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Reflections On Lincoln's 200th Birthday

This was written by CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer


As the nation marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the hallowed image of the sixteenth president seems to be everywhere.

It is estimated that more than 14,000 books have been written about Lincoln. In this Lincoln bicentennial year, there are books about books about Lincoln. Record high prices are being paid for authentic Lincoln memorabilia.President Obama, a big fan of Honest Abe, has described Lincoln's life as "a fundamental element of the American character."

The spirit of Lincoln is nothing new to me. During my childhood in Southern Illinois, Lincoln's "presence" was ubiquitous. We often visited the Lincoln sites in Springfield. Not far from my hometown, Alton was the scene of one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. I often tried to imagine the sound of the voices of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. I was fascinated by all things Lincoln.

In fact, years ago I momentarily thought I saw and heard the ghost of Abe Lincoln. It happened on a frigid winter night during a Boy Scout stay in an old wooden Civilian Conservation Corps barracks near New Salem, the village where young Abe Lincoln lived in the 1830s.

The mood there is still set by a weathered nine-foot statue showing a young Lincoln tossing his famous axe aside and picking up his law books. Soon after we crawled into our sleeping bags and our Scoutmaster called "lights out," we heard a strange loud clop of footsteps outside the dusty windows.

As we peered out, we saw a tall man walking slowly around the barracks. One of the younger Scouts cowered in his bunk and murmured, "It's the ghost of Lincoln."

Thoughts of the dark pioneer cabins of New Salem and the nearby spooky Lincoln Tomb helped to fuel our imaginations as the footsteps grew louder and closer to our drafty quarters. The ghost of Lincoln turned out to be the park night watchman, a man who had a wooden leg that made a loud noise that punctuated the tranquil scene at New Salem.

While President Obama has never claimed to have seen the ghost of Lincoln, he has not been shy about identifying with the Illinois rail splitter. Mr. Obama announced his presidential candidacy at the old Illinois State Capitol where Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech. On that frigid February 10, 2007, Mr. Obama said that Lincoln "had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people."

Candidate Obama admitted to "a certain presumptuousness-a certain audacity" in choosing the historic venue for his announcement. But he went on to call for "common hopes and common dreams." He has told reporters that Lincoln was his favorite president. His pre-inaugural train trip from Philadelphia to Washington partially traced the route taken by Lincoln. Mr. Obama took the oath of office on the same bible that Lincoln used at his inaugural.

He has emulated Lincoln by naming some members of the opposing political party to his cabinet. Today the 44th president returns to Springfield to mark the Lincoln bicentennial. He will speak at the annual Abraham Lincoln Association banquet.

Mr. Obama follows a long line of presidents who have venerated Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt had a ring that contained a lock of Lincoln's hair. During the depths of the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon quoted Lincoln in an address to the nation. Nixon recalled this Lincoln statement: "If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won't amount to anything."

Rice University History Professor Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian for CBS News, has recalled, "All Presidents walk the corridor and think about Lincoln. They stare at his portrait."

Some observers have pointed to historic bonds linking Presidents Obama and Lincoln. They note both presidents took office in challenging times. Historian Brinkley cautions against making those comparisons. He said, "No matter how bad or dark the hours are going to get for Barack Obama, Lincoln had it worse" at the brink of civil war.

What would Lincoln make of the hoopla over his birthday? It's safe to say he would probably have a modest response. As Lincoln once said, "I am rather inclined to silence, and whether that be wise or not, it is at least more unusual nowadays to find a man who can hold his tongue than to find one who cannot. "

As is the case with all those Lincoln books, there's a Lincoln quote for almost every occasion. His truth goes marching on.