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All presidents, including Bush, try to `get right' with Lincoln

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—Seven score years after he died, Abraham Lincoln continues to haunt the men who followed him as president.

Whether it's the comparison to his leadership, rare eloquence, humor or wartime success, most presidents who succeeded him eventually either embraced him as a kindred spirit in hope of elevating their statures or ignored him in hope of escaping his shadow.

President George W. Bush was no different when he came to Springfield recently to dedicate the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. After touring the facility, Bush said he found that he and Lincoln had something in common.

"In a small way, I can relate to the rail splitter from out West because he had a way of speaking that was not always appreciated by the newspapers back East," Bush said to laughter and applause from a central Illinois audience.

"A New York Times story on his first inaugural address reported that Mr. Lincoln was lucky `it was not the constitution of the English language and the laws of English grammar that he was called upon to support.'"

Pausing for effect, Bush added, to more laughter, "I think that fellow is still writing for the Times."

Jokes aside, Bush also linked Lincoln's spirit to modern struggles.

"Every generation strives to define the lessons of Abraham Lincoln, and that is part of our tribute to the man himself," he said. "None of us can claim his legacy as our own, but all of us can learn from the faith that guided him. He trusted in freedom and in the wisdom of the founders, even in the darkest hours."

Presidential historian David Herbert Donald once wrote that every succeeding generation since the Civil War had to ``get right with Lincoln.'' But as historian Richard Norton Smith, the director of the Lincoln library and museum, said, it's more accurate to apply the standard to the 26 men who've followed Lincoln into the White House.

"Sooner or later, every president has to get right with Lincoln," said Smith. Before the Lincoln library, he served as director of the Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan presidential libraries.

In the decades after Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his memory was too fresh and his reputation too large for any of his successors to escape.

"The lost Americans," is how novelist Thomas Wolfe described the succession of post-Lincoln men such as Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.

"Their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together in the sea depths of a past intangible, immeasurable, and unknowable as the buried city of Persepolis. And they were lost."

Then came Theodore Roosevelt, a burst of self-confidence, who felt a close tie to Lincoln even as he transformed the office to fit a new era. As Smith put it, Roosevelt "felt an almost mystical bond with Lincoln."

Roosevelt's father was close to Lincoln. Young Theodore watched Lincoln's funeral procession pass his New York home. On the eve of his 1905 inauguration, Roosevelt received a ring with a lock of Lincoln's hair from Lincoln's former personal secretary.

"Please wear it tomorrow; you are one of the men who most thoroughly understand and appreciate Lincoln," John Hay wrote to Roosevelt.

Woodrow Wilson, the first Southern-born president since the Civil War, said his earliest memory was hearing of Lincoln's 1860 election and the prediction of war. During the 1909 centennial celebration of Lincoln's birth, Wilson, then the president of Princeton University, lauded Lincoln. "His character stands colossal there amidst that troubled history of war and disunion," Wilson said. "God send us such men again."

Yet as president, Smith noted, Wilson re-segregated official Washington.

Not all presidents were inspired by Lincoln or aspired to his reputation for greatness.

Calvin Coolidge said in his autobiography: "It is a great advantage to a president and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man."

Gerald Ford, stressing his humility, once said, "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln."

John F. Kennedy turned Republicans' worship of Lincoln against his GOP opponent, Richard Nixon, in his July 1960 speech accepting the Democrats' presidential nomination, with a playful twist on a famous Lincoln quote.

"We know they will invoke the name of Abraham Lincoln on behalf of their candidate—despite the fact that the political career of their candidate has often seemed to show charity toward none and malice for all."

But when the country is in trouble, in war or economic calamity, they all "get right" with the man who led the United States through its most perilous time.

In the spring of 1929, then-New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to claim the Republican Lincoln as a model for modern Democrats as they faced what he thought was a coming crisis.

"I think it is time to claim Lincoln as one of our own," Roosevelt wrote to a historian. "The Republican Party has certainly repudiated, first and last, everything that he stood for. That period from 1865-1876 should be known as America's Dark Ages. I am not sure that we are not headed for the same type of era again."

Herbert Hoover, facing the onset of the Great Depression, traveled to Springfield. "As all embattled presidents do, he drew upon—some would say he edited—the Lincoln legend to serve his own political purposes," Smith said.

With Lincoln looking over his shoulder from the Lincoln Memorial, Harry Truman in 1947 urged an end to lynching and the poll tax in what was described as the strongest civil rights statement since the 1860s. Five years later, he invoked Lincoln's suspension of the right of habeas corpus as he seized the steel industry.

"You have the human rights side of Lincoln. Then you've got the ruthless steely wartime Lincoln who was willing to suspend part of the Constitution," Smith said.

"Every boldly assertive president, particularly in wartime, looks back to Lincoln."

Bush agreed, linking Lincoln's spirit to modern struggles for freedom at home and abroad.

"That trust has helped Americans carry on, even after the second day of Gettysburg; even on December 8, 1941; even on September the 12th, 2001," Bush said. "Whenever freedom is challenged, the proper response is to go forward with confidence in freedom's power."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LINCOLNMUSEUM-BUSH (from April 19 opening of Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

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