In a current television commercial lacking any wit, originality, or reverence, an actor playing Abraham Lincoln is seen chomping on a so-called “ballpark frank.” The obvious goal of this advertisement is to sell hot dogs. Lincoln is seen standing around amongst sundry contemporary, gleefully ingesting Americans, all citizen-caricatures, and all oblivious to the incongruity of the scene—they writers of this banality don’t even seize the opportunity to invoke any irony. Deep down, they are shallow.
We are buying, not thinking.
They just exacerbate the painful and endless trivialization of history that is the lifeblood of broadcast mercantilism. We see Lincoln’s towering top hat, his trademark dark coat (even at the ball game, for God’s sake?) and we accede to the chronic co-opting of serious American narrative in favor of marketing automobiles, swimming pools, antacids, furniture, life insurance, erectile dysfunction remedies, and wieners.
This is nothing new: George Washington is a weekend sale, Memorial Day is a barbecue, and even the Martin Luther King Holiday has slid down the slippery slope of Toyota Markdown Festivals. We are buying, not thinking.
Abraham Lincoln was the beleaguered, uniquely confronted 16th president of the United States. His name is synonymous with the tragic, wildly bloody, and deeply dangerous conflict called The Civil War. His time in office, 1861-1865, coincides exactly with the duration of this horrific conflagration—during which boys from Ohio were killing boys from Louisiana and officers from Texas were overseeing the slaughter of conscripts from Pennsylvania.
Roughly 800,000 American lives were lost during this conflict—more fatalities and casualties than in all of the other combined wars in which the United States has been involved, including World Wars I and II.
The African slaves of the Southern states were legally, if symbolically, made free by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. This was not about hot dogs, mustard, and buns. It was about greed and commercial issues in the South so urgent (as in, slaves=economy) that men and women were racially ingrained in chaining their “darkies” as property and currency.
Beyond all this, Abraham Lincoln, whose memory becomes worth the value of the vanishing penny where he is engraved, was a real person with significant agonies, acute depressions, a dysfunctional family situation, and a national crisis that no other president has ever seen—let alone overcome. His personal melancholy was as unredeemed as his brilliance remains unsurpassed.
Over a century later, another president, Gerald Ford, who succeeded into office after the disgrace and resignation of Richard M. Nixon, was graceful enough to declare in 1974: “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln.”
Abraham Lincoln, a serious and elegiac man, essentially became the final Union casualty of the Civil War when he was shot, point-blank, in the head on April 14, 1865. Why diminish this national father into a clunky, dim-witted, hot dog salesman?
What next? John F. Kennedy hawking suits? Franklin Delano Roosevelt selling Hyundais? Martin Luther King pitching life insurance?