For his birthday, what do you get the man who has it all? A man with two dozen towns and just as many counties named after him. A man with nearly 600 schools, the penny and the five-dollar bill. A man with his own memorial on the Mall, a luxury car, his likeness carved into a mountain and a permanent bedroom in the White House. What's left?
Abraham Lincoln celebrates his 194th today -- or, to be accurate, others celebrate for him. At the Library of Congress this week, about 50 of the country's preeminent Lincoln scholars started planning a very big party: Lincoln's 200th, in 2009.
Six years of lead time is about right, they suggested, because they want this to be a blowout. They envision a float in the Rose Parade. Television specials. A newly designed penny. Commemorative stamps. Fireworks. Traveling exhibits. Revamped educational curricula, reenacted debates and shelves of new publications.
The scholars make up the advisory committee for the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, a group appointed by President Bill Clinton and Congress in 2000 to help plan a celebration. Even with the ample cushion of time, the meetings conveyed a mild sense of urgency: The members are to submit a report to Congress next year; this week's gathering marked their only scheduled conference before that deadline.
"We have an intensely creative group of people on the advisory committee," said Michael Bishop, the commission's executive director. "It's our hope that each brings with them fresh ideas that we might not have thought of before."
Originality doesn't come easy when dealing with a figure of Lincoln's stature -- even Lincoln's previous posthumous birthday celebrations occupy a place in the annals. To come up with new ideas, the bicentennial planners must trump the organizers of Lincoln's round-numbered birthdays of decades past.
For his 100th, organizers put Lincoln's face on the penny and cleared the way for the Lincoln Memorial. For his 150th, in 1959, they reaped the wheat on the tails side of the coin and replaced it with the memorial, and poet Carl Sandburg spoke to a joint session of Congress honoring the humble rail-splitter he helped mythologize.
Although those celebrations offered worthy precedents, scholars said, this is a different era, and the bicentennial is likely to reflect that difference. Lincoln is still one of the most-written-about Americans in history (a simple title search in the Library of Congress's catalogue finds more than 1,000 "Abraham Lincoln" documents), and he consistently comes out on top in polls asking which was the greatest president. But scholars generally agree that Lincoln doesn't get the attention in elementary and secondary schools now that he did in, say, 1959.
"There are the statues and the memorials, but what's amazing is what is not out there," said Harold Holzer, a vice president of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and a co-chairman of the commission. "What's missing is a basic appreciation of his legacy, of his work to preserve the Union, of his efforts to preserve the idea of majority rule and the Declaration of Independence. I think it's been a while since there has been a broad discussion of that."
The commission hopes to foster such discussions by letting Lincoln speak for himself. Few presidents can measure up to him as a writer, and the group wants his words all over the airwaves, in books and in classrooms. On Monday night at the Library of Congress, about 450 people watched as Holzer and "Law & Order" star Sam Waterston collaborated in a recitation of Lincoln's writings and a presentation of historic photographs.
The scholars hope that they can lead the general public to look beyond "Lincoln the Halloween Costume" to get a vivid glimpse of the Lincoln they respect: a model of self-made success; a statesman with a remarkably reliable moral compass; a thinker who rarely settled for an easy answer; a man who continued to grow as a person even after achieving prominence; the individual they believe had more to do with ending slavery than anyone else.
But they said they also want to make room for people who don't share their views.
"We want to encourage disagreement, from the perspective that there was not a homogenous view of Lincoln in his own day," said Tommy Turner, a judge from LaRue County, Ky., where Lincoln was born.
Holzer envisions a Lincoln renaissance, and he thinks that publication of Lincoln works by popular historians might do for him what author David McCullough's books did for Harry S. Truman and John Adams.
Several advisory committee members -- including historians Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin -- plan to publish Lincoln books before the bicentennial.
And even though this week's brainstorming sessions were productive -- what one participant called "yeasty" -- the commission hopes the public will weigh in with ideas. Its Web site, www.lincolnbicentennial.gov, carries a plea for suggestions.
Coming up with the ideas is the fun part, the scholars said; implementing them probably will be trickier.
"You could throw a dot on the wall and come up with a great idea, but what's really going to be the test is organizing great ideas into action," said Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, a commission member.
The celebrations will be funded with a mix of public and private money, and most of the work will be done by volunteers such as the commission members. They said they want to make sure the celebration is remembered when the Lincoln tricentennial comes around.
"None of us are going to be around to get the chance to do something like this again," Turner said. "This is our only shot."