- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fascination with the life and times of Abraham Lincoln is not new: Only Jesus Christ, after all, has had more books published about him.

But in an angst-ridden era of terrorism, war and financial meltdown, the country has taken to the 16th president - born 200 years ago Thursday - like a depressive to a pint of ice cream.

“There’s always been a peculiar fascination with Lincoln, not only by Americans but throughout the world,” said Harry V. Jaffa, a Lincoln scholar whose acclaimed 1959 book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates is still in print. “He would have been amazed.”

Mr. Jaffa cites Lincoln’s affability, accessibility and eloquence as sources of the abiding interest. “He is the kind of person you could sit down with and talk to; he was always yarning,” he said.

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Jay Winik, the best-selling presidential historian and author of “April 1865: The Month That Saved America,” said Lincoln’s legacy has been towering higher because Americans instinctively know where to turn in a pinch.

“The fact is, Lincoln remains one of two of our greatest presidents,” Mr. Winik said (George Washington being the other indispensable chief executive). “There’s no better president than Lincoln to look at as a model of leadership in crisis.”

Lincoln has survived reams of historical revisionism painting him as a presidential-power-aggrandizing, habeus-corpus-suspending tyrant, a bigot and even a closeted homosexual.

Yet the man has proved he can take it on the reputational chin.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian and author of the astonishingly successful “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (which director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner are adapting into a feature film), said Lincoln’s “reputation has always been pretty solid, despite all these arrows being thrown in.”

“There are legitimate criticisms that can be made of Lincoln,” said Mr. Winik, “but there’s no need to whitewash his record: Even with these not insignificant blemishes, he still shines as a remarkable president and leader.”

Now Lincoln is being celebrated anew with scores of books, documentaries, lectures, conferences, exhibitions - you name it - in the bicentennial year of his birth.

The symbolism of the anniversary began noticeably with the inauguration of Barack Obama and his Lincolnesque assembly of a “team of rivals” administration - including vanquished opponents Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Hillary Rodham Clinton as vice president and secretary of state.

Not to be outshone, Michael S. Steele, the first black chairman of the Republican National Committee, has laid claim to the 16th president’s legacy, calling his win “just one more bold step the party of Lincoln has taken since its founding.”

“The timing has been electric,” Mrs. Goodwin said of the confluence of politics and history.

The Lincoln bicentennial promises many more tributes in 2009, beginning this week with newly designed postage stamps and minted pennies representing the different phases of the president’s life.

In Washington, celebrations are in full swing at restored historic sites that Lincoln frequented during his presidency.

After an 18-month renovation, Ford’s Theatre has reopened with a newly commissioned play, “The Heavens are Hung in Black,” dramatizing five crucial months in Lincoln’s life during 1862.

Lincoln spent part of that summer drafting the Emancipation Proclamation in a Victorian cottage on the grounds of the present-day Armed Forces Retirement Home. Reopened last year, the house is open for tours, starting in the adjacent visitor center, where the exhibition “My Abraham Lincoln” opens Thursday. On display are a variety of artifacts from private collections, including a set of 1923 Lincoln logs.

For those wanting to learn more about the 16th president, a good place to start is “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life” at the National Museum of American History. Small but revelatory, the retrospective, which continues until 2011, summarizes Lincoln’s career through a trail of possessions.

It begins and ends with the stovepipe hat worn by the president on the night he was killed at Ford’s Theatre. The now frayed top hat, delivered by government officials to the museum in 1867, led to an entire Lincoln collection at the Smithsonian. About 60 of these objects, from the president’s black suit to the prison hoods worn by the assassination conspirators, are brought together for the first time in this exhibition.

Curator Harry Rubenstein uses these touchstones to explain the trajectory of Lincoln’s life, from rail-splitter to national martyr, while providing evidence of his sophisticated tastes. A gold watch, crystal inkwell and silver service testify to a more refined Lincoln than “the ape baboon of the prairie” as he was once caricatured.

A deeper view of his intellectual life is presented at the Library of Congress through May 9. “With Malice Toward None” is a document-rich exhibition focused on Lincoln as a writer, editor and thinker. Its display of more than 200 treasures starts with the autobiographical phrase “he will be good but god knows When” scribbled in a boyhood notebook and concludes with a condolence letter from Queen Victoria after the president’s death.

Among the artifacts is the small, velvet-covered Bible on which Lincoln (and Mr. Obama) took the oath of office, as well as the belongings found in the pockets of the president on the night he was assassinated.

While his major addresses are on display at the Library of Congress, not all the documents here are weighty. Letters exchanged between Lincoln and 11-year-old Grace Bedell during the 1860 presidential campaign debate the benefits of growing a beard. Sold on the whiskered look, the candidate put away his razor.

Later correspondence and speeches, some with pasted-in printed texts, provide a rare glimpse into Lincoln’s curious mind as he grapples with compromises on slavery, failed military leadership in the Union army and his own insecurities about being re-elected.

Every word mattered to him. In preparing his first inaugural address, he rewrites the florid prose suggested by Secretary of State William Seward so “the guardian angel of the nation” becomes “the better angels of our nature” in an appeal for national unity.

Lincoln possessed “the genius of Shakespeare,” said Mr. Jaffa, citing his powerfully uplifting speeches such as the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln was the first president whose entire political career was captured in photography. All the bicentennial exhibits are plastered with his homely mug, but a one-room show at the National Portrait Gallery best celebrates the images taken of him through a range of techniques and sizes.

“The Mask of Lincoln,” on view through July 5, combines photographic portraits with inauguration scenes and plaster life casts of his face.

One haunting likeness is Alexander Gardner’s cracked-plate photo taken in 1865. In this sepia-toned image, Lincoln appears careworn but manages a faint smile. Most of the picture is out of focus, and only the president’s left eye and lower face remain sharp.

Despite the photographic accuracy, Lincoln remains elusive. He seems destined to remain the most mythic of presidents, as underscored by a tiny bicentennial exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.

“Designing the Lincoln Memorial,” on view for a year, reminds us how the Great Emancipator has come to be canonized and remembered. The exhibit simply features a model of architect Henry Bacon’s Greek temple and a maquette of sculptor Daniel Chester French’s enthroned presidential statue, which sits inside the building.

Together, they create a powerful monument to the 16th president in symbolizing his nobility as a healer of our nation’s wounds.

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