- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

When the young circuit lawyer Abraham Lincoln crawled into bed next to his best pal Joshua Speed, he couldn’t have known what kind of speculation such sleeping habits, unremarkable in the era before Holiday Inn, would lead to.

The possibility, however remote, that Lincoln was homosexual was a brief rage last year thanks to C.A. Tripp’s posthumous book “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln.”

It’s under the lights again in “Lincoln,” an intriguing if somewhat excitable documentary that airs Monday night at 8 on the History Channel.

While not overly concerned with Lincoln’s sexuality, “Lincoln” is consumed by suppositions about the Civil War president’s inner life — his bouts of depression and shyness toward women, his unhappy marriage and seemingly mystical foreknowledge of premature death.

A daytime-TV kind of Lincoln, in other words.

Michael Lind, who last year published the provocative “What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America’s Greatest President,” says Lincoln has long been putty in the hands of various political factions, co-opted by communist sympathizers, civil rights activists and conservative intellectuals alike.

Now it appears he’s being molded to suit the needs of modern soap-opera culture.

“If I were to write the book today, I would add the Therapeutic Lincoln,” he says. “In the age of the baby boomers, it’s Lincoln in therapy that seems to be the most appealing.”

Frank Williams, the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and the founding chairman of the Lincoln Forum, a group that meets annually in Gettysburg to discuss all manner of Lincolniana, is compiling an annotated Lincoln bibliography. The literature is astonishingly vast.

“The only person who’s been written about more than Lincoln is Jesus,” Mr. Williams says. “I’ve identified 16,000 books, pamphlets and articles about Lincoln.”

Floating in this sea of ink is the risk that, rather like Jesus, Lincoln will become a bendable, personally customizable icon — all things to all people, in a phrase.

The late Mr. Tripp, as many critics noted at the time, was homosexual, and an aide to controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. This at least implied an internal bias that drove the conclusions of his research, they said.

Similarly, perhaps, Joshua Wolf Shenk discussed his own struggle with depression in his book “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” which was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Several prominent Lincoln historians don’t seem dismayed by this trend.

“Each generation has to find the Lincoln with which it’s comfortable,” says Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the federally appointed group that is planning national observances of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth for 2009.

Historians who put a personal stamp on their studies of Lincoln expand the range of people who can be inspired by the 16th president, according to Mr. Holzer.

“C.A. Tripp was not ‘outing’ Lincoln in a malicious way,” he says. “He was saying that Lincoln’s extraordinary gifts of mercy and tenderness and his poetic nature might be explained by the fact that he was gay. And if Lincoln, through Joshua Shenk, is giving people who are chronically depressed more than a glimmer of hope … that’s terrific.”

Jay Winik, historian and best-selling author of “April 1865: The Month that Saved America,” says, “I think it’s healthy and good to have fresh ideas coming to the fore. As titanic a personality as Abraham Lincoln demands a free marketplace of ideas. Let history sort it out.”

Indeed, it’s the monumentality of Lincoln, together with his enigmatic personality, that seems to attract an endlessly proliferating historiography.

Historians including Mr. Lind and Yale University’s Bruce Ackerman have credited Lincoln with ushering in what was essentially a second American republic — a newly constituted country that transcended some of the flaws of the original founding.

The stage for such renovation was set at the outset of Lincoln’s public life. In the 1830s, the experiment-soaked drama of the early republic had slackened. The Founders had all died, and with them their epochal intellectual ardor. Yet at the same time America was expanding geographically; it was facing, belatedly, a moral crisis — slavery.

As is now well known, Lincoln’s thinking on slavery was somewhere south of progressive. But, as Mr. Winik and others argue, Lincoln hated the “peculiar institution,” felt in his gut that it was wrong, but his concern for the perpetuation of the Union trumped such personal aversion.

None of this is likely to satisfy Lincoln critics who see all those potholes on the road from backwoods autodidact to Springfield lawyer to Great Emancipator, and find him wanting even in comparison to contemporaries, let alone us moderns.

But the full, intimately personal picture of Lincoln that is emerging of late is arguably a healthy development. “One sign that our portrait of Lincoln is getting closer to the life he lived is that it is getting more complex and surprising and multifaceted,” says Mr. Shenk, the “Lincoln’s Melancholy” author. “I tried to look at Lincoln the way those around him looked at him, and the way he saw himself,” he continues. “That’s the most satisfying kind of history.”

In the long run, the new human-scale Lincoln may even end up — a little counterintuitively — confirmed again as the historical giant we were always taught he was.

Says Mr. Winik: “To appreciate the genius of Lincoln and the enormity of what he accomplished, it’s crucial to appreciate all his problems, weaknesses, foibles and mistakes as well. In doing so, he looms even larger.”

The legendary Hollywood director Preston Sturges once wrote, “Of all things in nature, great men alone reverse the law of perspective and grow smaller as one approaches them.”

In the case of Lincoln, it would seem, Mr. Sturges was wrong.

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