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A fresh recasting of the image of Honest Abe

For most of the past 200 years, men and women from all walks of life have attempted to define Abraham Lincoln.

During the first 50 years, the challenge of defining this dynamic, robust, always charming hayseed was in the hands of his colleagues, his adversaries, his sympathizers, his critics and the American voter.

During the next 150 years, that thankless task fell first to the journalists, those who get the first cut at history, and then to the traditional academic historians.

That task has not come easy at any time - certainly not in the midst of the Civil War, nor the day after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation - because defining the man who signed his name humbly as A. Lincoln is like defining a sunrise. It recasts itself with every passing moment.

In this 200th anniversary year of the birth of Lincoln, authors are falling over each other to publish books on the nation's 16th president.

So just how successful is historian Ronald C. White in his major new biography of the president whose voluminous biographies already easily fill two shelves at the local Barnes & Noble?

Very Successful. If the aim is to define Lincoln to the 21st century reader as an enigma - the perplexing, baffling, seemingly inexplicable leader of a crumbling nation - then White has hit the mark.

This is the Abraham Lincoln who says one thing and does another, who professes no religion but displays a deep spirituality. This is the Lincoln who when faced with the most serious moral and political questions of the century, scratches little notes to himself and tucks them in his hat or desk drawer.

Some called him brooding, slow to act, even lacking in the basic human instinct to grasp the most attractive straw. White would disagree. He would make the case that Lincoln, when confronted with a simple problem, would hit immediately upon the simple and irrevocable answer.

But if the question were immensely complex, say the preservation of the Union despite the passionate and irreconcilable differences over the essence of the African slave, the answer might take years to jell. Yet once every avenue was researched, digested and studied from every possible angle, there would be no turning away from the inevitable conclusion.

This is a thoughtful and scholarly biography, but it is an exciting biography. To paraphrase an old jolly monk who taught this critic a half-century ago: There can be no more exciting a story than good history.

Whether it is Lincoln as the young self-taught lawyer in the backwaters of Illinois, or Lincoln the president, watching the final defeat of the Confederate army with a relieved but sorrowful heart, White sees the events of each day through the eyes of Lincoln.

Ronald C. White is a recognized Lincoln expert. This is his third major Lincoln book. The first two, "The Eloquent President" and "Lincoln's Great Speech" were best sellers. This volume probably is the most significant of the three because of its scope.

In this biography, White relies heavily on Lincoln's own words in his notes to himself, in his memos and briefs to those around him, in his lengthy letters to individuals and to the public, and of course, in his great speeches, which unlike today, he wrote with his own hand.

White is an unabashed apologist for Lincoln's early hesitation on the politically divisive question of the abolition of slavery. Even as White rationalizes Lincoln's remarks in the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate, remarks that today are seen as patently racist, we see a Lincoln whose personal abhorrence of slavery is not yet ready to overcome his driving passion to preserve the Union.

The same man, less than five years later, upon signing the Emancipation Proclamation, would say: "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right."

And then, in the bleakest moments of the Civil War, when Lincoln's enemies were pressing in on him from every direction, he maintained the rare political instinct to move beyond partisanship.

Why? In his own words: So that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Right to the final days of his life, a life cut short by an assassin, we see a man who is continuing to redefine himself, a man who defies definition.

This book, for all its history, for all its research, for all its meticulous quoting of sources, is a page-turner. White has managed a complex narrative with the ease and zest of the novelist.

If you read only one Lincoln book in this bicentennial year, you would be well served to make it this one.

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Some other new Lincoln books include:

*Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan; Harper Collins (406 pages, $27.95).

This thoughtful, if at times overly scholarly, attempt to reconstruct the mental processes behind the Lincoln decisions, relies too heavily on what Lincoln is known to have read on the singular premise that a man is what he reads. Maybe, maybe not. Kaplan has all the proper credentials, but this is a decidedly academic work aimed at a select readership.

*Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, by John Stauffer; Twelve (432 pages, $30).

"Giants" is an important piece of the Lincoln bicentennial legacy. Civil War expert Stauffer strives to draw parallels in the lives of Lincoln and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and then intertwines the two lives in the triumph of freedom over slavery. This is a highly narrative and satisfying work that occasionally sacrifices total accuracy for dramatic effect. But overall it is a welcomed balance to the growing legend of Lincoln standing alone in emancipating the slave.

*Abraham Lincoln, by George McGovern; Times Books (192 pages, $22).

George McGovern, the retired senator from North Dakota and 1972 presidential candidate, has written the latest installment in the "American Presidents" series. McGovern's book might be described as a very long personal essay - about 150 pages of text - devoted mostly to Lincoln's presidency and the political decisions that marked it. This brief volume provides an overview of Lincoln in an easy-to-read format. If you've never read Lincoln beyond what was included in a textbook, this is a good, solid place to start.

*Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President, edited by Brian Lamb and Susan Swain; Public Affairs (400 pages, $27.95).

This is a collection of brief essays that sprung from C-Span interviews of 55 writers and historians. The essays are grouped together topically to form a loosely crafted portrait of Lincoln. Among the writers are well-known and respected names like Richard Norton Smith, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James McPherson, Roger Mudd, Mario Cuomo and Patrick Buchanan. Each essay is professionally written and meticulously edited, but the problems inherent in a volume like this with its conflicting voices and points of view are daunting to say the least. If you can't get enough of Lincoln, pick this one up and read your favorite authors.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.

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A. Lincoln

By Ronald C. White Jr.

Random House

796 pages, $35

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