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Each speaker finds lessons in Lincoln

Speeches from both Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday reflected the universality of lessons from Abraham Lincoln's life - and perhaps they help explain why his legacy is still a force.

President Bush, a Republican like Lincoln, also is a wartime president, and his speech drew parallels between Lincoln's effort to expand freedom in the United States and Bush's own goal to expand freedom in the world.

"Americans have no right or calling to impose our own form of government on others," Bush said. "Yet, American interests and values are both served by standing for liberty in every part of the world. Our interests are served when former enemies become democratic partners, because free governments do not support terror or seek to conquer their neighbors. Our interests are served by the spread of democratic societies, because free societies reward the hopes of their citizens, instead of feeding the hatreds that lead to violence."

Bush also noted that Lincoln wasn't always the darling of the press.

"In a small way, I can relate to the railsplitter from out West because he had a way of speaking that was not always appreciated by the newspapers back East," the president said, generating laughter. "A New York Times story on his first inaugural address reported that Mr. Lincoln was lucky 'it was not the constitution of the English language and the laws of English grammar that he was called upon to support.'

"I think that fellow is still writing for the Times," Bush said.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., mentioned that the new president of Ukraine had spoken recently of a government "of the people, for the people," or, as Durbin put it, "the words of the Gettysburg Address still echoing across the planet."

And he said a Shiite leader in Baghdad had recently cited Lincoln when asked whether he feared civil war in Iraq. "We have no greater concern than Abraham Lincoln did," the man told Durbin.

"In a sense, the land of Lincoln is not just Springfield; it's not just Illinois," Durbin said. "It is anywhere that people dream of freedom."

However, Durbin may have gone too far on the levity scale when he retold a story about the late federal Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz of Chicago, whose collection of Lincoln books is included in the presidential library's holdings.

"Judge Marovitz used to say that his mother believed that President Lincoln was Jewish," Durbin said. "After all, his first name was Abraham, and then, to confirm it, she learned that John Wilkes Booth shot him in the temple."

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said Lincoln's life illustrated "a fundamental element of the American character, a belief that we can constantly remake ourselves to fit our larger dreams."

But Obama also made much of Lincoln's self-doubt - which may have been a subtle way of taking issue with the certainty of tone Bush has taken during the Iraq war.

"Lincoln was not a perfect man nor a perfect president," Obama said. "By modern standards, his condemnation of slavery might be considered tentative, his Emancipation Proclamation more a military document than a clarion call for justice. He wasn't immune to political considerations. His temperament could be indecisive and morose."

Still, Obama said, "perhaps because of a painful self-awareness of his own failings," Lincoln kept his moral compass in ending slavery and holding the nation together through civil war.

"He did not equivocate or duck or pass the challenge on to future generations," Obama said.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat and professed admirer of Lincoln, lauded library and museum executive director Richard Norton Smith, whom Blagojevich appointed, for his work at other institutions named for politicians, among them Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole.

"Richard, you don't do Democrats, do you?" Blagojevich joked.

The governor also used his speech to take aim at those who have criticized the museum for being too much like a Disney production and not enough like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

"There is nothing ordinary about this museum," he said. "It has been called untraditional. But Lincoln was untraditional, too. ... This is not a shrine. Neither is it a mausoleum. Mausoleums house the dead, and in these galleries you will meet Lincoln living - the successful lawyer, the towering statesman, the wartime president who was the target of unrelenting attacks long before he joined the immortals on Mount Rushmore."

But imperfections are also there, Blagojevich said, including Lincoln being "an awkward suitor, a compulsive storyteller and an indulgent parent."

"Yet this only magnifies his achievement," the governor said. "Because in conceding Lincoln's humanity, we merely confirm his heroism."

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, is campaigning for a possible run for governor in 2006, but near the end of his speech gave Blagojevich "a special word of thanks" for bringing Smith to the museum.

Both LaHood and Blagojevich mentioned past governors who pushed along the project, including Jim Edgar and, yes, the embattled George Ryan. Both were in attendance, with Edgar, who now heads the library foundation, on the stage and Ryan near the front of the audience.

LaHood also praised U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a former state lawmaker now living in Plano. Hastert, who helped secure federal funding for the library and museum, also found in Lincoln's example a reason to praise Bush, whom he introduced. Hastert greeted nine Illinois House members at the event but singled out LaHood, in whose district the Lincoln complex sits, for pushing to get the project done.

"When visitors enter this complex, they will ... see that Lincoln had the power of his convictions and stayed true to what he knew was right, regardless of what his critics and the press had to say," Hastert said.

"George W. Bush has led the United States through some of the most trying days in our most modern history," Hastert added. "He's seen the realities of war, and he understands the weight of making decisions that literally can mean life and death. Faced with unimaginable challenges, he has responded time and again with a strength and a conviction that makes this nation proud to call him our president."

And while some other speakers referred to Lincoln as the greatest president as Bush sat on the stage, Hastert was more circumspect, perhaps in deference to Bush. He called Lincoln "one of our nation's greatest presidents."

Bernard Schoenburg can be reached at 788-1540 or bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.



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