Monday, February 12, 2007

The greatest man I never knew

The greatest man I never knew turned a year older today.

He is the ripe old age of 198. And, although he's been dead for more than a hundred years, a part of him remains.

In a practical sense, he can often be found in our pockets. His mug is on the five dollar bill and on that little nuisance of a coin known as the penny.

In a very real sense, he forever gazes upon the Reflection Pool in Washington, his eyes looking toward the Washington Monument. It's my favorite spot in our nation's capital. Whenever I'm there, I'll sit on the steps in the shadow of his statue and contemplate the blessing that is living in this country.

Abraham Lincoln has become such a mythical figure --- a literal monument --- that it has become difficult to separate the Great Rail-Splitter from the flesh and blood human being who became the 16th president of the United States.

Often the man is less lofty than the myth. Not so with Lincoln.

He was a kindhearted person who loved his children and was devoted to a wife that could be difficult. He was a shrewd politician who wasn't afraid to take extra-legal steps to keep the country together during the War.

He was very much a man of his times, believing finally in Emancipation only after coming to see the fallacy of his idea to colonize the slaves in Liberia. He was a gifted lawyer and orator, possessed with a logical mind and an uncanny ability to translate even the most difficult legalism into terms anyone could understand.

He loved to laugh and tell jokes, especially about himself. But he was also plagued by what was then called melancholy, severe depressive episodes that paralyzed Lincoln on at least two occasions.

And he was the president who steered the ship through the roughest waters our country has ever known. I think often about the series of photographs that Matthew Brady took of Lincoln throughout his presidency. By 1865, he looked 20 years older than his actual age --- a walking corpse.

No president before or sense has endured what the lawyer from Springfield faced from the moment he took office in March 1861 to the day John Wilkes Booth silenced his voice forever in April 1865.

Today was Lincoln's birthday, but the country hardly noticed. It isn't a national holiday anymore. For most, it was another Monday at the office.

I'm tempted to lament that fact, but in a way, I think Lincoln would have liked it. Despite its warts, and God knows there are many, I think Abraham Lincoln would love the America of today.

He would marvel at our technology, take pride in our robust success, rejoice that our nation was able to for the most part heal the wounds of Civil War.

And one suspects he'd even be OK with the fact that we do not pause to celebrate his birthday anymore. For Abraham Lincoln, you see, gave the last full measure of devotion to help create an America that no longer needed him.

Perhaps his biographer, the poet Carl Sandburg, said it best.

"(Lincoln) was a mountain in grandeur of soul. He was a sea in a deep undervoice of mystic loneliness. He was a star in steadfast purity of purpose and service.

"And he abides."

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