Actor Richard Dreyfuss, Vista filmmaker salute ‘Lincoln’s Greatest Speech’
Locally made documentary shows how Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech is still relevant today
During the Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump on Capitol Hill over the past week, the name and words of another president, Abraham Lincoln, have come up over and over. Lincoln’s eloquent speeches about deploring mob violence and binding up the nation’s wounds have never been more timely.
The 16th president’s evergreen relevancy is the focus of “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural Address,” an hourlong documentary that Vista filmmaker Ken Kebow released last month for online streaming. Initially produced in 2016 as an educational program for schools, the film features Lincoln historian and author Ronald C. White Jr. of Los Angeles and Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss, who lives in the North County community of Olivenhain.
Dreyfuss opens the film by delivering the seven-minute speech in full, an experience he says he relished: “The second inaugural for me is quite beautiful. As an actor, it’s one of the things that you want to get a shot at.”
Dreyfuss is the founder of the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative, a 17-year-old nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that aims to revive the teaching of civics in public schools to reinstill in American youth an uncynical love for country, democracy, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He lectures on the topic frequently around the country and is now finishing up a book on the subject.
Kebow, a documentary and commercial filmmaker, said he was motivated to relaunch the film by the political division now roiling America.
“I looked at everything going on in this country and realized that more so than any time in history since 1865, what Lincoln said about a very divided country is so pertinent and meaningful today,” Kebow said.
The film is based on White’s 2002 book of the same name. White believes the second inaugural address delivered on March 4, 1865 — not the more famous “Gettysburg Address” from Nov. 19, 1863 — was Lincoln’s crowning achievement as a writer. Lincoln thought so, too. White says in the film that there are only a handful of people in world history whose words are still repeated regularly today and one of them is Lincoln, despite the fact that he only had one year of formal education.
“Lincoln can be a role model,” White said. “He can teach us humility. He can teach us how to respect each other, even if we differ in our opinions. He can teach us to reach out in a civil rather than an uncivil conversation.”
The 701-word address was delivered in the final weeks of the four-year Civil War. Although the Confederacy had lost, Lincoln didn’t celebrate the Union victory in the speech. Instead, he spoke in a somber, inclusive and sermon-like fashion about the ways Southerners and Northerners are alike and the war may have been God’s punishment for the sin of slavery. Its final lines foreshadowed Lincoln’s plan for healing the divided nation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all ... let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to ... achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.”
Dreyfuss said he happily signed on for Kebow’s documentary because he has a deep respect for Lincoln’s intelligence, his political savvy and his immense capacity for change. Dreyfuss believes the strategic speech signaled Lincoln’s plan to reinvest in the South rather than starve it economically as punishment. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated 41 days after the inauguration.
“His first shot over the bow was in the second half of that speech where he was saying he saw no distinction between one side and the other and how as Americans they were all going to pay for the price and privilege that they were in,” Dreyfuss said. “In the second inaugural he extended a hand. I thought that if he had lived he would have invented the Marshall Plan 100 years earlier.”
Dreyfuss said that as hard as the Civil War was for Lincoln in his first term, the reconstruction effort in his second term might have been an even bigger test of his abilities.
The war was only act one of a play that hadn’t come to town but failed on the road,” Dreyfuss said. “Lincoln knew that the war was just to get rid of the garbage on the street and then the real work had to begin.”
Kebow said the idea for the film was born five years ago when he was working as a cameraman for UCSD-TV and White came to the UC San Diego campus to present a lecture on Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Inspired by the presentation, Kebow tracked down White at the Huntington Library in San Marino and asked about filming the lecture for classroom use. Several months later, Kebow asked Dreyfuss to participate.
The film has been shown in classrooms nationwide and was screened at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. For the relaunch, Kebow re-edited the film and added music and more graphics. He hopes the revised film can be introduced and integrated into exhibits at museums nationwide, like the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.
Lincoln has not only been cited several times during the impeachment trial, he is also the subject of a six-part series reassessing his legacy, “Lincoln: Divided We Stand,” that debuts Sunday, Feb. 14 on CNN. Friday, Feb. 12 marked the 212th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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