When Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the 44th U.S.
President, he laid his hand on the same bible used by Abraham Lincoln
when he took the same oath nearly 150 years ago.
From the day he
declared his candidacy in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois,
Obama has sought to evoke the 16th president. When he won the election,
he echoed words from Lincoln's second inauguration address, saying
"... government of the people, by the people and for the people has not
perished from the Earth."
There is a reason Obama chose to tie
himself to Lincoln, and not just because this is the bicentennial of
Lincoln's birth, according to political historian Harry Rubenstein. "We
think of Abraham Lincoln and we think of the American dream as sort of
tied together," says the curator of Abraham Lincoln: an Extraordinary
Life at the National Museum of American History, one of several
exhibits that have been organized this year in honor of the 16th
Making the myth more human
Lincoln's life is the
stuff of myths, and is well-known by all Americans: born on February
12, 1809 in a log cabin to a poor farmer, self-educated, he practices
law, then turns to politics and is elected president. He leads the
nation during the Civil War - the country's greatest crisis, preserving
the Union and ending slavery. He is assassinated while attending the
"I think it is his personal story as much as his
achievements that have this appeal for Americans and people around the
world." Rubenstein says Lincoln will be remembered as one of the great
U.S. presidents because he was "a pragmatist with strong ideals. I
think Lincoln casts a big shadow over anyone who holds that office."
National Museum of American History exhibit features objects drawn from
Lincoln's life: an iron wedge he used to split logs, etched by a young
Lincoln with his initials; the inkwell he used to sign the Emancipation
Proclamation; his black broadcloth suit and gold pocket watch; a cup he
drank from and the hat he wore the night he was murdered.
The idea is to make the mythic Lincoln more human.
First media president
David Ward says that's a challenge. He says Lincoln has had more
biographies written about him than anyone, with the exception of
Napoleon Bonaparte. "I think this ceaseless stream of books about
Lincoln indicates that not only do we want to know about him, but
somehow we've really never gotten a handle on him."
curator of One Life: The Mask of Lincoln at the National Portrait
Gallery. The exhibit includes two life masks of Lincoln that show how
the office aged him, but the majority of the portraits are
photographs. Ward calls Lincoln "the first media president."
time Lincoln gave a major address, he had his photograph taken," Ward
says. I think what he is doing there, quite consciously, is projecting
an image [to the public] of the kind of man and the kind of leader that
he intended to be."
One of the most haunting images of Lincoln
was taken in February 1865. The photographer discarded the cracked
glass negative after creating a single print. The crack runs right
through Lincoln's head, which seems to foreshadow the path of the
bullet that would take his life in less than two months.
Ward says, even without the crack, this Lincoln portrait sums up his notion that Lincoln is always mysterious.
is tortured, he is tired, he is exhausted. He had said he wasn't sure
he would survive a second term. Yet there is a small 'Mona Lisa'-like
smile on his face."
While it is impossible to know what Lincoln
is thinking, Ward suspects he may have been reflecting on his
accomplishments. "Lincoln knows he has fulfilled his mission to save
the union, to defeat the South and free the slaves, and to give rights
to the African Americans."
And what would Lincoln think of
Barack Obama in the White House? "I think the fact that a person of
color is now president would hearten Lincoln immensely," Ward says.