By Edward Epstein
February 11, 2022
Yet another TV network plans yet another mammoth multi-part biographical documentary about Abraham Lincoln -- complete with the usual A-list talking heads, dramatic re-enactments and the promise of "new and surprising insights."
This time around it's the History Channel, which will air its 7 1/2-hour "Abraham Lincoln" over three nights starting on Sunday, February 20, the eve of the Presidents Day federal holiday. Last March it was CNN, whose "Lincoln: Divided We Stand" took up six hours spread over several nights. In its pre-showing advertising, CNN said that series would offer a "transcendent journey into the life and times of this iconic president."
Both series represent an extraordinary commitment of resources and air time to a figure who has been dead since 1865. But as we are reminded almost every day by listening to politicians of every stripe who quote Lincoln to bolster their positions, he remains central to American thought. It seems almost everyone wants to get right with Lincoln. And clearly, there is money to be made off him.
The new series is based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2018 book Leadership in Turbulent Times, in which she looked at four U.S. presidents -- Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson -- and studied the character traits and skills that marked their leadership. To Lincoln fans, of course, she is better known for her blockbuster Team of Rivals, which looked at how Lincoln formed a cabinet of men who had been his political rivals and gelled them into a team he used to help win the Civil War and end slavery.
Goodwin is executive producer of the History Channel series.
Lincoln is portrayed in the latest series by 45-year-old actor Graham Sibley, perhaps best known for appearing in "Grey's Anatomy" and "Criminal Minds," two prime-time drama series. In the photo at left, the 6' 2" Sibley looks suitably Lincolnesque.
The big-name commentators in the new series are headed by former President Barack Obama, retired Army General Stanley McCrystal and historians Harold Holzer, Caroline Janney and Catherine Clinton. Undoubtedly, there will be many more.
The CNN docu-series featured a dizzying array of talking heads, who appeared on camera for just seconds at a time.
The CNN series was notable in that it wasn't a hagiography of Lincoln. Some of the network's commentators were critical of Lincoln, for instance, for his views on race. It will be interesting to see how the History Channel series treats him.
But what is undeniable is that some of the biggest U.S. corporations view the 16th president as a bankable figure, a guy whose life story remains compelling enough to draw viewers willing to commit many hours to learning about him. Of course, these big series have an enormous afterlife, being sold for online viewing for years to come.
The History Channel is part of the A&E Networks, which is a 50-50 joint venture between two iconic brands -- the Walt Disney Co. and the Hearst Corp. CNN is owned by Warner Media, which was bought a few years ago by AT&T. In turn, AT&T plans to spin off Warner Media, which will merge with Discovery. The new company says it plans to hold on to CNN. Perhaps it will do even more Lincoln-related programming.