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A Copley Newspaper
Serving Central Illinois
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Planners seek $100 million for Lincoln bicentennial

Published Sunday, February 19, 2006

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 Lincoln Memorial.

The events 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 renewal."

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 relations.

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 communications director.

"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 care of."

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 dori.meinert(at)copleydc.com

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