Type Abraham Lincoln into an Internet search engine these days and you'll be treated to the big-screen story of our president's fictional past as a vampire hunter wielding a silver-tipped ax to slay the bloodsucking hordes. But the real-life, historical Honest Abe used silver-tongued speeches to win most battles, and those skills are just as relevant today as they were in the 19th century, contend authors Dan Van Haften of Batavia and his lifelong friend David Hirsch in their new book, "Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln, and the Structure of Reason."
A Ph.D. electrical engineer with a master's degree in mathematics, Van Haften had time to feed his interest in our 16th president after he retired from a 37-year career at Lucent in 2007. Hirsch, a lawyer in Des Moines, shares that passion for Lincoln. The two man began their friendship as boys in Mrs. Johnson's first-grade class at Plymouth Elementary School in Midland, Mich., and knew they wanted to write a book together about Lincoln someday.
"Initially, we were going to focus strictly on Lincoln's legal career," says Van Haften, 64. "I wanted to see how he made his arguments."
Records of courtroom arguments by Lincoln are sketchy, so Van Haften expanded his research into political speeches and the debates between Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas.
"There are two ways of establishing a proposition. One is by trying to demonstrate it upon reason; and the other is, to show that great men in former times have thought so and so, and thus to pass it by the weight of pure authority," Lincoln said on Sept. 16, 1859. "Now, if Judge Douglas will demonstrate somehow that this is popular sovereignty -- the right of one man to make a slave of another, without any right in that other, or any one else, to object -- demonstrate it as Euclid demonstrated propositions -- there is no objection."
That reference to the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid sparked Van Haften's passion and struck a chord with Hirsch, who always contended that math was an important subject for lawyers to master. The bad news was that the thousands of books about Lincoln didn't talk about the connection between the president and geometry. "The good news is we got to find it out," Hirsch says.
Studying dozens of Lincoln speeches, the pair concluded that the Lincoln was such an effective speaker because he used the six elements of Euclidean structure (Enunciation, Exposition, Specification, Construction, Proof and Conclusion) to create powerful and logical arguments. Just as Euclid published geometric theories to prove that the triangle formed by overlapping circles would be an equilateral triangle, Lincoln used that same construction to prove his points in speeches, they concluded,
They published "Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason" in November 2010. In December 2010, they got the book into the White House library and almost immediately began seeing a change in the speeches of President Barack Obama, Van Haften says.
As a court-watcher waiting for the verdicts in the Rod Blagojevich trial, Van Haften spent his down time demarcating 70 Obama speeches, breaking each into the six elements advanced by Euclid. The result is Hirsch and Van Haften's new book, "Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason," published this month by Savas Beatie, a company specializing in publishing historical titles.
The authors analyze dozens of speeches, pointing out the similarities in a wide range of presidential transcripts, from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to Obama's speech in the wake of the 2011 shootings that killed six people and critically wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. The authors' website (thestructureofreason.com) features transcripts and videos of speeches they say prove their points.
"Whether you agree or disagree with Obama, he offers a logical Euclidean argument," says Van Haften. The author used that same Euclidean speech construction himself in an appeal to the Kane County Board to keep a ban on video poker.
Hirsch says Newt Gingrich told him he had read their first book and was influenced by it.
"We'd like to see everyone use this approach, and then we'd have more intelligent discussions of issues," says Van Haften, who remembers the days when Democrats and Republicans boasted statesmen who persuaded instead of just attacked. "Lincoln had some of the greatest sound bites in history, but he wrote them in Euclidean construction. We need to get back to that."
Of course, given the political climate today, with Mitt Romney and Obama vying for the presidency amid congressional gridlock, that ax-swinging, head-bashing annihilation method favored by the fictional vampire-hunting Lincoln might still have the upper hand.