In making “Looking for Lincoln,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. learned that the legacy of the 16th president is more complicated than the legend he always believed.
Abraham Lincoln has been cast in conflicting roles, such as emancipator and white supremacist, war criminal and savior of the Union, said Gates, who hosts the two-hour PBS special tonight at 9, the day before Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
“Rather than try to find one Lincoln that was authentic, I wanted to find all the Lincolns,” he says.
Gates, a Harvard history professor and co-founder of TheRoot.com, an online magazine of African American culture, also wrote and executive produced “Looking for Lincoln.”
He said the special took about a year to complete and included trips to Lincoln-related sites around the country as well as interviews with fellow historians and others, including former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Gates struggled to reconcile some of the less flattering aspects of the president’s biography with what he calls the “cult of Abraham Lincoln” that exists in America.
Lincoln used racist language, talked about differences between the races and for a time favored exporting blacks to places such as Liberia. Those discoveries angered Gates.
But in the documentary, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian who wrote the acclaimed book “Team of Rivals” about Lincoln’s administration, says Lincoln never would have wanted to be memorialized as a saint.
“I just realize that everybody needed Lincoln to serve a function, so they shaved off two of his dimensions and they made him one-dimensional,” Gates says.
He hopes viewers gain a similar understanding of the nuances of Lincoln’s character: “It turns out that I admire him even more … now that I have uncovered all his warts.”