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Interest in Abe is stronger than ever

Two hundred years after his birth on February 12, 1809, why can't we get enough of Abraham Lincoln?

Born in Kentucky, risen to political prominence in Illinois, Lincoln was ungainly and unpolished. His wife, Lexington's Mary Todd Lincoln, specialized in finding new ways to be crazy. Lincoln presided over a civil war on American soil whose barbarity has never been matched, killing more than 618,000.

And yet for many Americans, he is their favorite president ever. President Barack Obama, who has named Lincoln one of his heroes, took his oath of office on the same Bible used to swear in Lincoln.

The 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth has led to an unprecedented flood of books on a man whose every action has already been endlessly dissected — from the persuasiveness of his writing to the lofty egos of his cabinet members to his catastrophic marriage to how very much he was like Charles Darwin. (Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day in 1809: Talk about your natural selection.)

Millard Fillmore, we hardly knew you. Abraham Lincoln, we already know you better than our old granddad.

Author Charles Bracelen Flood's wife, Kathy, noted on a trip to Springfield, Ill., that an exposition hall had been turned into a Lincoln-themed mall that she termed "Six Flags Under Lincoln," featuring Lincoln T-shirts, Lincoln umbrellas and Lincoln dolls. Says Charles Bracelen Flood, author of the just-released 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History: "I think what you're seeing is a big spike in an already huge thing, a Lincoln industry almost."

Douglas Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College and author of Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, said Lincoln is a subject that authors approach like an eternal well: "There are said to be more books about him than anyone but Jesus and Shakespeare. ... The last 15 years has seen something like a renaissance in Lincoln studies, with an unusually large number of worthwhile books with something new to tell us."

Wilson and his partner are compiling the letters, lectures and interviews of Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, a work they think shows a different Lincoln from the one initially filtered through the writing of Herndon's collaborator, Jesse W. Weik: "Herndon's Lincoln is more reserved, intellectual, contemplative, secretive, and he is a thorough-going fatalist, something that has often been noted about Lincoln but never really applied."

Wilson sees a lot of the Lincoln publishing bulk — some of it, he thinks, inspired, and some that "only represents the author's attempt to put down his or her understanding of what Lincoln was or was not."

No Lincoln trifle goes unpublished, unrecorded, unfilmed, undissected.

Walter Huston, one of the first to assay the Lincoln role, in D.W. Griffith's Lincoln in 1930, did so in enough makeup that he resembled VH-1 reality showboat Bret Michaels. The role of the Great Emancipator also has drawn Kris Kristofferson, Raymond Massey and Hal Holbrook. Sam Waterston of Law and Order took on the Lincoln role opposite Mary Tyler Moore as a particularly manic Mary Todd Lincoln. Any of these performances that aren't available at Netflix can be found moldering on a VHS tape somewhere on eBay.

Can't get enough of the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Actors David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) deliver them, unabridged, on 14 CDs spanning 16 hours (BBC Audiobooks America, $39.95).

Or perhaps your taste runs more toward the light lifting of Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel (The Bowen Press/Collins, $9.99) As a midpoint, you might want to go the military-strategy route: Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (Penguin Press, $35).

Lincoln might not have known that he had a special destiny in the way that CNN and Internet pundit-anointed presidents know. But, says Flood, Lincoln knew he was special: "This shambling, rumpled figure with the sad face and the sudden sweet smile was a man for all seasons, arriving in the nation's winter, its darkest hour, believing that God would yet grant America a rich harvest."

Doris Kearns Goodwin's 916-page Team of Rivals is the gold standard of recent Lincoln literature, said to have inspired President Obama to appoint the talented yet thorny likes of such rivals as Hillary Clinton. Lincoln did the same, roping in Salmon Chase as secretary of the treasury, William Seward as secretary of state and Edward Bates as attorney general. Flood's book states that while Lincoln and Seward became close friends, the talented and slickly ambitious Chase was a right royal pain to Lincoln for years to come.

Lincoln seems to us to have descended from the political heavens. But there were times when he was overwhelmingly unpopular, even among his natural constituencies. Although he had an early grasp of retail politics — insisting on dealing with voters up close and personal — he was notoriously slipshod in regulating patronage.

And then there was Mary Todd, who once bought 400 pairs of gloves in three months. Flood relates a memorable scene from that marriage: Mary Todd was waiting impatiently for her husband to appear at lunch. She stalked into his office, "the picture of imperious indignation. Still listening carefully to what was being said in the conference, the 6-foot-4 president rose, put his exceptionally large hands on the sides of his 5-foot-2 wife's shoulders, lifted her off the carpet, wordlessly carried her through the door, and set her down in the hall."

But Lincoln's troubles were not all as easily subdued as his fiery little wife.

Even after his 1864 re-election, Lincoln had hometown detractors. Notes Flood: "In Lincoln's town of Springfield, the Illinois State Register said that his re-election was 'the heaviest calamity that ever befell this nation.'"

Flood adds: "Jefferson Davis remained defiant and determined, but Confederate soldiers who saw no point in further fighting began a surge of desertions."

The Lincoln-Andrew Johnson ticket — which ran with the slogan "Don't change horses in the middle of a stream" — beat George McClellan by 10 percent of the popular vote. They carried every state that voted — except New Jersey, Delaware and Kentucky.

A week after Lincoln's victory, Gen. William Sherman rode out of Atlanta, which he described as "smouldering and ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air and hanging like a pall over the city."

Lincoln's last Christmas "gift," presented to him by Sherman, was the capture of Savannah.

Flood fudges a bit with his 1864 time line, ending his book with Lincoln's 1865 inauguration speech: "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 ..."

These are words that are branded into the American political consciousness, the great American rhetoric that draws floods of tourists toward Washington's Lincoln Memorial: "We gravitate toward that big seated white figure," Flood says. "It's sort of a secular temple."