This weekend I celebrated Lincoln’s birthday by intending to see a play, then thinking better of it. I think it’s what he would have wanted.
But I was astounded by the profusion of celebrations.
You can’t go wrong with Abraham Lincoln. We’re still obsessed with the man. He’s 203 and still indispensable — a fate, so far, attained only by Ron Paul and Yoda. He shows up into commercials that are entirely unrelated to Presidents’ Day. Name a car after him, and we might buy it — all right, in dwindling numbers, but buy it nonetheless.
What is it, exactly?
Maybe it’s his sad devotion to an unfortunate hairstyle. Have you ever seen anyone who looked better with a Lincoln beard? Even Lincoln didn’t look better with a Lincoln beard.
Maybe it’s his penchant for quips.
Or perhaps it’s his unique ability to disappear into any role we assign him. Few actors — let alone historical figures with distinctive noses — are so versatile.
Everyone wants a piece of the Lincoln action. He’s like Shakespeare. We demand that he become what we are. There’s more left of Lincoln the man — those photos, the anthologies of quotations and jokes of dubious provenance, the letters — than of Shakespeare. But we try anyway. He’s the first one selected for any presidential kickball team. You know, when hundreds of years after your death a scholar claims to have discovered a mysterious cache of your explicit love letters in order to prove a point about your sexual preferences, that you have made a lasting impact on the national consciousness. No one ever does that to Millard Fillmore.
Lincoln and Washington occupy the two poles of the presidential world. Washington, the other half of Presidents’ Day, is a figure we like to keep as stationary as possible. He chopped down the cherry tree. His teeth were made of wood or hippopotamus. Every detail we discover about him does more to deify him than humanize him. He managed to lead a heterogeneous rabble against the British regulars — and win. He left office after two terms. And on top of that, he ran a whiskey distillery. This was no mere mortal.
Lincoln, by contrast, is so human that he almost disappears. He could be anyone. He could be everyone. He strolls through Mountain Dew commercials. We paint him riding grizzlies. He’s coming to theaters soon to slay vampires. Families line up at his giant knees on the Mall and birthday celebrants turn out in droves. There’s something about him that speaks to us. Even if what it apparently says is that for his birthday, we should open a museum commemorating the circumstances of his assassination — Ford’s Theater, you shouldn’t have!
We want Lincoln to be what we are. Mirthful or depressed, honest or Machiavellian, man of faith or man of doubt, one of the few political figures embraced on both sides of the aisle — he sports many hats, below the stovepipe. Name a trait and you’ll find a biography of Lincoln ascribing it to him.
“If I had two faces,” Lincoln once reputedly asked, “would I be wearing this one?”
Of course he would. He wears all of them.