Deciding how best to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln is no small matter. Even though the official observances will not take place until 2009, a national commission and advisory committee already are in place to direct the celebration, which will include a joint session of Congress, issuance of a special bicentennial penny and postage stamp and a ceremonial rededication of the Lincoln Memorial, plus many public events and educational programs to recognize the life and legacy of one of America’s most illustrious presidents.
“We want to find those who share our passion and do this great man proud,” Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission ExecutiveDirector Michael Bishop said Monday night as he welcomed 100 or so heavyweight historians, Lincoln experts and assorted politicos to a Library of Congress dinner after a day of advance planning sessions in which needless to say numerous opinions were aired.
“When I was in high school, we learned that Lincoln fought the Civil War, freed the slaves and saved the Union,” history professor Paul Gleason said, going on to stress that there was much more to the man than that. Mr. Gleason, who teaches at Lincoln College in Lincoln, Ill., would like to emphasize the “keys to his greatness.” How, for example, “was he able to succeed with very little education … and overcome so many personal tragedies?”
The “public issues that animated Lincoln’s time are still central to our time,” noted James O. Horton, George Washington University professor of American Studies. “We are still working to bring America to where our sacred documents say it ought to be, and his memory urges us to deal with issues of race, citizenship and freedom.” Mr. Horton cited the importance of promoting civics in the schools and through the mass media.
Between discourse and dinner came a major treat when actor Sam Waterston helped bring alive the 16th president with a bravura performance of readings from Lincoln’s greatest written works, including two inaugural addresses, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.
Given the current threat of terrorism and violent conflict in the world, it wasn’t surprising that Lincoln’s pronouncements against the Mexican War during his sole congressional term (1847-49) had a particularly sobering effect on the crowd gathered in the Coolidge Auditorium.
“Let [President James K. Polk] answer with facts not arguments. Let him remember that he sits where Washington sat,” Mr. Waterston intoned as one of a series of period daguerreotypes of the usually grim, melancholy Lincoln was projected overhead. As for “military glory,” he continued, it is but “a rainbow that rises over blood; a serpent’s eye that charms to destroy.”
If the audience was spellbound, the actor was as well. After multiple acclaimed portrayals of Lincoln on stage and screen (“Gore Vidal’s Lincoln,” Robert Sherwood’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”), Mr. Waterston seems destined to continue a role that may be without peer in his distinguished career.
“I defy anybody not to become an addict after being in contact with him that much,” the actor said, looking just as lost in thought as the Great Emancipator himself was as he pondered his own fate and that of the nation.