John McCain calls the Republican Party the "party of Lincoln." Hillary Clinton asked for Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with no moderator. Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy while standing before the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln delivered his 1858 "House Divided" speech against slavery. The 16th president is more popular than ever with politicians—and with everyone else. And that's before all the hoopla begins around his birthday bicentennial on Feb. 12, 2009. "You hear more Lincoln in this campaign, more name-dropping of Lincoln. It's never been like this," says Harold Holzer, author of "Lincoln at Cooper Union" and co-chair of the congressionally created Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
The candidates' name-dropping about Honest Abe is just the beginning. Steven Spielberg is working on a movie starring Liam Neeson. Next year the U.S. Mint will issue new pennies with four different "tails"—for Lincoln's four residences (Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Washington, D.C.). Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated, is undergoing a renovation and plans to reopen in February 2009 with a new play about the president's life. The Library of Congress is mounting a traveling exhibit. Seventeen states now boast their own bicentennial commissions, which are planning town halls and recreations of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Many universities and libraries are holding Lincoln-related forums on issues like race relations. Scholars are publishing a slew of new books. Philadelphia is re-enacting a giant fair that Lincoln attended. School kids are entering a contest to debate whether Lincoln or Washington was the greatest president. And libraries, museums and universities are competing for a $20 million collection of Lincoln artifacts—including coveted copies of his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the slavery-ending Thirteenth Amendment—now in the collection of the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind., which is closing at the end of June.
Bookstores will be brimming with dozens of new tomes about the man who held the country together and abolished slavery, largely through his powerful speeches. "He changed America's views through his verbiage and thoughts," says Daniel Weinberg, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago and an adviser to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. "The verbiage that Lincoln gave at the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural outlined who we were as a nation and how we changed from several states to a United States."
New books about Lincoln are never in scarce supply. But scholars have been working overtime to produce a new round of books in time for the 200th birthday celebration. Holzer has no fewer than three new titles. "Lincoln President Elect" arrives in late October and shows how Lincoln "faced the most dangerous transition period in American history," Holzer says. He is also coediting "In Lincoln's Hand," a companion volume to the Library of Congress's big Lincoln 200 exhibition that opens Feb. 12. It will include scanned reproductions of original Lincoln letters and speeches, each with a comment by a prominent politician or writer—including Toni Morrison (on the Gettysburg Address), John Updike, Mario Cuomo, Newt Gingrich, Gore Vidal and NEWSWEEK's Jonathan Alter. And for the Library of America, Holzer is editing "The Lincoln Anthology," a collection of 85 writers on Lincoln's life and legacy.
Late this fall the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation will publish "Lincoln in Illinois," with photos of 50 Lincoln statues in the state and commentaries by scholars and politicians, including Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson Jr., Adlai Stevenson III and NEWSWEEK editor Jon Meacham. Also in the fall, Johns Hopkins University Press will publish "Abraham Lincoln: A Life," by scholar Michael Burlingame. Timed for the bicentennial, the book examines how Lincoln overcame what Burlingame calls "psychological poverty." His mother died when he was nine. He lost two bids for the U.S. Senate. Two of his four children died when they were young. "And yet with all this, he managed to become the psychologically mature man we can all emulate." Burlingame, himself the author of numerous books on Lincoln, applauds all the hoopla. "Anything that helps to create more interest in Lincoln is fine by me," he says.
That includes Spielberg's Lincoln movie, which has not yet started shooting. Scholars believe the famous director will do justice to the president—though it's important that Neeson change his voice. "Lincoln had a high, Midwest twang voice with Southern in it," says Weinberg. "One of the reasons he could be heard above a crowd was that he had a higher voice."
Scholars are also eagerly awaiting the decision on who will get the extensive Fort Wayne collection of books, photographs, signed documents and other artifacts after the Lincoln Financial Foundation closes its museum there at the end of next month. The foundation is accepting proposals from more than a dozen institutions and groups, and the Lincoln Financial Group will announce its decision this fall. "Our main goal is to get better visibility for the collection," says Lincoln Financial Group spokeswoman Annette Moser. The Lincoln Financial Group plans to give the collection away. "It's not about money, not at all," says Moser. "It's truly our intention to get these items into the hands of someone who can gain better visibility for them and properly take care of them to ensure another 200 years of exposure for these things."
The appeal of the Fort Wayne collection, which was attracting only 40,000 visitors a year, is clear. "People really identify with physical objects—things that we can hold and feel," says Andrew Coldren, curator of the Civil War and Underground Railroad Museum in Philadelphia, one institution that's in the running for the collection. "We want to see and be close to something. [And] people respond to real, original art and artifacts more than copies." Other interested groups include the Smithsonian Institution, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
Meanwhile, many groups are already celebrating the bicentennial. Every year on April 15 (the date Lincoln died) the Henry Ford Museum re-enacts Lincoln's court cases. And it always shows its artifacts, including the red upholstered rocking chair that Lincoln was sitting on when he was shot and most of the furniture from Lincoln's Springfield home (a card table, a dining room chair, a teapot, a washstand). The Henry Ford gets 1.6 million visitors a year who see its car and Lincoln memorabilia. (Henry Ford was a Lincoln buff.) This July 4 weekend the Henry Ford is featuring the Detroit Symphony performing Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" for 8,000 people a night over four days.
Kids are already getting in on the bicentennial celebration too. This year high school juniors are debating whether Lincoln or Washington was the better president, as part of a competition called Now Debate This. By May 19 contestants must submit a three-minute video in answer to one of three questions: what is the most important role of the president as commander in chief, what can the Declaration of Independence tell us in 2008, and what does patriotism mean to me? The top 16 contestants will be announced on June 18. They will spend the summer learning about the two men and talking to their communities about them, says Mary Hagy, executive producer of Now Debate This. They need to be prepared to advocate for either man, because they'll draw straws or flip a coin to find out whom they must debate on Sept. 17, 2008—National Constitution Day. The winner will get $150,000, and the second-place finisher will get $50,000.
Every year, some 500,000 sixth- through 12th-graders participate in National History Day. For 2009 they will be strongly encouraged to look at Lincoln and his legacy in addressing the theme of "the individual in history." "They could look at Lincoln as a lawyer. They could look at Lincoln as a congressman," says National History Day director Cathy Gorn. Kids compete in several categories, including best documentary and best dramatic performance. "I have no doubt we'll see some Mary Todds running around," says Gorn.
The bicentennial coincides with the 160th anniversary of Harriet Tubman's flight to freedom in 1849. Both events create "a great opportunity for the African-American experience to be told," says V. Chapman-Smith, a regional director of the National Archives and a member of Pennsylvania's bicentennial commission. In 1863, for example, Lincoln supported the right of black men to fight in the Civil War. The bicentennial is more than an excuse to "have a birthday cake and say happy birthday," says Chapman-Smith. It's to "engage in opportunities around what this man did and can mean for us."
Philadelphia is re-creating (and updating) its Great Central Fair of 1864, whose visitors included Lincoln and which raised more than $1 million for the war effort. Originally the fair showcased the best of the times, including technological marvels such as the sewing machine. The new fair, called the Lincoln Great Fair, will be held May 27-31, 2009. It will also feature today's technology in an exhibit called "From iLincoln to iPod." The menu will include some 1864 dishes, such as turtle soup and oysters on the half shell. The modern fair will also address how African-Americans weren't allowed to attend the 1864 fair unless they were working in the restaurant as waiters or cooks. And it will hold a street competition for dance, including tap. (Slaves created tap as a way of communicating with each other about when it was safe to move from one safe house to another, says Hagy, co-founder of Lincoln's Great Fair.)
Lincoln fever won't end in 2009. Next up: the 150th anniversary of his 1861-1865 presidency. And of his death.