WHO were the greatest presidents and why? Well, Lincoln because of the Civil War, and [Franklin] Roosevelt because he brought us back from the Depression, and Washington because he was first. But I am interested in what great leaders called presidents made a contribution to the values of this country, helped teach us values, promoted values. We all talk casually about values, but that's the important thing. If you really believe that love is the best thing you could do with your life, we wouldn't be talking about taxes the way we are. And if you really believed that we are a family and we are supposed to share benefits and burdens, we wouldn't have half the problems we have. We wouldn't have the bias and the racism and stupidity.
[President] Washington was singularly drab. Washington was, to me, a creature of circumstance. He was a lousy soldier; he lost everything, you know. But they needed a leader. He was big; he didn't say a lot. I've never been impressed by Washington.
Lincoln has the best description of the role of government. Government is the coming together of people to do for themselves collectively what they could not do as well or at all individually. What do we need as a people that we can't do for ourselves? Educate ourselves? We probably should have public schools - well, great. We probably should defend ourselves - then we should have armies. Now, that's a good definition. So, what values would a Lincoln teach us? Not quite the values that we want to give him credit for.
You know, the Lincoln scholars are involved in a project that I'm very proud of - the Lincoln books. In this room, several months ago, two teachers from Solidarity, two Polish teachers, came with some American teachers and they wanted to meet me and we chatted a little bit. They said, Will you come to Poland and lecture on democracy? And I said no, I'm not an expert on it. And then they said, what American, living or dead, would you cite as good on democracy? I said a guy who is never thought of on the subject of democracy: I would say Lincoln. And they said, Lincoln, well we don't have him in Polish. I said, Really? I am going to get the Lincoln scholars, some of them, to pick Lincoln writings or a book by Lincoln on democracy. I'll have it translated into Polish, and I'll have it sent over.
Well, they jumped up, they thought that was wonderful. And a guy who was there with me when they left said, I'll take care of this, how are we going to do this? I didn't have the slightest idea. I then went to some Lincoln scholars, because I had spoken for them in Illinois. They went to the collected works of Lincoln and looked in the index. Democracy is not in the index. I said, there is no word democracy in the collected works of Lincoln? There is nothing? No, they said, we'll have to construct it. I said, Look, I have a commitment here.
Well, we have wound up with 40 of the 41 leading Lincoln scholars in the nation they have put together a manuscript. And now we've gotten inquiries from China, the Soviet Union. It's terrific. We'll be able to peddle Lincoln all over the place.
Lincoln's value was equality - not as a theological impulse, because he wasn't religious; he was at the very best agnostic. Lincoln and the value of inclusion, equality - that was an important value!