In 1979, it was announced Gore Vidal would to write the script for a 6-part television series on the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln and his years inside the White House. Producer Bob Christianson recounted in 1988, "Not many people know this, but Gore first wrote his 'Lincoln' as an 8-hour mini-series. Only when that project fell through (in 1982) did he turn it into a (fact-based work of fiction) novel (in 1984). So, when we made the deal for our show, he was kind of written out on 'Lincoln.'"
The 1988 mini-series, 'Gore Vidal's Lincoln' costed $8 million to produce. The 2-part 4-hour production focused entirely on the Civil War years 1861 to 1865. In 1984, Gore Vidal told the 'Los Angeles Times – Washington Post News Service', "If you don't understand that period, you don't understand anything at all about the United States. This was to us what the Trojan Wars were to the Greeks. It's quite startling to me that we have yet to develop a Homer to tell our national tragedy. We've had nothing but Carl Sandburg, which doesn’t count at all in a literary way."
Sam Waterston played Abe Lincoln and Mary Tyler Moore played Mary Todd Lincoln. Sam told 'Times Daily', "I went to the Library of Congress and also read all the books about Lincoln in my local library. A librarian showed me the actual contents of Lincoln's pockets when he died. They included Confederate money and a letter from a Confederate soldier. That told me a lot about Lincoln and his humanity."
Shot on location "almost entirely in Richmond", Sam told the 'Associated Press', "We were filming a scene and we couldn’t find the place on the map. The only person who knew the route was a private. They were just an enormous resource in helping the rest of us, who were just pretending, to feel authentic. I remember riding down a street and there were small groups of Union soldiers along the way. They came to attention as I passed. They did it according to Civil War drill. They were immensely supportive of the rest of us. They saved us more than once when we needed information, like with (General Robert E.) Lee's route (into Pennsylvania)."
Director Lamont Johnson believed, "What we have here, is as respectable a piece of history as any novel can ever be - in some cases as history itself ever is. After all, history is only truth in the eyes of the historian writing it. Going all the way back to Herodotus, history is different views of different events."
Gore Vidal maintained, "My Lincoln is an extraordinary figure. He's like nothing else in American history. In fact, he’s probably the sole great man in our political life. I thought he was really inventing the Republic by prosecuting the Civil War. What we are today (in 1984), which is a highly centralized modern nation, was a creation of Lincoln. He was a masterful politician. You never knew where you were with him."
Sam told 'TV Data', "(The 1984 book) looks at this whole period in history from the point of view of the White House. So it begins from the domestic point of view. The result of that is that Lincoln and Mary Todd are seen from their human aspect. It's a form of honesty to call it a novel as opposed to a biography or a history, because all historical treatments are selective. They step on one pedal as opposed to another in their interpretation of the factual material."
Mary Tyler Moore observed, "This Abraham Lincoln and this Mary Todd Lincoln are both witty people, and you see the humor in this 'Lincoln' far more than in any other that I have ever seen. There hasn’t been that much about Mary Todd put on film or tape, but she was a wickedly acerbic, witty woman."
Sam also pointed out, "There was no undercutting or exploitation in this production. We didn’t just throw in excess sex or anything like that. Sometimes in a good production they throw in junk in case people don't want the good stuff, but I don't think we did that in this case." Part One attracted a rating of 16.6% (roughly 14.7 million homes in the U.S. with TV sets were counted watching) and a 26 share. Part Two attracted 14.9% of the 88.6 million households and 24 share.
Reporter Kay Mills: "Do we need another Lincoln?"
Gore Vidal: "God forbid. That's saying you need another Churchill or Roosevelt or Stalin. Let's hope not, because no matter what 'nice' men they are, they are thrown up by huge crises of the sort I'd just as soon avoid. I would say that if (in 1984 Ronald) Reagan manages to keep us out of a major war, the thing we have to fear will be a re-enactment of 1929, 1837, 1907, when the whole economic system goes haywire. That's when you start rearranging your institutions."
Gore also made known, "University writers don't like me because I've been telling these English teachers I don't want to read any of your books. I want you to teach English so that we will have readers in the future . . . You folks keep writing these novels, which are only written in order to be taught to young people who will grow up to teach other people to write novels to be taught and it's an endless chain. Their proudest work was a book called 'Letters' by John Barth, which everybody says – including the author – could not be read. I would stop writing if I thought the only reason anyone would read me would be because it was for a course. That's death."
"I always like coming at history from these angles – coming at Christianity from Julian, who was the apostate, and coming at the Founding Fathers from Burr, and '1876' from the point of view of Samuel Tilden, who was cheated out of an election," Gore made the point. "Lincoln's the only one that I just suddenly said, 'This story must stand or fall by coming up at it head-on. As a door, as a gate is about to swing open or shut, they are at the hinge. They're more interesting if they go against the direction of the door, that's the drama. Losers are often right, whatever that is."
Of the 1988 mini-series, Sam told the Associated Press, "It's the Civil War as seen from the White House, which is different from the usual way of looking in from the outside. It shows how Lincoln responded to the pressure of events. I think what's most extraordinary was that he was not perfectly attuned to every situation. But when the chips were down he was up to the occasion. That's what people have found remarkable about him – how could a man of his background find the skills to manage a war on a scale that no one had ever imagined. His law partner once described him as a man who read less and thought more than anyone he had ever known."