Panel to study Lincoln

Conservatives unimpressed by focus on first GOP president

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

For those who deem Gov. Bill Ritter’s frequent formation of “blue ribbon” commissions a waste of time, the press release his office dropped into in-boxes Nov. 20 must have looked like manna from heaven.

“New commission to study the significance of Abraham Lincoln Presidency in preparation of 2009 bicentennial celebration,” the press release began.

As the stock market plunged for the second straight day, the press release announced that Ritter had created, through a Nov. 4 executive order, a 20-person Abraham Lincoln Commission. Commission members from throughout the state would be at the governor’s disposal for the next 14 months. During that time, they would promote Lincoln-related events, awareness of Lincoln’s role in shaping the West, and would encourage civic “engagement” and “dialogue” about the 16th president — all in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in February.

It’s safe to say that the executive order — signed one year and two days after Ritter signed an order granting state workers the right to join unions — would not create as much of a stir as its predecessor.

Nor is discussion of Lincoln’s significance likely to stray into such politically dicey territory as that encountered by members of previous commissions formed by Ritter to study transportation, education and health care.

“Hopefully, this one will be a little less controversial,” said Margaret Coval, a member of the Lincoln Commission and executive director for the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities, as she waited for the commission’s first meeting to begin on Friday, Nov. 21.

No lie. Major topics at the first Colorado Lincoln Commission meeting, attended by all but a few of the panel’s members, included whether schools should hold essay contests about Lincoln; the promotion of a PBS documentary in February entitled Looking for Lincoln; and whether to create a traveling Lincoln exhibit.

Although it seems innocent enough, the creation of yet another commission is a pitch straight down the middle to Republican critics, who complain that Ritter is all too fond of forming the citizen review panels. Creation of the Lincoln Commission comes on the heels of Ritter’s formation of a seven-person panel to help choose a new secretary of state, which the governor could have done without consultation.

Critics say the commissions allow Ritter to shift responsibility on hard decisions and to justify inaction.

“Calling all patriots: don a blue ribbon and join the ranks of Colorado’s shadow executive,” reacted Brad Jones, of the conservative political blog Face the State, which has dubbed Ritter, “Blue Ribbon Bill.”

“Heaven forbid Ritter make a command decision,” Jones added.

Reaction from the left was equally swift and snarky. A post about the Lincoln Commission on the political blog ColoradoPols.com entitled “Going Commission Crazy” generated 35 mostly negative responses.

There are no politically difficult decisions to pass off here. Rather, Ritter’s executive order begs whether any issue with Lincoln-awareness in Colorado would require a panel of 20 to fix it. The word “commission” would seem to indicate that there’s some sort of a problem at hand.

It wouldn’t seem so. Lincoln was dead wrong when he said the world would little note nor long remember what he said. According to Theodore Besterman’s A World Bibliography of Bibliographies, Lincoln is the fifth most written-about figure in human history, behind only William Shakespeare, the Italian poet Dante, the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes. (Jesus, surprisingly, came in 51st overall.) More ink has been used on Lincoln than on any other American, according to Besterman.

But, as with most issues, the forces behind the creation of the Lincoln Commission are more complex than first meets the eye.

In 1999, Congress created the national “Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission” to study and recommend to Congress activities for commemorating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. In those more prosperous times, Congress decided the national commission, consisting of 11 members, would have four years to report on its findings and recommendations. Between 2000 and 2004, the Congressional Budget Office estimated at the time, the commission would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million.

In more recent years, the national panel has continued meeting on a quarterly basis. And a full decade of planning has resulted in a federal push to hold Lincoln blowouts in all 50 states.

Although Colorado’s commission might seem a bit overpopulated, its leaders say Colorado (which didn’t gain statehood until more than a decade after Lincoln’s death, and thus is less connected to Lincoln than many other states) actually is behind the national curve when it comes to Lincoln-love. Kentucky, where Lincoln was born; Illinois, where Lincoln made his home; and Pennsylvania, site of the Gettysburg Address, apparently have had extravagant celebrations in the works for some time now.

The effort in Colorado “has no resources to speak of,” according to Wendell Pryor, director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division, who serves as Colorado’s envoy to the national commission and is co-chairing the Colorado panel.

A Republican and a Democrat from the state Legislature sit on the Colorado Lincoln Commission. The Republican, Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, is otherwise best known for getting a law passed requiring parental notification before teenagers can get abortions. Harvey was a no-show at the first meeting.

The Democrat, Rep. Nancy Todd, of Aurora, promised at the first meeting to introduce a ceremonial resolution promoting the study of Lincoln in schools. Like the penny that bears Lincoln’s likeness, Todd fears that one day Honest Abe lore could become obsolete.

“There’s so much more history for students to learn” than when Todd was in school, she said, worrying that Lincoln could be cut from curriculums.

Plus, panel members said, lessons of the Lincoln presidency are relevant to the ascension of president-elect Barack Obama, who kicked off his campaign on the steps of the Illinois Capitol in Springfield, and who is drawing comparisons to Lincoln with his probable appointment of Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, a move that parallels Lincoln’s appointment of a “team of rivals” to his own cabinet.

Still, even to those without a Douglas Bruce-like aversion to ceremonial pomp in government, the appointment of a 20-person commission to promote Lincoln for 14 months could look like a waste of time, especially with much more pressing issues facing the state. The collapse of the financial system, for instance.

Then again, if unpaid panel members are willing to volunteer their time to tout Lincoln, what’s really the problem?

At the least, given that “commission” has become something of a dirty word for Ritter, perhaps next time the governor could forgo the fancy press release, ditch the commission rhetoric, and simply dub the effort a “study.”