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Separating mythos from the mortal
on April 6, 1998
We invented Abraham Lincoln. Not the man, of course, but the myth, that solemn and statuesque giant memorialized eternally overlooking the Capitol mall. The power of that myth and the quiet dignity of its personage dwarfs us all. But the myth is not the man. Myths never are. Stephen Oates in his _Abraham Lincoln, The Man Behind the Myths_, does not seek to diminish the man but rather to clarify him, separating the mythos from the mortal. And it is not an undaunting task, it seems, for overly soon after Lincoln's tragic end the mills began to churn. The public's shredding of the White House interior for mementos while Mary Lincoln lay debilitated in the next room seems symbolic of the wolfpack mentality in Washington even today. And every new memoir published by another family acquaintance of the Lincoln's almost always got it wrong, and tore anew at the heart of the family. We may not have memorialized and glorified our modern-day tragic heroes to such an extent, for we have simultaneously tried to scandalize them. But the tabloid trade it seems has always been a yellow paper. Even Lincoln was vilified in his time and after. He was, Oates, reminds us, one of the most unpopular living presidents of our history. But though the legacy ballooned to heroic proportions after his passing, the man seems to have been lost in it all, remaining only in the hearts of the family leaving quietly and unattended down the steps of the White House never to return.