For three days before the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a group called the Lincoln Forum met in that little Pennsylvania town where soldiers fought the Civil War’s bloodiest battle and Lincoln gave its most eloquent speech. The presenters at the forum included Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, and Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for Angels in America and author of the screenplay for Lincoln. I also gave a presentation at the forum; it was a proud moment, but the good feelings I brought home weren’t about that—they were about the enduring power of civil discourse.
As Lincoln, I believe, would have hoped, the gathering brought us together out of a common interest. Even the most politically pointed moments somehow wound up being congenial: Kushner related growing up in a Louisiana parish where some people refused to use $5 bills because Lincoln’s picture was on them. Then he suggested that Lincoln was luckier in some ways than Barack Obama, because “his enemies left the country.” The crowd probably was almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, but everybody laughed and nodded. It was a joke with a moral. Lincoln would have loved it.