Sunday, February 12, 2017

Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln  was born on this day in 1809, into poverty of a kind we only see in the United States in the immediate aftermath of some kind of disaster. For his family, that was life. We can hardly imagine anyone rising from such humble beginnings to the presidency, partly because our prosperity has erased for most of us the memory of such a thing.

Part of what makes Lincoln so fascinating are his various contradictions. He was a religious doubter who became devout in the crucible of the Civil War; he was a man of action who suffered from painful and sometimes debilitating depression; he was a failure who became our president during the nation's greatest crisis and led us through it. Above all, he was a humble man who still harbored burning ambition -- no man rises to the presidency without it. (Not even Gerald Ford.)

Because of his stature in our history, as well as his actual stature (still our tallest president, still the guy with a beard but no 'stache), and his famous stovepipe hat, he is the easiest president to depict. Look, here's a Lincoln now:
As of this morning, IMDb lists no fewer than 422 portrayals of Lincoln, not counting stage, video games, or automobile advertisements. For contrast, there are only 233 Hamlets. Henry Fonda, Hans Conried, Dennis Weaver, Hal Holbrook, Gregory Peck, Jason Robards, Tom Hanks, Sam Waterston, Raymond Massey, and Daniel Day-Lewis all played Lincoln. Some actors, like Frank McGlynn Sr., basically made a career of it.

Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois


And then there's Gottfried.
Lincoln was the first president from a new party since Jefferson, the first president killed in office (or anytime else), the only president (to date -- hi, California!) to deal with a civil war; he was a genuine hater of slavery, a believer in the principles of our nation's founding; he was a slow mover but a fast thinker, a man of great physical strength and mental strength to match; a man who grew up in both North and South; a man with a dopey military career who was president during our deadliest military contest; an autodidact and, amazingly, an honest lawyer. Unless we have a president who single-handedly repels an invasion by Martians, it's hard to think of how a president could ever top Mr. Lincoln.

A tip of the stovepipe to you, Mr. Lincoln; thank you for all you did for our nation.
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