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Obama, other presidents looking for their "inner Lincoln"

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WASHINGTON -- Just a little over three miles from the White House, I'm standing in front of the "cottage" where Abraham Lincoln and his family lived from June to November in 1862, 1863 and 1864 -- and I am struck by the quiet. This was Lincoln's retreat.

The buildings in this city most associated with the 16th president are the White House, of course, Ford's Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated, and the majestic Lincoln Memorial, designed by architect Henry Bacon with the famous Lincoln statue created by Daniel Chester French.

But not as well known is that Lincoln -- whose 200th birthday is celebrated today -- had his closest personal connection with this 34-room Gothic revival house on a Washington hilltop. Lincoln commuted each day to the White House, often on horseback.

"This is the place that meant the most to him. This is where he mourned the death of his son Willie. This is where he would go to get away from the swamp that was then Washington and from the office seekers besieging him in the White House," Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is telling me. "And Mary Lincoln found great solace and refuge there, as well. So this is the place that I think is most important to really understand Lincoln's presidency."

To preserve and study Lincoln's legacy, two sons of the Land of Lincoln -- Sen. Dick Durbin and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former House member -- sponsored legislation Congress approved in 2000 to observe Lincoln's 200th birthday this year. They are co-chairmen of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Illinois members include Julie Cellini, a trustee of the Illinois Preservation Agency; Lura Lynn Ryan, the wife of former Gov. George Ryan, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

President Obama will mark Lincoln's birthday with a tribute in the Capitol this morning before flying to Springfield.

I talked to LaHood about Lincoln and Obama on Wednesday outside the West Wing of the White House, noting that two years ago this week, Obama launched his presidential campaign at the Old State Capitol near Lincoln's law office.

"We had no idea as we launched the celebration here in Washington and in Springfield there would be an African American who would have benefitted from the time that Lincoln served in this house to the extent that he launched his presidential campaign from Springfield, Ill., an African American who truly benefitted from what Abraham Lincoln did by signing the Emancipation Proclamation," LaHood said.

"I mean, this is really historic. Here we are launching the 200th anniversary, and we are doing it with the first African-American president from Illinois who launched his campaign from Springfield, Ill. And returns there tomorrow."

Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the commission, told me that each president looks for his own "inner Lincoln" as he takes his own measure of his place in history.

"What I mean by the inner Lincoln is there is a Lincoln inside of each president, with the aspirations that he has had to be a great president."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on February 12, 2009 10:05 AM.

Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln. Obama speech at Ford's Theater was the previous entry in this blog.

Durbin honors Lincoln at Lincoln Memorial ceremony is the next entry in this blog.

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