November 20, 2006
A BICENTENNIAL, BLOWN?
A question of Lincoln and 2009
JOHN J. MILLER
Nearly a hundred years ago, a group of distinguished Americans gathered to honor the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Their ideas and determination eventually led to the construction of the Lincoln Memorial — one of the nation’s most beloved examples of commemorative architecture. It’s on the list of must-see tourist attractions in Washington, and it provided a stirring backdrop to the greatest speech of the civil-rights era. For government work, that’s not too shabby.
To build on this legacy, Congress established an Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission six years ago. When the 200th anniversary of the 16th president’s birth arrives in 2009, the commission will have had almost a decade to prepare. The president, whoever he (or she) is, probably will make a big speech about national unity and equal opportunity. A few teachers will insist that children read the Gettysburg Address (four score and seven years ago, of course, a lot of students actually had to memorize it). There has even been talk of Steven Spielberg’s directing a biopic about Lincoln, starring Liam Neeson.
Yet most of this commemoration will not be the work of the bicentennial commission, which is well on its way to becoming a spectacular flop. Its combination of poor leadership, lackluster vision, and regional factionalism contrasts sharply with what Lincoln himself stood for. “This is a classic example of a petty, politicized commission that will accomplish next to nothing,” says Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation. “This massive injustice to Lincoln and his legacy, ironically, occurs at a time when interest in great historical figures like Lincoln is high.”
Thankfully, the bicentennial commission hasn’t come at a huge cost to taxpayers: Its current annual budget is only about $600,000, which goes mostly to pay the salaries of a few employees and cover their modest overhead. Since its creation, the commission has consumed just $2.4 million — the Department of Education probably spent more on pencils last month. But even such a meager public investment deserves to be handled better. “Friends used to ask me what the commission does,” says a former employee. “I couldn’t really answer the question because we frankly didn’t do much of anything.” The group’s greatest accomplishment has been to push legislation authorizing four new designs on the “tails” side of the Lincoln penny. Citizens Against Government Waste has placed the commission in its “Pig Book” of congressional pork-barrel projects for six years running. “I don’t think it’s going to come off anytime soon,” says David Williams of CAGW. That’s for sure: According to an internal document, the commissioners want their federal appropriation to triple over the next four years.
Yet the goal of the commission isn’t to become a budget-buster. It seeks to finance a range of projects by leveraging the resources of third parties, from private corporations and philanthropists to grant-making arms of the federal government such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. Last year, the commission produced a “strategic plan” of Lincoln-related activities — a wish list of what it would like to sponsor or promote in coming years. The total price tag amounted to $97 million. More than half of this is supposed to be donated in the form of “in-kind media,” such as public-service advertisements provided by the Ad Council. The remaining $47 million is expected to come from other sources, and much of it is for questionable purposes: $5 million for a series of town-hall meetings co-sponsored by the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, $1 million for a television documentary, $600,000 for “bicentennial-themed bronze medallions for placement at Lincoln-named facilities throughout the country,” and $100,000 for “a new musical work that communicates the theme of the bicentennial.” There are also several allegedly cost-free events, including a “Lincoln Highway Rally” that is described as a “coast to coast rally of antique cars on Hwy 30 and I-80.”
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The money isn’t exactly rolling in. The commission refuses to say publicly how much cash it has raised, but as of several months ago it had not even reached six-figure territory, let alone millions or tens of millions of dollars. “If you have an imagination deficit, a financial deficit will follow,” says a source familiar with the commission’s workings. “We’re still in the early stages,” admits Harold Holzer, a co-chairman of the commission along with Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Ray LaHood, both of Illinois. “We may be a bit behind schedule.” Time is running out: The commission expects the Lincoln festivities to begin in February 2008 — only a little more than a year from now.
The panel’s fundamental problem is its composition. Its 15 commissioners are appointed by the president or Congress. A few of them lend the body some gravitas: Holzer is an impresario among Lincoln enthusiasts, Gabor Boritt is a prominent scholar, and Frank J. Williams is chief justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island and the author of well-regarded books on Lincoln. The rest are a mishmash of politicians, academics, and patronage appointees. Jean T. D. Bandler is a social worker whose claim to fame is that she is the daughter of Paul Douglas, who was a senator from Illinois in the 1950s and 1960s. Sen. Jim Bunning, the Kentucky Republican, holds a seat on the commission but rarely attends its meetings.
As a group, the commission lacks both the will and the expertise to raise money for its gold-plated agenda. Several commissioners have conflicting interests because they fundraise for other Lincoln endeavors, such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., and the Lincoln Museum in Ft. Wayne, Ind. “There are limits to what we can do,” says Holzer, who explains that he doesn’t fundraise for anything but the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he is a senior vice president. Even the politicians, who presumably know a thing or two about asking strangers for money, have bowed out. “Durbin and LaHood have refused to have anything to do with fundraising,” says one insider. “There just aren’t any heavyweights who can play the role of rainmaker.” Missing entirely from the commission are leaders from the business or foundation world.
Perhaps the commission would be able to overcome these weaknesses if its members didn’t squabble so much. They illustrate why Lincoln aficionados have earned a reputation for jealous infighting. “It’s as if the Civil War never ended,” complains a member of the commission’s own advisory board. This is partly because Lincoln remains a touchstone for modern arguments about race, civil rights, federalism, war powers, and so on. Recent controversies about him — Was he gay? Did he need Prozac? — probably reveal more about our own obsessions than they do about the historical Lincoln. Far thornier, however, are the politics of who owns Lincoln: Is he a national figure or do Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois have a special claim on him because he lived there? There is a tug-of-war between one group of commissioners, who would like to raise $8 million for a sculpture garden of Lincoln statuary in Washington’s National Arboretum, and others who favor shoveling money into Springfield. A commission divided cannot stand, and in May the failure to solve these disagreements led to the ouster of executive director Michael Bishop. “It was disgraceful, how the commissioners blamed him for their own incompetence,” says another advisory board member. Over the summer, the commission actually brought in a professional facilitator to try to smooth relations.
Sadly, Abe Lincoln didn’t have the option of recommending that secessionist leaders enroll in anger-management counseling. He had to fight a war to save the Union, and his profound devotion to this cause turned him into one of the nation’s most revered leaders. He is a constant presence in our lives, with a face that’s printed on currency and etched into Mt. Rushmore. The National Park Service estimates that about 4 million people visit his memorial in Washington annually. This year, two books about Lincoln — Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Manhunt by James Swanson — have hit the best-seller lists. (The Goodwin book reportedly will serve as the basis for the Spielberg film.) The Wall Street Journal recently noted that more books have been written about Lincoln than any other president; George Washington, the man who is reputedly “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” finishes a distant second.
This sky-high popularity raises a question: Do we really need a top-down federal commission to promote the commemoration of Lincoln, or are ordinary Americans already doing a perfectly adequate job of honoring him from the bottom up? It turns out that the mystic chords of memory may not require a taxpayer subsidy.