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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Looking for Lincoln'

PBS and Henry Louis Gates Jr. hunt for the truth in the myths around the 16th president.

February 11, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Two hundred years after his birth, it's difficult to imagine there's anything new to say about Abraham Lincoln. The 16th and most universally beloved president has been analyzed, mythologized, deconstructed and reconstructed in pretty much every medium available to humanity. Books, films, poems and songs -- you name it, there's one about Abraham Lincoln. Every president in recent memory names him as a role model. Barack Obama was sworn in on the Lincoln Bible, his inaugural dinner echoed Lincoln's menu -- President Obama has done everything to pay the great man homage but wear a stovepipe hat.

But it is precisely this overwhelming amount of information, this breathtaking mountain of admiration and fascination that prompted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.~aaas/faculty/henry_louis_gates_jr/index.html to take to the road in "Looking for Lincoln." Stitching together interviews with scholars, biographers, Lincoln impersonators, memorabilia collectors, teachers, students, black radicals, supporters of the Confederacy and ordinary Americans, Gates reexamines the shrine we have collectively built for Honest Abe in the hopes of finding not only the real man but also the reason we built such an elaborate and seemingly unassailable shrine in the first place.

For Gates, the reason was simple: As an African American, he saw, as he was taught to see, Lincoln as the man who single-handedly freed his people. Although it is difficult to believe that a man of Gates' intelligence and scholarly standing would not have realized it was more complicated than that, he uses his own childlike adoration as a way into his tale, the luminous image that will then be shaded with opposing interpretation and reality.

Lincoln is a man difficult to understand because he has no equivalent. No American president has come into office with a country so divided; no other political issue has matched the enormity of slavery. And much of the standard Lincoln mythology bears up under scrutiny: He was born poor, lost his mother young, developed a good sense of humor and a scrupulous honesty, was a lifelong opponent of slavery.

But some details have been glossed over or omitted from the schoolhouse recitations. Lincoln was, as many now know, plagued by depression all his life. Far from a simple country lawyer, he was highly ambitious and politically calculating -- the Emancipation Proclamation was born of the need to cripple a Confederacy that had stood surprisingly well against the Union troops as much as it was a desire to right a great wrong. His original plan was for the freed slaves to emigrate; he did not champion equality of the races.

But more interesting than the idea that Lincoln, though a visionary, was not quite modern in his racial sensibilities are Gates' visits to those who consider him a tyrant and a sham. We hear from Southerners who see the Civil War as the defeat of a government rather than an army of traitors and from black radicals who point out that, though many of his contemporaries worked tirelessly for abolition, Lincoln did not.

Providing more balanced insights are former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as several well-known Lincoln scholars, including the ever-popular Doris Kearns Goodwin, all of whom acknowledge the man's limitations and mistakes but consider them further proof of his extraordinary achievements.

"Looking for Lincoln" reaches no real great conclusion beyond the fact that there are definitive moments in history and that people can change its course. In the end, history is a story we tell ourselves to keep hope alive and fear at bay -- a thought Mr. Lincoln, a historian, would no doubt appreciate.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Looking for Lincoln'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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