From the Union With Love

Abe Lincoln and 007: rivals in blockbusters, brothers in badassery

A British invasion wasn’t high on Abraham Lincoln’s list of worries. Until now.

This week, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-bait biopic “Lincoln” opens in D.C. on the same day as “Skyfall,” the latest installment in the James Bond series. It’s Abe versus 007, badass versus badass. One loves the ladies, gadgets and offing baddies. The other writes world-changing speeches on the backs of envelopes and unites countries.

Objectively speaking, Bond and Lincoln are equally awesome, though in radically different ways. Bond’s cabinet would probably be less a “team of rivals” than “guys who do what I say or I kill them”; Lincoln would probably not be into high-speed car chases. But both men do share a fondness for the latest gadgets.

“Lincoln grew up understanding from a young age that old technology wasn’t working to the benefit of common folks like him,” says James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

The Great Emancipator was an early adopter of technology, the 19th-century version of a guy standing in line for the newest iPhone. Which back then was a telegraph.

“It was only about three years ago that a woman on our staff discovered how early Lincoln had sent a telegram,” Cornelius says. “It was in 1848, from Philadelphia to Springfield. He had gone to the national Whig Party convention and reported back to the paper here by telegraph, four years after it had been tested.”

Technology doesn’t always work as intended. In “Never Say Never Again,” Bond’s exploding pen doesn’t react immediately when pointed at villain Fatima Blush. In Lincoln’s case, one episode of failed tech may have prevented disaster.

“If there had been a working transatlantic cable, we would have gone to war against England over the Trent Affair,” Cornelius says. The Union Navy arrested the Confederate diplomats to Britain and France, who were traveling on the Trent, a British steamer, in 1861. Since the cable wasn’t functional, news had to travel via ship, negotiations dragged out for weeks, and everyone got a chance to chill.

Though Lincoln and Bond like their toys, there are some major differences between these two. Bond’s military service (he’s a commander in the Royal Navy), along with his MI-6 training, gives him the ability to kill people in many creative ways; Lincoln served in the Illinois state militia but never saw combat. Bond likes his drinks shaken, not stirred; Lincoln barely touched the stuff.

The sharpest line separating Bond from Lincoln is experience with women. Bond has encountered many willing and able sex partners; Abe, not so much.

“He was physically awkward, and he often made jokes about his own ungainliness,” Cornelius says. “Yet, power is attractive, and there are hints that women found him appealing when he was president.” Which could have upped his success rate, except that he was married to a woman who was not inclined to look the other way.

“Mary [Todd Lincoln] was kind of insanely jealous,” Cornelius says, adding that the first lady once freaked out when a general’s wife rode her horse a little too close to the president’s. “It was a complete embarrassment to everybody present,” Cornelius says.

There’s just no way you’d catch Honey Ryder being so jealous.

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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