Abe, For the People

The new presidential museum for Abraham Lincoln just opened Tuesday and it already has a couple of nicknames: "Six Flags Over Lincoln" and "Abe World."

The wisecracks reflect some dissatisfaction with the museum - 140 years overdue - for its entertainment approach to history. In the Springfield, Ill., building, holographic images bring Lincoln's time vividly to life in one of the theaters, while in another, seats shake and lights flash in a Civil War rendition.

Likewise, some critics are unhappy with the museum's simplification of history - omitting, paraphrasing, or inventing audible quotes, for instance. "The problem is that some of the museum is history and some of it is not," a New York Times cultural critic noted.

The complaints miss the mark by a country mile. Museum officials rightly observe that they must appeal to today's TiVo and iPod generation, visually and virtually oriented and moving at supersonic speed.

A museum like this, which was vetted by Lincoln scholars, is far more likely to excite young people about the man who saved the Union and freed the slaves than corridors of glass cases would. And no one's putting the brake on deeper probing - the library part of the complex sees to that.

The trouble with these criticisms is they distract from the more important question of what Lincoln means to America today. David Gergen, adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents, expressed concern at the conference preceding the opening that the unifying spirit of Lincoln is fading - and needed. The nation isn't struggling with a geographic divide, but it sure is wrestling with a psychological one.

Let's be as honest as Abe: Today's politicians are happy to claim his mantle, but are they willing to wear it? Maybe a young visitor to Springfield, wowed by the Lincoln "experience," will be inspired to do just that - thanks to this welcomed museum.

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