In pop culture, everyone loves Abe

The Baltimore Sun

Abraham Lincoln was born 198 years ago today, but his melancholy visage has perhaps never been as popular. He's the star of television commercials - including one in which a beaver is his co-star - and is the subject of at least eight recent books, with more on the way. A motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Liam Neeson is in the works.

Politicians, too, are getting in on the act. Officials ranging from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who launched his presidential quest Saturday in Springfield, Ill. - where Lincoln honed his political skills and is now entombed - to Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold are invoking the martyred president.

Some of the interest is based on the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth in 2009, as well as new insights into the Civil War president's medical, marital and mental issues. But experts say there's more to the renaissance of Lincolniana - such as a nation weary of war and yearning for trusted leadership.

"So much of what we think of him is happening in our own time," said Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of the recently published Lincoln's Melancholy.

"He met and wrote to widows. He had the courage to acknowledge his responsibilities," Shenk said. "He was open and available in the White House, compared to our increasing fast-food politics."

Shenk's book is one of at least eight mainstream books published since 2002 about Lincoln, including Team of Rivals, a best-selling account of the president's wartime Cabinet by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

In an appearance at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall last month, Goodwin told the audience that Dreamworks principal Spielberg has bought the movie rights for her book and is now developing the script, with Neeson cast as the president.

Goodwin's book tells how Lincoln put aside personal conflicts and campaigns against opponents to bring in the best men to serve in key posts, such as secretary of state and secretary of war, in a time of crisis.

And at least four new major books on Lincoln are in progress, portraying the public man or his private life with the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln - seven decades after the last volume of Carl Sandburg's popular biography was published. Among the noted historians working on Lincoln projects: Michael Beschloss and James McPherson.

Lincoln's prominence in popular and intellectual culture looms large in modern times, said Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

"Lincoln literature in the last five years has seen an infusion from intellectuals who have looked at Lincoln through different prisms," said Holzer, a Lincoln scholar.

"It's not the same old, same old. They are real gifts, with gravitas. And once you're hooked, it's like peeling a gigantic onion that reveals something new," he said.

In Lincoln's Melancholy, Shenk probes the president's psyche, known for a saturnine side contrasted with his penchant for telling uproarious jokes and stories. He also details what the author asserts were Lincoln's two emotional breakdowns and suicidal despair, in his mid-20s and early 30s.

Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation is a first-person journey to sites associated with presidential assassinations - chiefly Lincoln's. Its flip tone turns reverent when she describes seeing the bullet that killed Lincoln.

"The story is never finished. Every round brings new rounds," said Shenk, who is director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College.

For those who are up late, Lincoln is a therapeutic character on a sleep aid commercial. He and his beaver sidekick express regret that they haven't been seen in an insomniac's dreams.

And this month, Newt Gingrich and Mario Cuomo will appear at New York's Cooper Union, where a pre-presidential Lincoln gave a speech that brought him national attention. Gingrich and Cuomo, lions of the right and the left, respectively, will call for more substantive presidential campaigns, Holzer said.

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has not formally announced his quest for the presidency, invoked Lincoln in a speech at a California Republican convention Saturday.

Lincoln had "that ability that a leader has - a leader like George Bush, a leader like Ronald Reagan - to look into the future," Giuliani said, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Obama sought to associate himself with the Great Emancipator by choosing Springfield from which to launch his campaign. Obama, a resident of Chicago, also learned the art of politics in Illinois' statehouse.

Lincoln "had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks," Obama said, according to a copy of his speech posted on his campaign Web site. "But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people."

Holzer said the diversity of the early 2008 presidential field - Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico - is testament to Lincoln. "This is Abraham Lincoln's unfinished work: the milestones of a woman, a black and a Latino running for president," Holzer said.

Leopold, the newly elected Anne Arundel County executive who keeps a framed Matthew Brady photograph of his fellow Republican on a wall next to his desk, said Americans gravitate toward Lincoln for inspiration in troubled times.

"Problems seem intractable, like war, corruption, cynicism and the influence of money in politics," he said.

But, Leopold said, such problems can be overcome by the sort of shrewd pragmatism Lincoln brought to his politics.

His military mettle remains so respected that Army Col. Kenneth O. McCreedy, installation commander at Fort Meade, keeps a 1864 Lincoln image as his screen saver.

"Lincoln resonates on so many levels, and in so many ways he's our most human president," said the colonel, who holds a doctorate in American history. "He had an uncanny ability to read people, with common sense and sophistication."

The bicentennial is scheduled to begin next year near Lincoln's Kentucky birthplace. Scholars predict even more attention will be paid to the 16th president, especially as the 2008 presidential election campaign gets under way. In Springfield, a large presidential museum and library complex was dedicated in 2005 in preparation for a yearlong 2009 celebration.

At the Library of Congress, the most popular items in the American Treasures exhibit are the fragile contents of Lincoln's pockets - including spectacles and a Confederate bill - the April night he was assassinated, said Cheryl Regan, an exhibit director at the library. Visitors are often moved to tears by the personal effects, she said.

The library, adjacent to the Capitol, is planning a special exhibition of Lincoln papers and manuscripts that is scheduled to open in February 2009.

The Iraq war comes up often when Lincoln experts such as Holzer and Goodwin take questions in public forums, Holzer said. He received so many questions about the war that he wrote an essay last year titled "What Lincoln would do in Iraq."

He argued that Lincoln would advise the current president to spend more time at the front with troops, communicate more precisely about the war's aims and fire appointed aides who fail in their missions - as Lincoln famously did with his battlefield commanders.

Goodwin, too, fielded questions on the war during her appearance in Baltimore.

Local radio host Marc Steiner, who moderated Goodwin's talk, said he wasn't surprised by the interest in the war among attendees at a Lincoln lecture.

"There is a huge yearning for that kind of leadership because he governed at the most divisive time," Steiner said.

jamie.stiehm@baltsun.com

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