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Essayist Reflects on the Life of Former President Lincoln

On the day celebrating former president Abraham Lincoln's birthday, NewsHour guest essayist Julia Keller reflects on the puzzle of the man and the president.

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  • JULIA KELLER, NewsHour Essayist:

    He waits at the end of every road. Go left, go right, or stand still: Abraham Lincoln is always there, contemplating us with his solemn and slightly quizzical gaze, almost as if he can't quite figure out why we're still so interested in him, all these long years later. It is less of a face, maybe, than a soul worn inside-out.

    Every February, we are reminded of our 16th president by the coming of his birthday, although he never really goes away. His mug and moniker are plastered on pennies, and insurance companies, and cars, and cities, and schools, and football stadiums. He has inspired plays, and poems, and movies, and music, such as "The Lonesome Train," the 1942 folk cantada by Earl Robinson about Lincoln's final journey home.

  • EARL ROBINSON, Musician (singing):

    The lonesome train on the lonesome track…


    Home to the Midwest that centered him, and that centers us still. And the Lincoln books, Lord knows, keep on coming, yet somehow, just when you begin to feel a bit of Lincoln overload, something magical happens.

    You read a book such as Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," or David Herbert Donald's "We Are Lincoln Men," and you learn something utterly new. You begin to understand what a Cracker Jack politician he was, what a shrewd shaper of other men's minds.

    Or you come across "Lincoln and Whitman," by Daniel Mark Epstein, and you see not just Lincoln the chief executive, but Lincoln the reader and Lincoln the writer.

    There are lots of theories about why Abraham Lincoln still haunts us so. He had the good bad luck to be president during the tragedy of the Civil War. Had he served in calmer days, some believe, today we might think of Abraham Lincoln the way we think of Millard Fillmore — rarely, that is, and usually with a secret chuckle.

    Others claim it was the assassination, the early violent death. Had Lincoln lived into old age, this theory goes, he'd still be considered a good president, but not a creature of poem and myth, not one of the Fab Four on Mt. Rushmore. Still others point to his humble origins, to the fact that he seems like one of us.

    Well, yes, yes to all of those theories. But no to the notion that, even when they're bundled together like a load of dry kindling, they can solve the Lincoln enigma. Maybe it's not what we know about Lincoln that so enchants us; it's what we don't know.

    He lived long before the age of Google, before People magazine, before CNN, before instant background checks and e-mail alerts. In Lincoln's day, most people barely knew what he looked like, never mind what he preferred for breakfast or what his cholesterol level was during his last physical, especially since nobody knew what cholesterol was then, anyway.

    So we're largely in the dark about so many aspects of his life and his thoughts. And in the space of those silences, we are tempted to fill in our own vivid speculations.

    These days, precious little is left undiscovered about any of us, much less about public figures such as presidents. And what we gain in fact, we lose in mystery.

    When it comes to Lincoln, there is always another road to go down. And he waits at the end of it, having arrived a while before, wondering what's taken us so long to get there.

    I'm Julia Keller.

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