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Published: Saturday, 2/9/2008

Happy birthday, Abe: 2 worthy new books are timed for our 16th president's bicentennial


PRESIDENT LINCOLN: THE DUTY OF A STATESMAN. By William Lee Miller. Knopf. 512 pages. $30.


Even historians who disagree on almost everything else agree that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, with the possible exception of George Washington. (Washington, however, really deserves to be in a class by himself, since he invented the office.)

And regardless of rankings, Lincoln has proven to be the most fascinating. More books have been written about him than about any other president (14,985 at last count) and you can safely predict a new onslaught is coming. That's because this week marks Lincoln's 199th birthday, and publishing houses will be counting down and revving up for the glorious bicentennial on Feb. 12, 2009.

Actually, there is already an uptick in the number of new Lincoln books on the market, and these are two of the best.

Did Lincoln Own Slaves? is a book that anyone with merely a nodding interest in Abraham Lincoln needs to own. Author Gerald Prokopowicz knows his Lincoln lore, all right; he was the editor of a journal of that name. He's also a history professor at East Carolina University and an adviser to the Lincoln bicentennial commission.

His book, organized in a snappy but scholarly question-and-answer format, makes for wonderful browsing. (No, in fact, Lincoln never came close to owning a slave, though he may have once rented a woman who was an indentured servant.)

You'd have to be a true expert on Lincoln indeed not to find something in this book that you didn't already know. (Did you know Lincoln had a little brother? Did you know what happened to him?)

Beyond the fun of browsing through this book, there are great pictures and an excellent set of footnotes that will help the more serious reader find books and articles on virtually any aspect of Lincoln's life, including, for the truly adventurous, his sex life.

President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, is a very different book, by a scholar who has carved out an almost unique specialty in history, ethics, and especially Abraham Lincoln.

Five years ago, William Lee Miller published the acclaimed Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, which traced the evolution of the 16th president's values and moral code. This is meant as a companion, telling again the story of how "the sometime backwoods rail-splitter," evolved into one of the cleverest politicians and greatest statesmen that any age or nation has ever produced.

The author is revisiting terrain that has been often traveled before, most recently and notably by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

This book differs from that one, mostly because it probes Lincoln in far more depth, and gives a wider narrative history of what was happening in the country and with the war. That's not to say, however, that it is written in a ponderous or clunky "academic" style; far from it. Indeed, the author shows a wry sense of humor.

Describing Lincoln's first day in the White House, Miller dutifully records that he soon "would find himself sending greetings to 'his great and good friend,' Her Majesty Dona Isabel II, Queen of Spain and 'his great and good friend,' Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria none of whom, of course, he had ever met."

The book does use Lincoln's recorded words and thoughts and those who knew him to paint a remarkable portrait of a mind searching and seemingly always capable of growth. Miller also uses his formidable scholarship to illustrate and sketch - seemingly effortlessly - Lincoln's genius for leadership.

Part of it certainly came from his great goodness; he was perfectly sincere, for example, in saying after his reelection that "so long as I have been here, I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man's bosom." Indeed, Abraham Lincoln seems to have utterly lacked vindictiveness, and seemed immune to any desire for revenge. Yet he was anything but simple, as his legal career shows.

The self-taught "backwoods attorney" had become one of the most sought after lawyers in Illinois before his nomination. Contrary to popular belief, he did not do everything pro bono.

Indeed, Lincoln had become something bordering on wealthy. Yet money did not seem to touch him; he may have lived with fame and power, but lacked almost entirely the drive for money.

The reader of The Duty of a Statesman will, almost certainly, come away feeling that they know Abraham Lincoln far better than they did. Certainly they will know a great deal about the enormous problems he faced and the way in which he grappled with them. But they may well conclude that the mystery of his genius remains just that - a mystery, beyond our power to completely know.

But they also may feel they have more than a glimmer of what qualities are essential for any leader of this nation.

This may be an ideal time for all of us to think about the nature of leadership, and what made our greatest president great. We are, after all, currently grappling with the most exciting, and perhaps most significant, election in a lifetime, in an era hungry for leadership and, especially change. Whatever happens, it's easy to agree that we could use a man - or woman - with the qualities Abraham Lincoln had. Yet how do we know what to look for?

Nobody, after all, really knew what Abraham Lincoln was made of before he took the oath of office. Nobody, in a sense, fully knows any of the candidates today. Yet a century and a half ago we elected a backwoods lawyer who evolved into greatness.

We should be so lucky this year.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com.

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