WASHINGTON - Planners of the
bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birth in
2009 want to raise $100 million for what they hope will
be an unforgettable commemoration of the nation's 16th
president that will go far beyond fireworks at the
marking the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth also
will be aimed at increasing Americans' understanding of
Lincoln's commitment to the ideals of freedom, democracy
and equal opportunity for all.
"Our goal is both to enhance appreciation of one of
our greatest leaders and his legacy, but, perhaps more
broadly, to stimulate a broader interest in history
amongst Americans of all different ages and
backgrounds," said the commission's executive director,
Michael Bishop. "It's an opportunity for profound civic
The highlight will be a nationally televised
rededication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on
Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, 2009, featuring fireworks,
music and a presidential address. The event, estimated
to cost $2.5 million, is meant to stimulate national
discussion on equality, opportunity, race and race
The official kick-off will be Feb. 12, 2008, at
Lincoln's birthplace in Hodgenville, Ky. Commissioners
are considering holding a final ceremony Feb. 12, 2010,
in Springfield, where Lincoln spent his adult years
before he became president and where his body is buried.
"As Lincoln ended his earthly journey in Springfield,
so too we may end our national celebration there," said
Bishop, who said a final decision on the location for
the concluding ceremony will be made later this year.
At a meeting in Washington last week, the
bicentennial commission, co-chaired by U.S. Sen. Dick
Durbin, D-Ill., U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, and
Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, and more than 100
advisory council members came to together to flesh out
details of more than 40 possible programs and to
coordinate with scores more being planned by states.
"This is a big undertaking, and we've put a lot into
it. I think we're gaining momentum. There's a lot to be
done between now and 2009," said Durbin, who missed the
meeting because the Senate was in session. "And many
things are happening that complement our efforts."
The bicentennial activities might include at least
three traveling Lincoln exhibits, including one led by
the Library of Congress that would feature significant
Lincoln writings and artifacts with scheduled stops in
Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and possibly Atlanta.
The public may be able to participate in a range of
other ways, from town hall meetings on race and racism
to a coast-to-coast antique car parade on what used to
be the Lincoln Highway.
To create a lasting tribute to Lincoln on the
occasion of the bicentennial, commissioners hope to
create a sculpture garden in Washington, with castings
of great Lincoln statues and possibly a newly
commissioned one. The commission also has endorsed a
proposal by the nonprofit group, Heritage Preservation,
to restore existing outdoor Lincoln sculptures around
the country. Plans also call for the Gettysburg Address
to be translated into 200 languages.
The bicentennial activities also will have a strong
educational component, ranging from an international
conference on slavery to Lincoln-themed lesson plans for
kindergarten to high school students. The lesson plans
are scheduled to be available on the commission's Web
site, www.lincoln200.gov, later this spring. Scholastic
Inc. plans to feature Lincoln books in school book fairs
around the country in 2009.
Fundraising will be the biggest challenge and will
capture much of the commission's board and staff
attention in the coming year. The commission estimates
it needs $100 million in private donations to pay for
the bicentennial programs. The commission's operating
costs, which were just under $600,000 last year, are
funded by Congress. Its staff has doubled, from three to
six full-time positions, in the past year and may
increase again this year, Bishop said.
Durbin and LaHood have introduced matching bills in
the Senate and the House to authorize the U.S. Mint to
issue commemorative coins that could generate as much as
$3 million for the commission's goal.
Meanwhile, the commission has hired a professional
fundraiser to help target major donors and corporate
sponsors. A "Lincoln Cabinet" is being pulled together
with well-known figures such as former New York Gov.
Mario Cuomo, who authored "Why Lincoln Matters: Today
More Than Ever," to reach out to civic-minded donors
with deep pockets. Three other Cabinet members tapped so
far are: Terrance McDermott, former head of the National
Association of Realtors; Fox Television executive Dennis
Swanson, who grew up in Springfield; and Roger Hertog,
board vice president of Alliance Capital Management L.P.
The commission hopes to be able to give "seed money"
to state bicentennial commissions. Illinois, Indiana,
Kentucky and Rhode Island so far have established their
own bicentennial commissions.
"We want to make sure whatever we do, we do it in a
very first class way and do it in a way that holds up
his presidency and life," said LaHood, who didn't attend
the last meeting due to illness.
Apathy is another major hurdle for the bicentennial
planners. While Lincoln is still considered by most to
be one of the country's greatest presidents, Americans'
knowledge and interest in history is at a low point,
said David Early, the commission's newly hired
"What's competing for our attention?" asked Early.
"Daily living. People are preoccupied with daily living.
They have PTA meetings to go to ... car repairs to take
One way they hope to grab people's attention is
through a redesign of the Lincoln penny, which nearly
everyone carries. Durbin and LaHood successfully pushed
legislation last year requiring a redesign of the back
side of the Lincoln penny, which was first issued in
1909 for the centennial celebration of Lincoln's birth.
Four new designs, to be issued in 2009, will depict four
phases of Lincoln's life.
Controversial topics surrounding Lincoln, including
his views on race and slavery, won't be avoided. In
fact, they are being built into the bicentennial
observances as a way to encourage people to think about
the nation's "unfinished work," words used by Lincoln in
the Gettysburg Address, planners said.
"Lincoln may be a revered icon, but he's also an
historical figure about whom passions often run high.
Certainly, we would like to make a vigorous and healthy
debate about Lincoln and his legacy an important part of
our bicentennial activities," Bishop said.
Lincoln College history professor Ron Keller, a
member of the bicentennial advisory council, welcomes
even the heated discussion.
"Racism is something that's going to be discussed
very openly. I'm glad to see that, because Lincoln was,
by our standards, racist. But he was ... a very
progressive thinker" for his time, Keller said.
"I think the commission is wanting to have a very
honest and open view of Lincoln and his legacy, and I
think that's wonderful."
It proves, Keller said, that "Lincoln still matters.
Two hundred years later, he matters to us."
Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or