Gettysburg, Pa. — He was a man of faint faith, and yet he is remembered as the greatest believer in American history. He was a man of jokes and gags, and yet he harbored more hurt, more sadness, more loss, than any public man of his time or any other. He was an uncertain man, and yet he is remembered for articulating the great certainties in our national life. He was a humble man, and yet he is acclaimed as the greatest American of all time.
Abraham Lincoln was born 198 years ago, which is about the least remarkable thing you can say about the man with the stainless soul who steeled the Union for its struggle for survival, who thought through the difficulties of emancipation and reconciliation, even if the former made the latter more difficult, and who spoke of bonds of affection, mystic chords of memory and the greater angels of our nature - three of the most evocative phrases in American history, all the more astonishing when you consider that they appeared in one luminous paragraph.
Lincoln was born in Kentucky in 1809, and the pressures of the decimal system and the calendar are conspiring to make the 200th anniversary of his birth, a little more than two years from now, a very big deal. Already Congress, where Lincoln served a single term, has jumped in and created the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. So far, the group hasn't come up with much, but it hasn't spent much either, so, in bicentennials as in basketball, no harm, no foul.
There will be a commemorative dollar coin, which, if the John F. Kennedy half-dollar and the Susan B. Anthony dollar coins are any indication, will have no more impact on society than the real Lincoln coin, the penny, has on your family's disposable income. There's also going to be an international conference, but then again GATT was an international conference, and for all its worthy achievements do you know a soul who can describe what it is? Thought not.
Which is not to say that there won't be a lot to celebrate in 2009. Lincoln - born poor and rural, fired with idealism, haunted by a sense of justice, blessed with pragmatism, burdened by contradiction, obsessed with mission - is the nation made flesh.
His optimism was plagued by doubt. He lived his life to the rhythm of the rivers and fields but he spoke with the rhythm of the King James Bible. He saved the Union but lost his life in its service.
"Lincoln embodies in a hundred ways what we want to be, what we hope to be, and all too often what we are," says Richard Norton Smith, the founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. "He is the greatest politician who ever occupied the White House, but that is not why we remember him. We remember him because he transcended politics. Lincoln's ability to outgrow the racist culture that produced him is one reason why he still speaks to us and one reason we can hope we can be better than we have been."
True enough. But for all that, something tells me this bicentennial is going to be a dud.
This is not a civic culture that celebrates anniversaries the way we used to, with Worlds Fairs such as the ones in Philadelphia in 1876 (the nation's centennial), in Chicago in 1893 (the World's Columbian Exposition), and in St. Louis in 1904 (the Louisiana Purchase centennial). The 500th anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus was a total bust. No big-time leader has stepped forward to raise money and create a Lincoln buzz, the way Lee Iacocca did with the project to renovate and preserve the Statue of Liberty. This celebration is providing nothing to do, and no place to go.
Nothing to do, that is, but to rediscover Lincoln on our own, and no place to go but back to the past for its teachings, moral and historical. We may not repeat history, but we sure can repeat the moral courage we see in historical figures.
"Abraham Lincoln is a man whose great humanity stands up over the years," says Gabor Boritt, the distinguished Gettysburg College historian who arrived in America from another freedom-obsessed nation, Hungary, a half-century ago and now is a member of the bicentennial commission. "I fell in love with Lincoln because he is Mr. America. He has faults, but we cannot exist without Lincoln. This nation might be forward-looking, but it has to stand on solid ground, and Lincoln is that solid ground."
So here is my prescription for how to celebrate Lincoln's 200th anniversary:
Encourage every American to read one book about the Civil War, the pivot point of American history. Encourage every American to look into the eyes of Lincoln in any one of a score of portraits, and to see the faith, courage and charity in those eyes - and to make that the American vision. Encourage every schoolchild to do what generations of their forebears did, which is to memorize the Gettysburg Address, delivered 143 years ago today, and to get right, word for cherished word, the part about resolving that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
And one thing more: Encourage every American adult to read both of Lincoln's inaugural addresses - it will take less than four minutes - and to linger, in this time of war, on the very last paragraph of the second inaugural. You will be stunned at how those addresses live for us today. Look them up and you will see what I mean.