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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Looking back at Lincoln's life and leadership

The upcoming 2009 bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth is inspiring a flood of new Lincoln scholarship; Steve Raymond reviews three new books about Lincoln's strengths and challenges, by Harold Holzer, William Marvel and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson.

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Next year this country will celebrate the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, and authors and historians are producing a new flood of Lincoln scholarship to mark the occasion. Here's a roundup of three new and recently published books on one of our nation's most revered, and sometimes controversial, presidents.

The long wait to take office

In 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the interval between election and inauguration was twice as long as it is now. What Lincoln did during those four months has long been a topic of interest to historians. Most have concluded that he did not distinguish himself during that period.

Harold Holzer is not among those. In "Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-61" (Simon & Schuster, 595 pp., $30), Holzer, a Lincoln scholar with a distinguished list of titles to his credit, provides an unprecedentedly detailed look at Lincoln's activities during that crucial period, when the nation held its breath while Southern states seceded from the Union. Under enormous pressure to say or do something in response to the crisis, Lincoln abstained because, as president-elect, he still lacked authority. But he kept busy; office seekers badgered him around the clock, potential Cabinet appointees vied continually for his favor and in rare private moments the exhausted Lincoln scribbled notes that eventually found their way into his inaugural address.

Holzer offers a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of Lincoln's life during this time, including some nice human touches: Lincoln never did learn to spell "inaugural" correctly, and on the morning of his inauguration ceremony he forgot to pay his bill when he checked out of his Washington, D.C., hotel.

This is a superb book, impeccably researched and entertainingly written.

A bad year — but this bad?

In the preface to "Lincoln's Darkest Year: The War in 1862" (Houghton Mifflin, 422 pp., $30), William Marvel places himself firmly among the ranks of revisionist historians and says: "Mr. Lincoln does endure a little additional criticism in this volume." What an understatement! Marvel calls Lincoln a hypocrite, liar, lifelong racist and a bumbling tyrant who trampled the Constitution and civil rights. His assessment of the Union war effort and public attitudes is equally harsh and gloomy.

To be sure, 1862 was a bad year for Lincoln and the Union, but Marvel's relentless negativism makes it seem even worse than it was. If you didn't know the war's outcome and read no other book, you'd surely conclude Lincoln's administration was a disastrous failure and the Union lost the war. That's closer to distortion than revisionism.

For all that, Marvel does provide some good high-level descriptions of the battles of 1862 and some interesting details about recruiting problems, explosions in various Union and Confederate arsenals, difficulties in financing the war, desertions, disease, debates over conscription and even the treatment of horses in the Civil War. But he has a dismaying habit of attributing statements to unnamed sources and sometimes makes sweeping generalizations with minimal evidence to back them up.

Lincoln the commander

In "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief" (Penguin,307pp.,$32.95), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James M. McPherson considers almost exactly the same circumstances and events and arrives at almost exactly opposite conclusions. Noting that few Lincoln scholars have ever closely assessed the 16th president's performance as military commander-in-chief, McPherson zeros in on that role and evaluates Lincoln's actions in establishing policy, national strategy and military strategy, operations and tactics.

"In all five functions ... Lincoln's conception and performance was dynamic rather than static," McPherson says. "He oversaw the evolution of the war from one of limited ends with limited means to a full-scale effort that destroyed the old Union and built a new and better one on its ashes." Not that his performance was perfect; McPherson acknowledges Lincoln "went through some rough patches. He made mistakes — but he also learned from those mistakes."

What about his suspension of civil rights? "I conceive that I may in an emergency do things on military grounds that cannot be done constitutionally by Congress," Lincoln said. Constitutional scholars still debate that point, but a federal appeals court backed Lincoln in at least one instance.

McPherson credits Lincoln for having the gift of explaining complex matters in easily understood terms — a gift McPherson also enjoys. This book breaks little new ground, but it might well have been written in direct response to Marvel's polemic.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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