In preparing to write the Commission’s final report to “Congress and the American People,” I intend to interview the commissioners to ascertain their views of their own work/role on the commission and the effectiveness of the commission.
Late last week, I began with Judge Tommy Turner of Kentucky. Here is a digest of our conversation:
EM: Let's start with the 2008 event in Kentucky. Did it set a tone for the remaining work of the commission? Was it a success in Kentuckian terms?
TT: It was a great success. It generated much publicity as a kick off for the future. The first day was highlighted with a conference – Doris Kearns Goodwin's presence made a difference. The questioners in the audience were genuine and contributed to the validity of the event. The local groups and organizations worked effectively with the staff of the national commission - but the heavy lifting was done by the staff and the commission from D.C.
The event at the Kennedy Center a year later was a Kentucky-only event and not appropriate for the national enterprise – no hard feelings on either side from his judgment.
EM: What role did you play on the commission in addition to spearheading the Kentucky events and celebration?
TT: Frequently a middleman or an arbiter reconciling various viewpoints or personal perspectives. This is a role that is needed for a commission's ultimate success.
EM: When you talk about the commission's success – and from the outside looking in the Kentucky event was a success – what would you repeat and/or do differently?
TT: I would not repeat the ice storm [that canceled the outdoor events at the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site on February 12, 2008.]
EM: Did we need those with national experience in fundraising on the Commission?
TT: It was not within my purview to seek a larger commission with members who understood the need to fund-raise on a national basis. Local efforts – to raise funds for Knob Creek, for example, is easier – we appeal to local pride and know each other well. A national effort is more complicated and takes much longer. The commission took three years or so to get started and many of us did not understand how long it would take to get our feet planted. But we did overcome difficulties. Once we knew each other it was just as effective to hold telephone meetings and thereby save travel funds.
We missed firm executive decisions in the beginning. If we would have started the Town Halls earlier, for example, they might have been more effective in building broader coalitions. Too many of the Lincoln audiences have been white and older. We need to look to the future to preserve the legacy of freedom and justice. Lincoln is the icon who can cross all interest boundaries: military; agriculture; poetry; race; politics. Recognizing this could make a difference in our curriculum in the schools. It’s no secret that history is taking a back seat to reading comprehension, math and science. In our next steps we can look to education offerings that integrate Lincoln into the total curriculum.
EM: What advice would you offer to the Foundation based on your experience?
TT: We have done a good job on education but need to work on how to get Lincoln into the schools beyond the great efforts of individual teachers.
EM: Like the National Teach In?
TT: We need to continue and even accelerate our efforts to reach out to non-traditional audiences, where the future is. We need to promote what Lincoln stood for – especially compassion.
EM: At the recent Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg there were 300 strong Lincoln lovers. How can we draw on their power to work with new Americans and younger groups?
TT: I would need to think about this very large question.
TT: This nation today is polarized as never before in my lifetime. Class divisions from urban America have infected rural areas as well. There is anger resulting from displacement. We need a Lincoln to deal with these issues.
EM: Do you have additional comments? Are there areas/issues we have not covered?
TT: I am proud to have served on the commission. It has been one of the highlights of my life. I cherish the friendships of the commissioners. I believe we have planted some seeds that can grow to benefit the country.