Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Lincoln Fetish

As the birth bicentennials of Lincoln and Davis approach, Kentucky’s legislature has abandoned the traditional Blue and Gray approach of giving equal honors to both, and now we’ve even caught the Lincoln Commission circumventing the law to get a Lincoln specialty tag issued; what gives?

by Don Shelton and Joey Oller

This isn’t a story about whether Abraham Lincoln was really a tyrant and war criminal who destroyed our constitution. Folks have differing opinions on that, and are more than welcome to their own conclusions after looking at the facts of history. That debate will go on, we’re sure. This isn’t a story about how some claim there is mounting evidence that Lincoln wasn’t even born in Kentucky, or how some claim the South would have been better off if Lincoln had lived, or even how some claim that Lincoln was homosexual. There are books available if you’re interested in those topics. Those debates will go on, we’re sure.

This is an article about something that isn’t debatable: that the state of Kentucky is spending huge amounts of money to push Lincoln observances that make previous historical observances—the state’s bi-centennial for example—pale in comparison, while doing relatively nothing in for Jefferson Davis.

Historically Kentucky has played up its unique role as a state which fought on both sides of the War, and gave each side its President. This was good for fraternity—the chances for violence within the state between sides remained high during reconstruction and even afterwards. This was also good for business. Especially tourism. People like things that are Southern and Confederate, and the fratricidal nature of the War in Kentucky gives added interest.

Despite traditionally giving Lincoln equal billing to Davis, actually Lincoln was never very popular in Kentucky. In the 1860 election he received less than 1% of the vote in our state! In 1864, despite heavy-handed tactics by the occupying military government which, among other things, prevented Southern sympathizers from even being allowed to vote (there were less than 2/3 of the votes cast in 1864 than there were in 1860 in Kentucky), incumbent Lincoln still only received about 30% of the vote in Kentucky, getting crushed by McClellan (insert joke here about this being more victories than McClellan had in Virginia). After the war, the state did nothing to honor Lincoln. Of course, the returning Confederates were elected in overwhelming numbers and took over the state government after the war. Still, the Lincoln statue located in the Kentucky State Capitol building was erected privately by the J. B. Speed family; Speed was a friend of Lincoln’s from Louisville. The Lincoln statue in Hodgenville was erected privately by Robert Lincoln. Ironically, the guest speaker for the dedication was Henry Watterson of Louisville, a Confederate veteran, and the unveiling was done by Confederate widow Mrs. Ben Hardin Helm and her daughters. The Lincoln Memorial in Hodgenville was paid for by the Federal government, not the state. What the state did do was provide support funding for the Jefferson Davis monument in Fairview.

Even the “Lincoln Trail” done in the 1960’s (actually, initiated in 1915 by the Illinois legislature, but nobody picked it up until the 1960’s) was done privately. In Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, author Andrew Ferguson cites Robert Newman, Illinois’ director of tourism in the 1960’s as saying “the whole thing was cooked up by the marketing guys at the American Petroleum Institute...They wanted to get people traveling. Get ‘em into their cars, get ‘em buying gasoline.” And get them and their money to end up in Illinois. Apparently the scheme wasn’t too successful as the signs quickly fell into disrepair and very few of them are still in existence.

Even in the 1990’s, the Lincoln Birthplace National Park was placed on the possible closing list, and was indeed closed, off and on, during a full year. Apparently it wasn’t much of a tourist draw.

Despite Kentucky’s never really liking Lincoln, or at least not liking him more than Davis, and a real lack of evidence that Lincoln is any kind of singular tourism draw, the Kentucky General Assembly voted to spend four million and fifty thousand dollars promoting Lincoln during a two-year bi-centennial “celebration”. Yes, four million dollars, more than the state is spending on the Urgent Need School Trust Fund in fiscal 2007, to give one example.

The man behind the millions being spent on Lincoln worship is state senator Dan Kelly, Republican, Springfield. He is the Senate Majority Floor Leader and was one of the engineers of the Republican takeover of the state senate in the 1990’s, though he lost a hot contest with David Williams for the position of Senate President. Kelly heads the cash-rich Lincoln Commission even though Hodgenville isn’t in his district (that would be fellow Republican Carroll Gibson’s district); it is adjacent, however.

With Republican Ernie Fletcher’s election to governor in 2003, the historic stronghold of Democrats on state government, largely in place since the War, had been turned. The stage was then set so that when Kelly began pushing his four million dollar plan, it had strong support from the governor’s mansion. Lincoln has long been viewed as a marketing tool by national Republican party. Lincoln Dinner fundraisers have been popular items for some time elsewhere. Several years ago the national party began pushing this marketing and PR tool on Kentucky Republicans. Long-starved for some success at the state level, there was no resistance to the idea by the state Republican party. The Democrats, too, know that to a certain degree the Lincoln promotion benefits the Republicans. Democrats still control the state house, however, being in the inferior position, the Democrats felt forced to horse-trade to get their projects approved by the Senate and governor. Guess what they horse traded their resistance to in exchange for their projects. And that’s how you get four million dollars to play with in a Lincoln-fest.

Kentucky has also gone on a road re-naming spree. In the past year we have seen I-65 named the Lincoln Memorial Highway, Highway 31E named the Lincoln Heritage Trail, plans made for a Lincoln Heritage Road leading to Indiana and Illinois, and Highway 61 between Elizabethtown and Hodgenville was already renamed the Lincoln Parkway a few years ago. And it was just recently announced that the state government would revive the old American Petroleum Institute scheme, “Lincoln Trail”. In addition, Lincoln signs are being posted throughout the state at the borders. Contrast this to no new roads being named for Davis, and the Department of Transportation being openly hostile to marking the Jefferson Davis Highway at all (just ask the men in the Jefferson Davis Birthplace Camp, who have been stonewalled repeatedly).

Crossing the line: Spending millions to promote Lincoln instead of both Lincoln and Davis is bad. Circumventing the law to do it is a real scandal. As part of the Lincoln mania, the state has issued a Lincoln bi-centennial license plate. The Kentucky SCV is very familiar with this process, as we are undergoing the specialty tag process ourselves. The law requires 900 pre-paid applications with a fee of $25 each (that’s $22,500). There are no exceptions allowed by law other than those enacted by the legislature, and the legislature didn’t enact the Lincoln plate. It seemed suspicious to us that 900 people could be found in this state who would spend $25 on a Lincoln plate. A well-placed source in Frankfort shared our suspicions, so we began investigating. Our searches showed that the sponsoring organization for the plate is the Kentucky Historical Society, and that the money was given to them by the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. The KHS hasn’t been able to get enough of its members interested in spending $25 each to get the 900 needed for a KHS tag, let alone Lincoln. An already fishy situation gets even smellier when you recall that that the executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society is Kent Whitworth, who blocked protections for the Davis and Lincoln statues in the Capitol rotunda. At this point some legislators became concerned and launched their own investigations of the Lincoln tag. Feeling the heat, the Transportation Cabinet began admitting to SCV investigators that there weren’t 900 applications for the Lincoln tag, in fact there were none (we told you Lincoln wasn’t very popular); however Transportation claimed that the KHS had simply paid the $22,500 as if there were 900 applications and that made it OK. Unfortunately for them, the law requires both the money and the applications. It turns out that the Larue Count Judge Executive Tommy Turner, who co-chairs the Lincoln Bicentennial commission with Kelly, approached Senator Kelly and the Lincoln Bicentennial commission with the idea of the specialty tags. Instead of doing the right thing and seeking 900 applicants, Kelly and the commission (perhaps realizing there weren’t 900 people in the state who even wanted Lincoln tags) decided to take $22,500 from the monies budgeted to it by the legislature and pay the monetary portion of the non-existent applications. The money was then run through the Kentucky Historical Society. Instead of doing the right thing by fulfilling a fiscal responsibility and refusing to go along, Whitworth and the KHS presented the improper application to the Transportation Cabinet. Transportation, instead of pointing out that 900 applications were required, went along with the scheme. How many tags actually issued? Cost per tag? The Regardless of where the money questions lead, the fact remains that the DOT has admitted there weren’t 900 applications as required by law.

So, while we’re oozing Lincoln from every fiscal pore to the point of illegality, what is being done for Davis? A little, but very little by comparison. There will be a symposium on Davis sponsored by the by the Kentucky Historical Society (but no $22,500 to ram through a Davis specialty tag), and there will be state logistical support for the Davis bicentennial event in Fairview (vans for shuttling folks from the parking sites to Fairview). However, it is likely the state will spend less on these two events than it did sponsoring a re-enactment of the Lincoln-Hanks wedding ($50,000). Even worse, Kent Whitworth (again), has reportedly been pushing to turn the Fairview event into another Lincoln promotion. This shows, ultimately, that Whitworth has no business dealing with anything historical in our state, and indeed is an embarrassment that the administration should be ashamed to have kept on the payroll. Beyond minimal support for these two events, the state is doing nothing for Davis.

With it obvious that we were about to be inundated with Lincoln, the Kentucky SCV began asking, not for the Lincoln promotion to stop, but simply for the usual commensurate coverage for Davis. The response has been shamefully inadequate. Dick Bedwell, an SCV member in Kelly’s district, was tasked to contact Senator Kelly requesting that either the Lincoln Commission be changed to be a Lincoln and Davis Commission, or that a separate Davis Commission be created and funded. Kelly would not respond to the request. Division Historian Joey Oller has been in contact with the Governor’s office and Transportation Cabinet repeatedly, and gotten a general admission that perhaps we’re going overboard in one direction, but no action has resulted. Division Chief of Staff Bazz Childress has met with the governor’s Chief of Staff, Stan Cave, on these questions and received a similar lack of action result.

Somehow the fact the Lincoln was responsible for the military occupation of Kentucky, or that he was responsible for Burbridge and the atrocities he brought to the Bluegrass, isn’t being covered by the Lincoln Commission, as it is covered nowhere in their extensive published list of Lincoln sites (most of which have little or nothing to do with Lincoln).

Politics is always a funny business, and there is truly some funny business behind the Lincoln-fest mess, but at least now you know who’s paying the four million dollar tab (we are), and what we’re getting for our money (politically correct and illegal nonsense). Feel like contacting your state representatives yet?