Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Abe Lincoln, Storyteller

"Humor is both a shield and a sword in politics," Ari Fleischer, press secretary to George W. Bush, recently told CNN.

"Humor is a shield because if people like you they will tend to give you the benefit of the doubt. It is a sword because one of the most effective ways to make fun of your opposition is humor as opposed to direct, frontal, mean-spirited attacks."

Among the presidents who wielded humor—including Teddy Roosevelt, Coolidge, FDR, Kennedy and Reagan—none did it more skillfully than Lincoln.

Lincoln considered himself a "retailer" of other people's puns, wisecracks, japes and yarns. He had a photographic memory for funny material, and spent hours studying humorists' books and essays.

Although quaint by 21st century standards, some of Lincoln's gags can still raise a chuckle.

Lincoln told a story of a man in the theatre who put his top hat on the seat next to him. A plus-size woman sat on it. ""Madam," he said, "I could have told you the hat wouldn't fit before you tried it on."

He told another story of a professional speaker's arrival in Springfield, Illinois. “What are your lectures about?” a city official asked the speaker. “They’re about the second coming,” the speaker said. “Don’t waste your time," the official said. "If the Lord’s seen Springfield once, He ain’t coming back."

He told yet another story of a drunk named Bill, who was so wasted, he passed out in the mud. When Bill came to, he went looking for a way to wash off the mud, and mistook another drunk leaning over a hitching post for a pump. When he pumped the man's arm up and down, the man puked all over him. Believing all was right, Bill found a saloon. A friend inside said, "Bill, what happened?" Bill said, "You should have seen me before I washed."

After one grueling speech, Lincoln said of the speaker, “He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas of any man I ever met." He called the arguments of his opponent for president “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.”

Once after being called "two-faced," Lincoln said, “If I had two faces, why would I be wearing this one?”

When Nebraska's governor told Lincoln there was a river in his state named "Weeping Water." Lincoln said, "I suppose the Indians out there call it 'Minneboohoo,' since 'Laughing Water' is 'Minnahaha' in their language."

His contemporaries said Lincoln's real success as a comedian was due to a talent for mimicry. He could mimic voices, accents, gestures, postures and facial expressions perfectly.

Fellow attorney Henry Whitney said, "His stories may be literally retold, every word, period and comma, but the real humor perished with Lincoln."

Watch Daniel Day-Lewis perform as Abe Lincoln, Storyteller.
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