Honest Abe, off his rocker

For the record, Colby Cosh on some ’just plain weird’ alternate-universe U.S. history

Our literary editrix sent me the oddest book to review, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it; I decided not to review it for our print books section, where space is tight, but I thought I’d put on record that I did read Stephen L. Carter’s The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln from front to back.

A lot of respectable pulp-class writers, from Harry Turtledove to whomever ghosts the books sold under Newt Gingrich’s byline, earn good coin from the art of alternate-universe U.S. history. (I think Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is the major inspiration for this genre, but feel free to apply the rod of correction in the comments.) Lincoln being the perennial topic he is, one imagines that Carter’s basic premise—a world in Lincoln survives the wound he receives at Ford’s Theatre—has probably been done a dozen times before. But one expects Carter’s book to be more serious than the general run of this stuff, because he’s a moderately important public intellectual, not to mention the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale. (This is one of the few jobs in the United States whose title practically demands a tympani roll and a trumpet fanfare.)

The book, however, is just plain weird—an action movie, a courtroom drama, and an interracial romance thrown into a big blender. The portrait of an impeachment proceeding turns out to be quite interesting and informative, because even though we have recent experience of a president’s trial in the Senate… well, to be perfectly honest, what I remember most from the trial of President Clinton is Chief Justice Rehnquist’s wacky robe with the striped sleeves. The proceeding itself was a bit perfunctory: by the time the trial commenced the ending was foreordained, the public was exhausted, and neither theoretically-possible outcome was likely to please anyone much. Moreover, the trial was carried out in an odd, slightly confusing order, and no live witnesses were examined in the well of the Senate chamber. As theatre, it was a bust.

Carter’s fictional trial shows us what a real, proper, open-ended presidential impeachment proceeding would look like—yet it, too, fails as theatre. You know how courtroom movies like A Few Good Men always end up letting star witnesses testify uninterrupted and fight exciting verbal duels with cross-examining counsel in ways that would never be tolerated in real life? Just to refresh your memory: the lawyer for the baddie will usually explode to his feet once and demand that the good guy’s Hail-Mary line of questioning be shut down, but the judge, who has been crushing the hero’s huevos throughout the movie, suffers a mysterious and unexplained attack of leniency and says “I’ll allow it—but this had better be going somewhere fast, mister!”

Carter is too much the law professor to let a “real” courtroom drama like that develop: his portrait of an obstructionist, cranky 19th-century Senate is so accurate that the witnesses are barely allowed to breathe, and Lincoln’s impeachment trial turns out to be kind of boring. (And, by the way, the actual impeachment of Lincoln by the House technically happens off-camera in a short passage on page 34, so the title’s a little misleading, too.)

There are other credibility problems with the plot to balance the too-much-credibility issue with the courtroom scenes, but my big problem with this book is that its portrait of Lincoln is unrecognizable and unattractive. I can’t help thinking that this is a decisive, unmitigable flaw in a Lincoln book. Carter seems to have thought it was important that Lincoln not be portrayed as a plaster saint, so he overemphasizes the cynicism, the backwoods cunning, and the borderline-megalomaniac sense of sacred mission that contemporary detractors saw in Lincoln. This is certainly fair. What we don’t get is any sense of Lincoln’s mind, which was one of the finest of its era.

Certainly we get no taste of his gift for English, which only a trivial handful of individuals have shared in equal measure since our alphabet included the yogh. I think literally every single bit of Lincoln dialogue we get in the book is prefaced by one of Lincoln’s countrified stories about travelling salesmen with ferrets in their trousers or what-have-you. The anecdotes all supposedly authentic, but they are laid on much too thick. In real life, when the President deployed these stories, they were charming and inevitably to the point. By contrast, Carter’s Lincoln seems cryptic and distracted, even a mite demented. Maybe it’s the head wound?