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A Look Inside the Mind of Abraham Lincoln

During Abraham Lincoln’s life, the great leader internally juxtaposed weakness and strength, self-doubt and confidence, and moral superiority with indecisiveness when making decisions to do what was right. According to Dr. Gail Saltz ’84, a renowned psychiatrist in metro New York, these insights into Lincoln’s thought process can help us understand how the challenged president acted and succeeded in the nation’s worst period of unrest.

Saltz, alongside Lehigh faculty expert on American politics Dr. Saladin Ambar, presented the “Psychobiography of Abraham Lincoln” to almost 150 Asa Packer Society members and friends in Manhattan on February 4. Brad Scheler ’74, chairman of Lehigh University’s Board of Trustees, welcomed guests with a campus update, and thanked them for their dedication to the university.

In her new series “Psychobiography,” Saltz has made similar presentations on larger-than-life historical figures, such as Hemingway, Van Gogh, Howard Hughes, and Harry Houdini. Saltz and Ambar led a fascinating exploration of the character traits and decision-making skills of the American visionary. Their informative and entertaining banter included a contextualized look at the events of Lincoln’s life as a child through the Civil War, and psychological factors that contributed to him being a revered president.

“He’s a perfect subject for people who are interested in what makes somebody a great leader,” Saltz said. “We’re a country in search of great leaders, and I think that people will learn something tonight that may surprise them about what makes a superior leader.”

Saltz stated that many people do not know the depth of Lincoln’s depression caused by multiple tragedies of family loss that he suffered as a child and adult. She theorized that Lincoln’s depression made for a creative genius that could see conflict from both sides, a characteristic that many leaders do not have today, and commented that this attitude on life might have attributed to his success in the constitutional, military and moral crisis that was the Civil War.

“You can never go wrong with more insights into Abraham Lincoln,” said Ambar. “He is a giant in our history, so any small insights we can have into who he is, give us a better sense of who we are today.”

Saltz and Ambar discussed how Lincoln was able to cultivate friendships with people who empathized with him, using humor as a defense mechanism. He sought out politics as a lifeline, though it is questionable whether or not Lincoln would survive in politics today.

“I learned that because of the depression that Lincoln was dealing with, it made him more of a realist, it made him more of a  pragmatist, which I think is what we need today,” said Eric Clement ’99, director, Corporate Finance and Strategy, SGI Global Holdings. “We have so many issues that we have to deal with right now, we need leaders that are honest about what the real situation is and can speak to us, the people.”

The event was historically timely, in commemoration with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Attendees were given a quiz comparing Lehigh University’s founder Asa Packer to Lincoln. The results proved that “Asa and Abe” shared many qualities and accomplishments, whether it was starting from a humble beginning and rising to national prominence as a leader, or being elected to and serving for their respective state’s House of Representatives.

Donald Hall, the Herbert J. and Ann L. Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced Saltz and Ambar, and spoke of the cross-disciplinary nature of the presenters’ content as the two experts—one a Lehigh graduate and one who now teaches the next generation of leaders—brought together their knowledge in the fields of psychology, history, and political science.

Saltz, who considers herself an educator in the area of mental health, earned bachelor of arts degrees in biology and psychology at Lehigh before attending medical school at the University of Virginia. It was during her residency in Internal Medicine and Psychiatry at Cornell-Weill School of Medicine and The New York Presbyterian Hospital that she realized she missed “the people component” of medicine, changed her direction to psychiatry, and opened her own practice.

She is a recognized star as a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, columnist, best-selling author and television commentator, regularly appearing on the Today show as a contributor on mental health issues. Through her media exposure on such venues as Oprah, Dateline, 20/20, Bill O’Reilly and Anderson Cooper, Saltz aims to educate the public on mental health issues and reduce the stigma and shame that surround it. Tom Brokaw has called her “a voice of wisdom and insight in a world of confusion and contradictions.”

Ambar is well published, and has been quoted by CNN, the Philadelphia Tribune, and Catholic News Service. He wrote the recently published book How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency, and is currently working on a manuscript on Malcolm X's participation in the 1964 Oxford Union debate.

He earned his bachelor of science degree in foreign service from Georgetown University; a master of arts degree in political science from The New School for Social Research; and a Ph.D. degree in political science from Rutgers University.

Following a question and answer session, Saltz concluded the “Psychobiography” with one key take-away for the audience to remember: “Understanding that [Lincoln’s] mental illness is part of exactly what made him a great leader, not in spite of.”

Kalman Chany ’79, president, Campus Consultants, Inc., said, “As a mental health professional, Dr. Saltz would give a lot of people suffering from that condition hope.”

The Asa Packer Society, established in 1967 to perpetuate the philanthropic tradition of Lehigh's founder, engages and recognizes the university's most committed annual supporters. Membership begins at $1,000. Visit for more information.

Posted on Friday, February 08, 2013
--Samantha Orlan '14