What was the tall, bearded man in the stovepipe hat doing on the stage of Ford's Theatre last night? The tall man (actor Richard Blake) was giving a very smooth, professional performance of a one-man show, "An Evening With President Lincoln." He was also engaged, very skillfully, in several varities of image-building.
Three score and sixteen years ago, the Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. brought forth in Fort Wayne, Ind., a new enterprise, conceived in the spirit of capitalism and dedicated to the proposition that death need not be a total disaster. It picked a real winner when it started looking around for an image. With the cooperation of Robert Todd Lincoln, it acquired a name that means sympathy, nobilit, integrity at all costs -- a name that it has borne proudly for three-quarters of a century. It still promotes that name through one of the great soft-sell public-relations operations of our time, by keeping alive the memory of our 16th president -- one of the most beloved figures in human history.
Also from Abraham Lincoln's son, the company obtained the right to use on its letterheads the same picture that the American government uses on its $5 bill. With such potent symbolism working for it, no wonder the company has become a giant in its field.
Now, a grateful Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. has come to the nation's capital as the sponsor of Lincoln Week -- a sort of warmup for its eponym's birthday on Feb. 12 -- and it is showering Washington with largesse: a loan exhibit from its Lincoln Library and Museum, which can be seen in the Cannon Office Building through the end of March; on endowed series of Lincoln lectures at Gallaudet College which will be launched by the Lincolnesque Edmund Muskie next September; a champagne reception for members of Congress and other luminaries, and even a press conference by Abraham Lincoln, as impersonated by Richard Blake, scheduled for later in the week.
It is altogether fitting and proper that the Lincoln National Insurance Co. should do this. Yet in a larger sense, is it possible for an insurance company to ennoble the name of Abraham Lincoln? Possible or not, we should give them a big hand for trying.
Last night in Ford's Theatre (whose rebirth in 1968 was heavily subsidized by Lincoln National), Lincoln Week was launched by "An Evening With President Lincoln," which has already been given for more than 55 million people -- that's one-quarter of the American population, isn't it? -- in the last few years. It was perfect, absolutely perfect, for what it was intended to be: a part of an image-building campaign by a large insurance company. Above all, it was safe; all edges smoothed and no risks taken. It was folksy in a dignified sort of way. It was calculated to offend nobody, except perhaps those who would like to restore slavery -- and they are extremists, though one may detect traces, these days, of a nostalgia for feudalism.
The scene was the White House in November 1864; Abraham Lincoln had just received the news of his reelection and he entertained his invited guests, the audience, with a bit of recollection, some political philosophy, the story of a dream in which he foresaw his death and the mourning in the White House, and a fine collection of his familiar jokes -- laced, for contract, with a few that are less familiar. He ended with a recitiation of the Gettysburg Address (properly accented on "the people," without making a big fuss about the prepositions) while a recorded chorus sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the background.
Blake looks enough like Lincoln, with his 6-foot-4 height, his dark beard, and standard Lincoln costume, although ideally he might be a bit more gaunt. His voice and accent are, as far as we can tell, reasonably close to Lincoln's own. And he knows how to tell a story. But what he presents is a kind of walking, talking national monument -- enjoyable and informative enough, but not quite equal to the real human being Roy Dotrice presented on that same stage last year.