By curious coincidence, the first African-American president of the United States will be inaugurated in 2009, which just happens to be the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. Call it fate or luck, but for practical purposes, this means two things: news reporters have ready-made special-interest stories for the next year, and stores will soon be flooded by a slew of Lincoln biographies. Ronald C. White, Jr., a scholar who's already written two Lincoln books, leads the pack with A. Lincoln, a nearly 700-page tome that follows the former president from birth to assassination. It's as respectful a bio as one could hope for, although White's obvious reverence for his subject sometimes prevents him from digging deep enough.
A man who defined his time as much as he was defined by it, Lincoln had little education, few social graces, and not much in the way of looks. What he did have was a brilliant, inquisitive mind and the ability to grasp complicated situations from all sides and find the best course toward resolution. In addition, he was one of the great political writers and speakers of his day. Over the course of his 56 years, he was a businessmen, lawyer, and strikingly deft politician, and in a time of civil war and great upheaval, he struggled to bring the nation together, as well as reconcile his own feelings on the will of God and that most terrible of "peculiar institutions," slavery.
Lincoln's history and writings have been studied for generations, and it's doubtful that any new examination would come up with surprising results. White, a thoroughly unsurprising writer, takes a conservative approach, avoiding controversial topics and instead giving a walkthrough of Honest Abe's mental process by studying his speeches, notes, and quoted conversations. The result is a readable, well-paced portrait of one of America's finest; the only drawback is that White's conservatism honors the man without ever getting very close to him. Lincoln's relationships are dealt with in a largely perfunctory manner that lists the facts without the kind of insight White brings to Lincoln's political choices. It's a biography that reads like an excellent textbook: easy to follow and often edifying, but lacking soul.