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Lincoln Inspires 200 Years After His Birth

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 president.

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 theater.

"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."

The 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

Historian 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."

Ward is 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."

"Every 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.

"He 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.