would confide to a friend a few days after the tragedy, "In my crushing sorrow, I have found myself almost doubting the goodness of God." To suggest that the First Lady instead rationalized Lincoln's death as an act of ultimate sacrifice for the Union not only misconstrues the "messiah" message voiced from thousands of pulpits the Sunday after the assassination but ascribes them to perhaps their least likely proponent.

Then the Lincoln funeral train is shown moving slowly away - in reality, it departed weeks before Mary could be dislodged from the White House - and the mini-series ends. But not before it has created images of Lincoln and his times that may be lamented by historians for years to come. NOT WHY BUT WHAT

Does he read historical novels?

"Never. I haven't time."

Does he watch historical drama on television?


What Gore Vidal says he reads - and, more to the point, writes - is "history." Speaking recently from his home in Italy, the author suggested that his Lincoln novel belongs in no other category, even though it has been under attack from professional historians ever since it was published. Don E. Fehrenbacher, professor of history at Stanford and author of "Lincoln in Text and Context," has said of the book, "The mixing of fact, fiction and error produced a work seductively unreliable as biography."

Mr. Vidal dismissed such criticism as "childish quibbling."

"All I can say is that I stayed within the agreed-upon facts, if there is such a thing," he said. "Critics say, 'Check the newspapers of Lincoln's day!' My God, if a minor character like me has been misrepresented, what about a President? Besides, I know politics. My grandfather, Senator Gore, knew Lincoln's son, Robert. I bring a sensibility the historians lack."

Mr. Vidal said that he believes he got "the what" essentially correct: "Thoreau once said he never wanted to know what happened, only why. I never care why - there is> no reason. The historical 'why's' take you to Pirandello-land."

And his own view of Lincoln? "Great mind, enormous logic, great will," he said. "And ambition so extreme that, having felt cheated of true glory by not being a Founder, he would take second place, in retrospect maybe first place, by redefining what the country was - and in his own image. Was he great? Well, to a Greek, to be just ambitious was everything. But I am, after all, a Southerner. I never felt Lincoln was right to keep the South from leaving the Union."

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