A PBS special lifts Lincoln’s layers of myths

By Joanne Ostrow
The Denver Post
Posted: 02/08/2009

Henry Louis Gates Jr., host and executive producer of "Looking for Lincoln," at the Lincoln Memorial. (Pam Risdon, Cable Risdon Photography )

You think you know Abe Lincoln. Craggy face, top hat, saved the Union, freed the slaves, assassinated at Ford’s Theater, memorialized on the National Mall.

The tale of the martyred Great Emancipator is ingrained in every American school kid. The white marble memorial attests to the importance of "Father Abraham."

Henry Louis Gates Jr. knows Lincoln — and, breaking it to us gently, contends that Lincoln’s myth doesn’t tell the whole story.

"We remake Lincoln in order to remake ourselves," Gates said. His intention with "Looking for Lincoln" is to show the process of that remaking over the generations.

Lincoln’s was "the only picture of a white man hanging in people’s homes where I grew up," said Gates who wrote and presents the program. There’s a reason he was and is worshiped.

However, "He was a man of his times; he believed in the inequality of the races."

The real Lincoln acted out of political expedience as much as morality.

He mocked organized religion, was a self-obsessed self-promoter who had his picture taken constantly in order to further his own status. This Lincoln visited a prostitute, suffered serious depression, had a major romance before Mary Todd, argued both sides of the slavery question and was ultimately a white supremacist.

On the bicentennial of "the one American who defines what it is to be an American," also called "the American Zeus," PBS offers a two- hour tour of surprising new scholarship on the subject.

"Looking for Lincoln" will be broadcast Wednesday, Lincoln’s 200th birthday, at 8 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS.

Sorting through the facts, Harvard professor Gates ("African American Lives") argues in his inimitably fun and challenging way that it’s time to meet the flawed individual rather than the "secular saint."

Other historians protest on camera that Lincoln was very much a 19th- century man who shouldn’t be judged by 21st-century standards.

Still, the documentary argues, he was hardly worthy of sainthood. There are "many Lincolns" in the public mind, Gates said, "enough for people to love and hate."

And while the film knocks Lincoln off the pedestal, it ends up furthering our appreciation of the man. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are among those who share insights into the 16th president. (Listening to Clinton casually and brilliantly riff on Lincoln’s speeches and ideas is the closest most of us will come to hanging out with the former chief executive in one of his famous late-night bull sessions.)

The playwright Tony Kushner, who is working with Steven Spielberg on a Lincoln project, talks about the complicated and contradictory aspects of his personality; Lincoln scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the book "Team of Rivals" about Lincoln’s Cabinet, is protective of the Lincoln myth; former Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett offers the boldest corrective, noting that in 1858, Lincoln proposed freeing the slaves — and deporting them to Liberia.

The ongoing fascination offers a few humorous sidelights, as well. The depth of feeling is impressive — and at odds. Gates visits with collectors of Lincoln memorabilia, a convention of Lincoln re-enactors, and a group of offspring of Confederate soldiers who regard Lincoln as a war criminal.

The essential thrust of Gates’ rather personal documentary is this: "Every generation conjures up a view of Lincoln to suit its own needs."

On his way to screen his film for senators in Washington, D.C., last week, Gates said by phone that he kept a list of "all the different Lincolns" uncovered in his research. Savior, redeemer, tyrant, warrior, melancholic …

"Each of these historians has their own Lincoln. Each is true; you have to add them all up" to find the whole man.

The appropriation of Lincoln by President Barack Obama in various speeches continues the story. "Barack has recreated the image of Lincoln the Reconciler. He sees himself through that image," Gates said.

Gates’ critique can be stinging, yet he comes around to holding Lincoln in high esteem, if not as a personal hero, then as a man who eventually did the right thing.

Opinionated, argumentative but grounded in research, Gates’ personality and filmmaking style continues to entice nonscholars to a deeper understanding of history — and, not least, to give us a better appreciation for historical scholarship.

Copyright 2009 The Denver Post

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