Claire Ronner | Sept. 25, 2012
Andrew Ferguson encountered many unconventional tributes to Honest Abe while reporting his book, Land of Lincoln.
Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, spoke Monday night to a crowded auditorium in Ernie Pyle Hall to kick off the School of Journalism’s Speaker Series. He shared his occasionally wacky search for “the real Abraham Lincoln” with students, faculty and community members in attendance.
During research for the 2008 book, Ferguson said he met countless characters who participate in the almost cult-like following Lincoln has to this day. There’s the collector in Beverly Hills who has Lincoln’s chamber pot in her dining room, and the red-bearded, short-statured, portly impersonator at the convention of Abraham Lincoln “presenters.”
Despite all the literature already published about the former president — including books discussing his religious beliefs, eating habits, sex life, marriage, vacation homes and finances — Ferguson wanted to find a universal Lincoln, one who represented something more than politics.
And he did.
When Ferguson visited Springfield, the head doorman of the Lincoln Museum told him the story of a Czechoslovakian man in his late 80s who had been saving money for 40 years to come to visit Lincoln’s home.
The man, who had been in a concentration camp during World War II, said Lincoln came to him at his weakest point, telling him, “You never forget, all men are created equal. These men who put you here are no better than you. Persevere, and you’ll be all right.”
“Those who think Lincoln is significant just because he helped win a war are missing the point,” Ferguson said. “Lincoln saved the nation because it’s a particular type of union. He pulled the country back together because he truly believed that all men are created equal, and it’s awful if we ever let that slip our minds.”
Ferguson said respect for Lincoln isn’t lacking, though. While visiting Chicago to explore Lincoln’s time in the city, Ferguson stumbled on a Thai restaurant owned by a Lincoln aficionado who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, Oscar Esha. Esha moved to Illinois, spotted the “land of Lincoln” license plates, and decided his family needed to pay their respects. Now, every spring, his family drives to Springfield and has a picnic on Lincoln’s tomb to thank him for giving them a great country.
But that’s not all Esha and his family do to honor Lincoln, Ferguson said. Every morning, without fail, Esha and his wife set out a full meal next to a small seated Lincoln, a miniature reproduction of the monument in Washington, D.C. They change his meal daily, “but no pork,” Esha was quick to tell Ferguson.
When Ferguson asked why, Esha replied, “Well, his name was Abraham, like that of the Jewish people—so no pork, right?”
Ferguson said he appreciated the change of pace Land of Lincoln provided from his normal work routine. He has covered Washington politics for so long that one scandal can seem to blend in with the next, he said.
“I could get down and bury myself in Lincoln, and it was an escape from the repeating cycle of contemporary politics,” he said.
The book was named by the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune as a Favorite Book of the Year. Ferguson’s newest book, Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, is currently under development by New Line Cinema to be a motion picture starring Will Ferrell.
The school’s Speaker Series gives students and area residents the opportunity to meet with some of the top media professionals in the country. Each semester, several guests visit campus to deliver lectures that are free and open to the public.