Get people talking about Abraham Lincoln, the country’s 16th president, and the superlatives usually start rolling in. But when two of those people are nerd-girl author and hipster historian Sarah Vowell and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who penned Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln,” you can expect those words about “the great emancipator” and his profound legacy to be especially eloquent, insightful — and wry.
The pair will offer their perspectives about the man who steered the country through the bloody Civil War and the abolition of slavery — its most vexing political and moral crisis — at Harvard University in a wide-ranging discussion about “The Lincoln Legacy.” Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, the event takes place Saturday at 8 p.m. at Sanders Theatre, moderated by Harvard professor John Stauffer.
A contributor to NPR’s “This American Life” and voice of shy teen superhero Violet in “The Incredibles” franchise, Vowell is an avowed atheist, but she admits that she does worship at the altar of what she considers her personal religion — the US Constitution. After 9/11, Vowell recalls seething whenever then-President George W. Bush would say that his most important job was protecting the American people. “I would always just yell at my newspaper or TV, ‘No! Your most important job is to protect the Constitution,’ ” recalls Vowell, over the phone from her home in Montana, speaking in that warm and familiar drawl that makes her sound like a schoolmarm with a stuffy nose.
Lincoln’s devotion to the Constitution is why Vowell continues to revere him. She points to a speech Lincoln gave as a 28-year-old attorney in his hometown of Springfield, Ill., in which he suggested the gravest threats to the republic would not come from a foreign invader, but from Americans who do not abide by the Constitution.
“The thing that’s inspired his question were these acts of mob justice that had been going on at that time — specifically an abolitionist newspaper editor had been murdered by a pro-slavery mob, and they had thrown his printing press into the river,” she says. “Then he talks about how throwing printing presses in the river is a symptom of how the appreciation for constitutional norms seem to be eroding in his time and that the Constitution is the thing that binds us together. So we have to be vigilant about sticking to it and following the law.
“He even says that one of the dangers is that some man can rise up among us, some ambitious person who just wants power and fame, and doesn’t care about justice and doesn’t care about our laws. He only cares about his own glory,” says Vowell, whose 2005 book, “Assassination Vacation,” chronicles her and her twin sister’s road-trip to tourist sites devoted to the murders of presidents Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.
Kushner, whose landmark early ’90s play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” returns to Broadway next month, points out that Lincoln guided the country through “the first moment since the Revolution when the whole idea of democracy was in peril.” Kushner believes the nation is now facing another moment of extreme peril. “There are ways in which the threats are dissimilar, but there are other ways in which the threats speak to one another and have certain places of consonance,” he says in a phone interview from New York.
Kushner and Vowell did a similar event at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in November 2016, just after the presidential election. “We both just showed up and talked, and that was fine. But I ran into Sarah a few months ago and said, ‘I think we maybe should prepare something because I’ve become kind of a Tourette syndrome case. All I can do is froth at the mouth about Donald Trump, and I don’t think that’s what people will really need or want right now. So maybe we should try and organize ourselves.’ ”
They plan to discuss Lincoln’s centrism, what Kushner calls “the mid-19th-century Republican-Whig notion about the positive role of government, of government playing a role in helping to create a better-functioning society.” Vowell hopes to talk about Lincoln’s “side projects” — including 1862 signings of the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the one that means the most to her personally, the Morrill Land-Grant Act (which established land-grant colleges). As a graduate of Montana State University, “I’m one of the inheritors of his legacy,” she says.
Kushner’s always loved Lincoln’s annual address to Congress from 1862 and the famous passage that starts, “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history . . .”
“I’ve been muttering that a lot to myself lately,” he says. “He says over and over in that address: The world is watching. ‘We here hold the power and bear the responsibility.’ There’s a sense he’s trying to scare the [expletive] out of Congress and let them know, ‘We’re going to be remembered as either heroes or as ignominious failures forever.’ I think that should both excite and terrify everybody alive today, because we’re at a moment, a crossroads that’s not dissimilar from the mid-century crisis that determined whether or not democracy was a viable idea.”
Indeed, Kushner believes it’s an apt time to revisit “Angels in America,” considering the polarized electorate, many of whom are angry about the rapid social changes that have taken place in American life in recent decades. Rehearsals for the play’s 25th anniversary Broadway revival, directed by Marianne Elliott, started last week. Many of the same cast members from last summer’s production at Britain’s National Theatre will be on hand for this go-round, including Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane.
Kushner points to a recent ad for “Angels,” which quoted President Trump’s angry “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” tirade to White House officials last year in criticizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Below that headline was the word “Here” running above a photo of Nathan Lane, who plays the infamous Cohn in “Angels.” Cohn was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s point man during the communist witch hunts of the 1950s and later became Trump’s mentor, adviser, and lawyer.
“So Roy has come back into the news in a way that I hadn’t been anticipating,” he says. “There are always things that I know are going to chime in a certain way whenever there’s a Republican administration. But it hadn’t even really occurred to me until we were in rehearsal in London how much of the play seems to be really relevant at the current moment.”
‘He says . . . : The world is watching. “We here hold the power and bear the responsibil-ity.” ’
While Vowell says she’s happy to talk about her reverence for Lincoln and constitutional checks and balances, she jokes that as a “rock ’n’ roller” in her youth, “I don’t like being put in the position of speaking up for institutions and the establishment. When I was a young journalist, sometimes I would get irate with the mainstream media because it just seemed so lifeless and flat to me. Something like objectivity seemed inhuman sometimes. I wanted emotion! I wanted viewpoint. I wanted individuality. Now it’s all opinion and emotion.”
Today, she says she finds herself grateful for experienced, sober-minded journalists, wryly citing veteran NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell as an example. “Now I just cling to people like that. But I’d rather be in the position of thinking there were too many stiffs. It was way more fun to be a young punk who just wanted everything to shake up.”
The Lincoln Legacy
With Tony Kushner and Sarah Vowell. Moderated by John Stauffer. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets $30, 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.orgChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.