Channeling Honest Abe Isn't Just About the Hat (Although It Helps)

Decked out in a stovepipe hat ala Abe Lincoln, Post columnist John Kelly solicits advice from inauguration-goers for the next president, in a way that only the Answer Man can.Video by John Kelly & Beatrice Kelly
By John Kelly
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I came the closest I'll ever come to being a rock star yesterday. Dressed as Abraham Lincoln -- stovepipe hat, frock coat, fake beard glued to my chin -- I walked around downtown Washington and was besieged by loyal citizens.

"Yo, Abe!"

"Hey, it's Abraham Lincoln!"

"Whaddya say, President Lincoln?"

"Lemme get a picture, lemme get a picture!"

I heard there was a John Adams out there somewhere, and a few Uncle Sams. I saw some vegetarian activists dressed as farm animals: a pig, a chick and a cow. But nothing beat being the 16th president on the day the 44th president took the oath of office. The river of humanity that was headed toward the Mall and the Capitol would slow whenever I walked by, surrounding me with cellphones raised.

I felt like Paris Hilton.

Of course, I'm a lot shorter than the man from Springfield, have split fewer rails, never walked miles in the snow to borrow a book from the library or made muddy footprints on the ceiling of my log cabin. I can't grow a beard or run a country. In other words, I can't really compare myself to our 16th president.

So why was I walking around the inauguration dressed as Abe? Because our new president does compare himself to Lincoln, or at least is aware of the parallels they share. They're both tall, skinny, big-eared lawyers from Illinois who rose to the White House in troubled times on the strength of their oratory. We remember one as our greatest president. We have great hopes for the other.

Is there an object more closely associated with a particular president than Lincoln's stovepipe hat? All those powdered wigs of the Founding Fathers run together. Who has a clue what Franklin Pierce wore? Clamp FDR's cigarette holder between your teeth and people think you're Thurston Howell III or the Penguin. But Lincoln's hat (on display at the National Museum of American History, by the way) is an icon. And my aim on Inauguration Day was to share the power of that icon by handing it to the people I met. Put it on, I said. Feel its energy and tell me what message you have for our new president.

Shawna Hawkins, 31, a student from Fort Smith, Ark., rested the hat atop the black knit cap that was keeping her head warm in the morning chill. She thought a moment then said: "Just think about the people that have been laid off from the factories and all the towns that are suffering and try to help us out, President Obama, please."

Linda Kinlaw, a 51-year-old analyst from Huntsville, Ala., said, "I would want the lives of children to be different than most of them are. We have an enormous rate of dropout in our nation. I would like for education to be our priority."

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