SPRINGFIELD – Springfield is a town of hundreds of politicians, thousands of bureaucrats, and one big tomb.
And there lies Abraham Lincoln – the Great Emancipator, Preserver of the Union, Rail Splitter and scion of Springfield.
With Daniel Day Lewis playing Honest Abe on the silver screen in Steven Spielberg’s new film, national attention once again is drawn to the 16th president.
For those of us living in Springfield, we are well aware of the long, often mythical shadow he casts.
Folks from Chicago to Cairo and beyond make pilgrimages to the state capital to meditate before the tomb – and to touch the nose of his statue for good luck.
It’s one of the Prairie State’s oddest rituals.
I realized the pervasiveness of this tradition three years ago when my then 4-year-old daughter, Grace, announced: “Daddy, I rubbed Mr. Lincoln’s nose for good luck two weeks ago, but now my luck is all gone. We need to go to Mr. Lincoln’s tomb right away.”
After taking her to the cemetery and lifting her to touch the nose, I stood back and watched a parade of pilgrims from across the planet step forward to do the same.
They touched the statue with religious reverence and solemnity. And the nose is rubbed so often that a metalsmith is periodically dispatched to patch holes.
Springfield is a town composed mainly of people who wouldn’t think of bowing down before an idol – unless it is of Honest Abe.
In Abe’s case, all rationality is gone. He’s Illinois’ martyred saint.
If you grow up in Illinois and share a birthday with Lincoln, like I do, expect to be thoroughly indoctrinated in Lincoln lore.
When I was a kid, I read every Lincoln biography in the school library, had a picture of Honest Abe tacked to my bedroom bulletin board, and could rattle off Lincoln trivia the way other boys can recite baseball statistics.
When I was 8, I wanted to go to Gettysburg – not Disney World.
That’s why I like Spielberg’s movie so much. He cast Lincoln in a different light.
Rather than giving him near-messianic qualities, Spielberg depicted Lincoln as a wisecracking Illinois politician who wheeled and dealed behind the scenes to get his legislation passed.
He’s seen passing out patronage jobs to outgoing lawmakers during a lame-duck session of Congress.
His goal of freeing the slaves was honorable, but the political sausage making behind the scenes isn’t pretty.
This ruffles the feathers for many reared on the Lincoln myth.
But for me, it’s a refreshing and accurate depiction showing a flawed man with a noble purpose.
• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.