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First lady kicks off Lincoln fund-raiser

HODGENVILLE — Speaking from the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, first lady Laura Bush kicked off an initiative to raise money for the continued preservation of six key sites associated with the 16th president.

"The national parks have always relied on the contributions from individual citizens," Bush said. She noted that the memorial building that holds a symbolic Lincoln birthplace cabin was built "as part of a private movement with the help of donations as small as a quarter."

Likewise, the "Give a Lincoln For Lincoln" program announced Tuesday asks Americans to donate Lincoln-head pennies, $5 bills or larger contributions to preserve the birthplace and other sites across the nation.

Donations will also benefit the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana; the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Illinois; the Lincoln Memorial, Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldier's Home, and Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, all in Washington, D.C. The last site is where the president was shot by an assassin in 1865.

"Both the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and this Kentucky cabin are fitting tributes to President Lincoln," Bush said. "Together, these monuments tell the story of an ordinary man who answered the call to greatness and led America during a great Civil War."

Bush told reporters later, "Lincoln is really the president you're so aware of when you live in the White House because you know how very, very difficult his life was and the times were. And you know America faced challenges and overcame them."

During her visit to the park, Bush watched Rod Blanton give a rail-splitting demonstration, heard Donna Starcher tell how wool was spun on a wheel, and spoke with students from nearby Abraham Lincoln Elementary School.

"Are these real Lincoln Logs?" Bush asked about the materials the students used to build small cabins. She was assured that they were.

"Those are the kind of toys that everybody had when my husband and I were little," Bush said. "This was before Legos and everything was plastic, so we had real Lincoln Logs."

The 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth will be Feb. 12, but the bicentennial celebration began this past February in Hodgenville. Bush had been scheduled to attend then, but ice, rain and snow canceled her visit.

Lincoln look-alike Jim Sayre of Lawrenceburg, who shared the stage Tuesday with Bush and U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, said: "It's always a pleasure to be Mr. Lincoln, but it was quite an honor to be with her today. It was an honor I didn't think I'd ever have."

Sayre, 73, has portrayed Lincoln for 26 years and has won a look-alike contest in Hodgenville four times.

"Mr. Lincoln is the Great Emancipator and I'm the Great Pretender," he said.

Shelby Watkins, 10, of Leitchfield was assigned Monday to cover the first lady's visit for Weekly Reader, a national student paper.

"I was really shocked when I heard that I would get to cover her," Shelby said.

"So we got educational leave for her to be gone from school today," said Tim Watkins, her father. "Dad took off to go, too."

So during an impromptu press conference after the formal remarks, Shelby asked Bush to talk about Lincoln's importance now that the country has elected Barack Obama, its first African-American president.

"The founders of our country had already written 'All men are created equal' into our Constitution, but we didn't live that way," Bush said. "And it took us a long time, through the Civil War, to abolish slavery, and then even longer than that, through the civil rights movement of 1960s."

"So I think it's very, very important now, as we look back and have all the hindsight we have, we realize the importance of a leader like Abraham Lincoln. He not only ... didn't want slavery, but he really wanted the country to be united. He didn't want the country to be divided."

Bush said that when she visited Rwanda earlier this year, students asked how the United States brought reconciliation after its Civil War. The question was particularly poignant because some 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered within a matter of months in 1994. Bush noted that Lincoln did not want "a punitive peace," and he did not want the North to punish the South for secession.

"And I could say that we had a president who made it really his cause to bring the Union together as fast as possible," Bush said. "And we were very, very fortunate to have a man like Abraham Lincoln as one of our presidents."

Shelby said later: "She's very good at giving answers."