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Histrionics And History

"People will imagine that they've taken a very, very wrong turn," says Rogers, who's leading this particular tour. He doesn't sound the least bit worried by that.

"Campaign 1860" is only a small part of "The Journey," which dramatizes the Lincoln story from his log-cabin childhood to his White House triumphs and tragedy. (There are several smaller exhibits as well, among them a "Treasures Gallery" filled with conventionally displayed historic objects and "Mrs. Lincoln's Attic," a hands-on attraction for young children.) Still, the TV display has "show-stopper" written all over it.


At the Lincoln library, Bob Rogers, left, founder and chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, and Illinois State Historian Thomas Schwartz examine a Holavision "ghost" of the president. (Kristen Schmid - For The Washington Post)

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Back to the video:

"To sort things out, let's look at the candidates' latest messages," Russert says, and sure enough, here comes a 21st-century-style campaign spot for Lincoln, complete with an unsubtle graphic of a cozy cottage split down the middle and a stentorian voice-over ("Two years ago he said, 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' Isn't it time we got that house in order?"). Next comes the spot for Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's high-powered but diminutive Democratic rival ("Paid for by Little Giants for Douglas").

After that, a plantation scene appears, complete with master, wife, kids, big house and happy slaves. This is an ad for John C. Breckenridge, the pro-slavery Democrat who split his party, ensuring Lincoln's election. Before long, the faces of three scary-looking abolitionists appear, looming above the plantation ("Some men you don't even know want to come in and steal your property, destroy your home and put you in jail!"). On cue, a giant shepherd's crook yanks first the slaves, then the house and finally the master himself off the screen.

Karl Rove or James Carville could scarcely improve on this. Somehow it's hard to focus on the fourth spot, for would-be conciliator John C. Bell.

The whole thing is enough to make John Y. Simon's skin crawl.

Simon, who teaches history at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, is best known for editing "The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant." Ever since he read about the life-size figures of Lincoln and his contemporaries that BRC will be installing in dioramas throughout the museum, he's been the go-to guy for outraged sound bites.

"Rubber Lincolns," he calls them. "Six Flags Over Lincoln," he calls the whole enterprise, and "the modern equivalent of the old wax museum," not to mention "Las Vegas East." Children already see plenty of Disneyfied things, Simon believes, and are more likely to be moved "by the authentic, by grandeur, by spectacle." Besides, why would anyone with access to TV, movies or a computer be impressed by BRC's special effects?

As for "Campaign 1860," Simon hasn't seen the finished version. That doesn't stop him, though. "What, we're going to have 30-second commercials? Again, it's a piece of hokiness," he says.

Rogers understood that his TV stunt would raise hackles. Here's why he did it: Big exhibitions with no changes in tone put visitors to sleep, he says, and he wants to reset their attention spans. What's more, the 1860 election -- arguably the most important in American history -- was extremely complicated. Too many people would skip a conventional presentation about it. The fake commercials are intended to grab you, and to convey tons of complex information in a short time.

Think what you will of them, they certainly do that.

And those "rubber Lincolns"? Well, their bodies are really sculpted foam coated with fiberglass. Their skin is made of a silicone material with hand-painted tones and blemishes. Their hair is part real, part synthetic. Most important, they don't move. A moving Lincoln, Rogers says, makes people think of just one thing:

The D word.

One of BRC's prime objectives, throughout the museum, has been to humanize Lincoln -- to get him off the pedestal on which the John Simons of the world might prefer to keep him. To this end, foam and fiberglass Lincolns appear in displays evoking his apparent early romance with Ann Rutledge, his later courtship of Mary Todd and his wildly indulgent parenting style.


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