Heroes come and go in a nation as large and diverse as the USofA. The ones that stand out are the ones that keep coming back to us in times of trouble, re-evaluated and reclaimed for a new generation. None of our heroes has the ability to comfort us in difficult times like Abraham Lincoln, and his resurgence recently is a wonderful mirror through which we can see where we stand with a strong clarity and resolve. As great as he was, his presence as a myth is even more powerful than the man himself.
Last year was the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and next year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. That’s fuel enough for revisiting this towering figure from our past. Yet there is much more to Lincoln and our interest in him today because he is still very relevant in many ways.
It goes without saying that President Obama has often cited Lincoln as a role model. More than the ability to be firm in his principles and yet committed to our unity as the strength that preserves our freedom, Obama has always used the methods Lincoln employed as his own tools of leadership. It starts with the power of words, certainly, but extends into a willingness to have a “Team of Rivals” in his cabinet – strong personalities who may not be perfectly loyal to the President but who are unwavering in their determination to do what is best for the nation.
This is the Lincoln that is one level deeper than the marble figure who still watches over us. The man, and how his enduring myth was created, are even deeper still. I believe that Obama knows this well.
Two new works have renewed the Great Emancipator for the 21st Century in ways that are worth discussing. The first is Henry Louis Gates’ epic “Looking for Lincoln,” a PBS special that tries to uncover the man himself. Ultimately Lincoln remains enigmatic, as always, but Gates discovers some remarkable emotions both in himself and in our culture about this mythological figure. It’s hard to reconcile statements we regard today as racist with the Great Emancipator, but yet it is hard to imagine anything else from 150 years ago. Lincoln’s obvious struggles with Depression are discussed at length but left apart from the great resolve that carried him through the Civil War.
What we are left with is a man who ultimately could stand outside of his own body and his own time like few others can. Whether or not Obama can achieve this feat is something we will simply have to see.
Another work that I have to recommend is “Mr. Lincoln’s High-Tech War”, written for an 8th grade audience by Thomas B. Allen and published by National Geographic. This enlivens Lincoln for a new generation of kids who are immersed in a belief in technology. It depicts Lincoln as not only a master political strategist, but also as someone immersed in the details of his struggle. Lincoln is extremely hands-on in searching for new ways to get out of old problems, pushing hard for observation balloons with telegraph connections, ironclad ships, and the breech-loading Spencer carbine. The book includes a picture of the target board when Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton first took the Spencer rifle out into the field to give it their blessing.
This may be a kids’ book, but it both renews the legend of Lincoln and gives his enigmatic personality the additional face of troubleshooter-in-chief. It’s a role that we can see Obama dearly loves, too, as his rhetoric sparkles with calls for new solutions to the old problems that have plagued us for a long time. When we look back through our history we always wind up looking forward again, savoring the legacy of a nation built on a belief in progress and the skill of a frontier people.
Why is Lincoln enjoying such a resurgence? The round-number anniversaries do not begin to describe how we need Lincoln, even today. We will remain fascinated by him for as long as we need him, and today we need a figure like him almost as much as he was needed the first time around. That’s the true power of both the man and the myth, both of which belong to all of us.