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Lincoln's vulnerabilities keep his appeal strong even today

| Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
The Center for Education and Leadership’s tower of books sculpture includes approximately 6,800 books. The majority of the titles are histories and biographies about Abraham Lincoln. Maxwell MacKenzie
Simon & Schuster
Doris Kearns Goodwin's 'Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.' Simon & Schuster
Library of Congress
Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln Library of Congress

This is all you need to know about Abraham Lincoln: He's the only president who is known both as the Great Emancipator and a vampire hunter.

Just after his 200th birthday, the lanky self-reliant frontiersman who became the country's 16th president, savior and martyr retains his hold on our shared consciousness and national identity. He remains a seemingly inexhaustible subject of scholarly analysis, an American icon and a pop-culture brand.

He's the subject of two films so far this year: the gory and Gothic “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and Steven Spielberg's historical drama “Lincoln,” which stars Daniel Day-Lewis as America's 16th president. It opened last week to glowing reviews.

Spielberg's film is based, in part, on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin. She served as a consultant on the film and conducted Day-Lewis on a tour of Lincoln sites. Goodwin's book has been re-released to coincide with the new movie.

Lincoln's towering achievements — preserving the Union and helping to end slavery — do not put him at an Olympian remove, Goodwin says. He remains eminently vulnerable and relatable by virtue of his early failures, the boyhood death of his mother and the loss of two young sons to illness.

“I think it has to do, in part, with the emotional connection people have with his life story, be it a young kid who also lost a parent when they were young or a kid who failed and saw that Lincoln failed, too,” Goodwin says. “There's something approachable about him.”

Through her research, Goodwin got to know the man behind the Lincoln myth. This is a guy you wouldn't mind having a drink with, she says.

“There's a real pleasure being in his company. Just that combination of the emotional intelligence that he had. You feel it even as a writer 200 years later. Despite all the sadness, despite his face, despite the burdens on the Civil War, there was a lifeforce in him.”

Lincoln is the subject of 15,000 books, published speeches, pamphlets and other writings. Some have been incorporated into a 34-foot-high book sculpture at the Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, a museum in Washington, D.C., that is built on the site of Lincoln's assassination.

Civil War historian Noah Andre Trudeau has set up a website — www.lincoln1865.com — to crowd-source information for a book he is writing about Lincoln's trip to the front lines of the Civil War two weeks before his assassination.

“He was one of those figures at a time of crisis in the nation's history who proved to be the right leader in the right place,” Trudeau says. “Then you add that martyrdom, which propelled him into the area of mythology. There's almost a distant glow around his head, which I think this age won't accept. Certainly, I don't think there's a glow around the character in the Spielberg movie. It shows a flawed man on a noble mission.”

Nationwide, more than 150 men in the Association of Lincoln Presenters dress up as Lincoln and relate his story at schools, libraries and social events. Rick Miller of Cranberry has portrayed Lincoln at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center in the Strip and the Oakmont Historical Society. He also appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

“The reason Abraham Lincoln has had such staying power is that his notions, his understanding of democracy is timeless,” Miller says. “That's one of the reasons. That's one of the reasons we honor him as the best president.

“The beauty of Lincoln is that he was neither liberal nor conservative,” Miller says. “Today, he'd be a very conservative Democrat or a very liberal Republican.”

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