TWO hundred years after his birth on Feb. 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln remains perhaps the most compelling, and enduring, figure in American history.
On one level, his story is simple enough to captivate the smallest child.
Born in rural poverty, essentially without formal schooling, Lincoln rose to become one of America's greatest presidents, the man who ended slavery, saved the Union and then was martyred days after final victory was assured with the surrender at Appomattox.
Yet while the facts in that familiar storybook legend are all true, Lincoln himself was a far more complex character, one who has defied the attempts of contemporaries and legions of historians to analyze him.
The importance of what Lincoln did in saving the union can scarcely be exaggerated. More than likely, no other man would have had the iron will to see the nation's bloodiest war through.
The soul shudders to think what might have happened had the United States split permanently into two or more countries. To take just one example: What country then would have stopped the ruthless evil of Adolf Hitler or stood in the path of Josef Stalin?
Nobody knows, of course, what path history might have taken had John Wilkes Booth not been at Ford's Theatre that night. What is clear is that Lincoln remains an inspiration.
Days before he was to give his first inaugural address, our nation's first African-American president took his little daughters to read the words of Lincoln's second, carved into the marble of his memorial: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation's wounds .•.•. to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Those words, as timely today as when they were written, are proof that as long as this nation endures, Abraham Lincoln's importance and legacy will also.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President.