The cult of LINCOLN

ElectionsPoliticsBarack ObamaArts and CultureSocial IssuesSteven SpielbergThe Wall Street Journal

In a city where you can cruise down Lincoln Avenue for a bite at the Lincoln Restaurant (paying the check with currency featuring a picture of you know who), then go shopping in Lincoln Park before meeting a friend in Lincoln Square, it's impossible for Chicagoans to avoid being reminded of our 16th president on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

But why would we want to avoid it? This is, after all, the city where Abraham Lincoln gave some of his most impassioned speeches, where he was nominated for president in 1860 and where, five years later, his body lay in state and was viewed by 125,000 people. (His deathbed is on display at the Chicago History Museum as part of the "Lincoln's Chicago" exhibit.) Not that we have him to ourselves. Lincoln belongs, as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is reported to have intoned as he stood beside that famous bed, to the ages.

That's why, unlike that of most iconic modern-day figures, who tend to fade reluctantly from the limelight despite increasingly desperate efforts to stay there, Lincoln's ubiquity in contemporary life seems to grow every year. He's been a favorite in Hollywood for decades, showing up in hundreds of films and TV shows, from 1939's "Young Mr. Lincoln," starring Henry Fonda, to 1990's "The Civil War," featuring Sam Waterston. (Raymond Massey, Gregory Peck and Hal Holbrook are among the luminaries who've also taken a crack at Old Abe.)

Less reverently, Lincoln has been co-opted in everything from "The Muppet Show"and "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" to an episode of MTV'swacky Claymation series "Celebrity Deathmatch," in which the lanky rail-splitter squared off against another president who was handy with an axe, George Washington. Lincoln has also appeared in comic books ("Superman: A Nation Divided," in which the Man of Steel fights on the Union side) and in more than two dozen video games.

And 2012 is already a banner year, if not a jump-the-shark moment, in Lincolniana. First we were treated to the low-budget spectacle of "Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies," in which the president takes time out from writing the Gettysburg Address to deal with some unpleasantly reanimated human flesh, followed by"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,"the $70 million adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith's 2010 novel featuring the Man from Illinois battling a different species of undead. (His axe is handier than ever.) This month sees the publication of Stephen L. Carter's alt-history thriller "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln," in which the president survives the attack at Ford's Theatre in 1865 only to face a trial in the U.S. Senate, two years later, for alleged offenses during the Civil War.

The Lincoln wave may crest in December with Steven Spielberg's long-awaited "Lincoln," based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin best-seller "Team of Rivals" and starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role. If you don't smell an Oscar, you probably have a cold.

Why is Lincoln so hot right now, as opposed to, say, Washington or Franklin Roosevelt, for decades his closest rivals in national polls of historians for the title of America's greatest president? The timing that produced the current concentration of Lincoln-related cultural phenomena is largely accidental; we can safely assume, for example, that the makers of the low-budget zombie flick didn't clear their release schedule with Spielberg, who has been in agonizingly slow production on his own film for nearly a decade. (Liam Neeson was originally set to play the title role — that voice and that elongated face would have been perfect for the part — but pulled out.) Carter, a law professor at Yale University and a Lincoln buff since childhood, recently told me that he'd wanted to write this particular novel for nearly 20 years before buckling down about three years ago and finally getting it done.

And yet there's an undeniable sense of karmic convergence, of rightness, even of inevitability, in the present clump of Lincoln projects. Something about the historical moment we're living through is causing us to turn our thoughts his way, making him feel more present, if still spectral, among us, his ghost taking long-legged strides through our dreams.

For this, probably, we mostly have to thank (or maybe blame) Barack Obama, who began his presidential campaign in Springfield, where Lincoln lived and worked most of his life. The link between the two presidents is both politically expedient and intuitively apt. Like Lincoln, Obama is a tall, slender man with a gift for soaring oratory (though Lincoln's speaking voice, of which no recordings exist, was probably higher, thinner and less elegant in life than in our collective imagination). Both are known as tough campaigners, hands-on commanders-in-chief and political centrists whose instinct for moderation leaves them beset by critics from the left and the right.

And at some quiet yet powerfully resonant level, Obama, our first black president, is the symbolic fruition of Lincoln's commitment, at the cost of more than 600,000 American lives, to reunify a nation ripped apart by the issue of slavery. Without Lincoln, it's possible to argue, there would be no Obama presidency. And so with every public appearance, Obama reminds us, subliminally at least, of Lincoln.

Perhaps that's why, not long ago, I was drawn to Springfield, where I undertook a sort of Lincoln pilgrimage, visiting sites associated with the president, including his home, his law offices and the old state capitol where he served as a legislator in the 1830s and later gave his famous "A House Divided" speech as the launch of his unsuccessful 1858 Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand," he said in a text that, even without the value of hindsight, must have given every listener chills. "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South."

Lincoln knew which outcome he preferred — although he was not entirely free from the prevailing racial prejudices of his day, he had been vocal in his hatred of slavery for years — and he knew that, sooner or later, that outcome would be achieved. What he didn't know then was how soon it would happen, and at what terrible cost, to the country and himself.

The war's dire toll on Lincoln is clear from two images of him at the Chicago History Museum exhibit. In the first, an oil portrait of a relatively youthful, beardless man — he grew his famous beard specifically for his first inauguration — he appears vital, intense and sharp-eyed, ready to take the reins of government into his own rough hands. In the second, a death mask cast from his face five years later, Lincoln's famously craggy visage has all but caved in on itself, the lines carved like gullies by stress, worry, depression and what we can safely guess to have been the profound sorrow of a president forced to take up arms against his own countrymen. Killing zombies and vampires is easy. Killing real-life human beings was the true heavy lifting, and it wrecked him, inside and out.

Maybe that's why Spielberg has taken so long to make "Lincoln." Its rivers of blood and tears may rival those of"Schindler's List"and"Saving Private Ryan,"but flow even closer to home.

Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance journalist whose work appears regularly in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and elsewhere.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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ElectionsPoliticsBarack ObamaArts and CultureSocial IssuesSteven SpielbergThe Wall Street Journal
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