- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) — The front door opens and Abraham Lincoln appears — tall, lanky, just a bit melancholy. He smiles gently, assesses his visitor for a good five seconds, then draws in a breath and slowly, deliberately, he speaks.

“Did you park at the Holiday Inn?” the 16th president asks.

It seems we have caught the Great Emancipator in his off-hours. His hat this day is not stovepipe but Chicago Cubs. His mole is missing. The TV is tuned to Fox News, and he has a “Bush/Cheney ‘04” sticker pasted up in his study — a loyal Republican still.

Lincoln has been dead 140 years, as of April. But he is walking around, giving speeches, flourishing in the form of Jim Getty, Lincoln impersonator, gentle soul and wise man — wise enough to know that the portrayal of an American demigod is more than just good fun. It’s a living.

“We’re a mom-and-pop operation, and Lincoln is the family business,” Mr. Getty says. And across the land, entrepreneurial Americans of all stripes share his enthusiasm.

Today, Lincoln is an empty vessel for dreamers and schemers, for humorists and educators, trinket salesmen and appliance dealers looking to add a bit of cachet to Presidents Day sales.

The Lincoln obsession is particularly concentrated in Gettysburg, where the economic lifeblood is the story of the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here. Commercial phantoms dot the battlefield and its edges, cashing in on the hunger for yesterday in ways that would perplex a Civil War-era American.

You’ll find the Robert E. Lee House Quality Inn along the Lincoln Highway outside town. Out on Chambersburg Road sits Carpetbraggers, your one-stop shopping Mecca for floor coverings.

And everywhere is the man with the beard — in faithful photograph, in somber silhouette, in exuberant caricature. “He’s an anchor for us in our times of trouble,” Mr. Getty says.

The obsession began early.

“Lincoln collectors became active even as Lincoln lay dying,” according to Stuart Schneider, author of “Collecting Lincoln.”

At the 1893 World’s Fair — a showcase of American mass culture’s beginnings — an exhibit of “Lincolniana” was one of the most popular, Mr. Schneider writes, along with the first Ferris wheel and the debuts of Aunt Jemima’s syrup, diet soda and Pabst Beer (which didn’t have its blue ribbon yet).

The pace quickened. The Lincoln Financial Group secured permission from Mr. Lincoln’s son to use the presidential image. The Lincoln Highway was christened. The Lincoln penny, the $5 bill and the Lincoln Continental appeared.

But these days, things are different.

Want the Abraham Lincoln talking action figure? It’s just $29.99 on Yahoo Shopping. How about the sterling silver Abraham Lincoln Iced Tea Spoon or the Abraham Lincoln Hybrid Improved Tomato Seed? If furniture’s your style, consider the $739.95 “Lincoln rocker” — a replica of the chair the president was sitting in when John Wilkes Booth ended his life with a Derringer slug in the head.

The list goes on: Mister Lincoln Tea. A Lincoln beard ($18 at Internationalwig.com). The Bosley Bobber Abe Lincoln Bobbing Head Doll, with giant head atop tiny body. And the utterly inexplicable Lincoln Women’s High-Heel Pump.

What to make of all this? Lincoln freed the slaves, saved the Union, took a bullet for the team. Can’t we let him rest in peace? Why do we keep trotting him out and repurposing him?

James Twitchell, author of “Adcult USA” and other books on consumerism and commercialism, has a couple answers.

“First, of course, he has a distinctive and definitive face and body shape, which is in some ways very attractive. He’s not like William Howard Taft. He’s not a big tub of lard. He’s this active, angular man,” Mr. Twitchell says. “No. 2, of course, is that he’s a man who all groups can see as their resolver, as their savior.”

Maybe it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. Aren’t we in America, where capitalism reigns? Mr. Lincoln was a robust free-enterprise man, and it’s tempting to picture him stroking his beard in amusement from somewhere beyond the grave.

That’s basically how Mr. Getty sees things.

“I think that he would be the first one to say, ‘Relax and enjoy.’ And I think it opens the door to people knowing about him,” he said.

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