The Lincoln Effect: Are we taking advantage of Honest Abe’s good name?

From car commercials to an imagined third Chicago airport, Lincoln’s aura proves irresistible.

February 22, 2013

This month many Americans celebrated what would have been the 204th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.

But if recent popular culture is any indication, our 16th president is still alive and well.

Daniel Day Lewis’ strong performance as the president in Lincoln may help Steven Spielberg’s film sweep the Oscars -- it’s up for 12 awards.

Ford brought him back to sell cars. In the ad, which premiered at the Superbowl, Lincoln strides out of the mist, wearing tinted shades, with his coat tails flapping in the wind.

And in a Saturday Night Live skit, comedian Louie C.K. depicts Lincoln as a henpecked husband, running late for the theatre. You can watch the entire segment above.

Now maybe it’s just the view from Illinois, but doesn’t it feel like we’ve gone too far?

Do we really appreciate Honest Abe? Or are we taking advantage of him?

“The fact that he’s in the public domain doesn’t necessarily mean we should use him as a poster child for, you know, a sale for clothing or furniture in February,” says Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation.

As a person charged with protecting his legacy, Knorowski said Lincoln needs an agent, and in fact she already considers herself the “self-appointed agent of Abe.”

But Knorowski says it’s not just her. Everyone can find something to like in Lincoln, the everyman.

She gave me a laundry list of his attributes: That he was “self-taught, had a sense of fairness, and honesty”.

She also referenced his skills as a poet, inventor and “one of our greatest humorists”.

Still, some of our tributes to Lincoln can seem kind of funny, like we’re just adding his name to something to make it sound better. 

I’ve deemed it the “Lincoln Effect.”

Here’s an example.

In 2004, Donald Peloquin, the longtime Mayor of Blue Island, tried to get a bunch of southwest suburban municipalities to actually secede from Cook County.

He and his band of rebels thought Cook was too big, too wasteful, and neglecting suburban taxpayers.

So they wanted to break off and create a new county. To help sell this controversial idea, he decided to call it Lincoln.

I asked Peloquin why, and he told me the answer was simple.

“The State’s motto is the land of Lincoln. And there’s no Lincoln County. 103 counties and not one of them named Lincoln”.

So naming his county Lincoln would help people get on board with the idea?

“Well, I...yeah sure, partially,” Peloquin said “But the big thing is the credibility and the honesty and integrity that go with the name”. He added, “I think the ability to say we’re going to start a new county and create it on the basis of what Lincoln promised and that’d be honest and truthful government”.

Peloquin’s secession bid was a non-starter. But another effort he supports, which also has a Lincoln connection, is still up in the air.

For decades people have been talking about building a third airport in the southern suburbs.

But politics, environmental concerns, and competing airport proposals always got in the way.

Then in 2005 it became the pet project of former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.

Last year, Jackson Jr. led a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site, even though no plans for the airport have been finalized.

Still, in his comments Jackson Jr., said “Today’s turnout clearly shows that the will of the people is to build our own future by constructing the Abraham Lincoln National Airport.”

Well, we all know what happened to Jackson, and so far, invoking Honest Abe hasn’t helped the airport either. 

So is it a stretch to keep Lincoln’s name attached to it?

When I put the question to Donald Peloquin he said “I guess if you look at it that way. You know I look at it as it’s for the people. And he was always for the people”.

Sure. And of the people and by the people.

But arguments for airports or state pension fights are a long way from Lincoln’s high ideals and stirring oratory.

When you look at the state of Illinois politics you have to wonder are we really hitting the Lincoln bar all that often?

Maybe not but Peloquin says it’s still worth conjuring the spirit of Lincoln “because we have to turn it around.”

Peloquin is not the only one looking back to Lincoln for a political fix. Spielberg’s movie projects the same fantasy.

But maybe, even in the land of Lincoln, it’s time to move on. 

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