The Lincoln Crusade

For more than 20 years, a dedicated group of individuals struggled to make the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum a reality. When some observers suggested that Governor George Ryan wanted to turn the project into a patronage dump, the Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal fought one of his last battles.

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As they opened their papers on May 25, 2001, readers of the Chicago Sun-Times got a surprise. While other local opinion makers had lately been rebuking George Ryan for the reek of scandal left behind from his days as secretary of state, Steve Neal, the hard-hitting political columnist for the Sun-Times, was heaping praise on the beleaguered governor of Illinois. 

Three months earlier, the state had finally broken ground in downtown Springfield for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, an idea that had been brewing for years. The governor was something of a latecomer to the party, but it was generally acknowledged that without the zealous support of Ryan and his wife, Lura Lynn, the dream would never have become a reality.

Now, as work began on the $115-million complex, Steve Neal engaged in a little revisionist history. A Lincoln admirer-he had once contemplated writing a biography of the 16th President-Neal thought the library and museum were long overdue, and he used his column that May morning to pump up the governor’s role. “Ryan had the vision to come up with the idea of a Lincoln presidential library and museum,” Neal wrote, adding that the governor “deserve[d] much credit for his leadership in [its] development.”

But Neal ended his column with a sharp warning. “Ryan’s choice of a director for the Lincoln Library will determine whether it becomes an institution worthy of the man it honors,” he wrote. “It would be a mistake to give this job to a tired bureaucrat or political associate.”

Maybe the savvy columnist smelled trouble in the air, or maybe he already had his own candidate for the post in mind-someone like the historian Richard Norton Smith, whom Neal had known since his days covering the White House for the Chicago Tribune. Whatever his motivation, Neal would soon unleash a series of columns that excoriated Ryan for his “shameful” mismanagement of the Lincoln project. What’s more, Neal relentlessly attacked the governor’s chief of staff, Robert Newtson-a man Neal twice compared to the assassin John Wilkes Booth-for his alleged designs on the director’s job.

Four years later, Richard Norton Smith presides as executive director as the completed Lincoln complex opens later this month in an atmosphere of triumph (the library portion of the project opened this past October). “On April 19th [the date of the museum’s grand opening], all previous Presidential libraries will become obsolete,” says Bob Rogers, the founder, chairman, and CEO of BRC Imagination Arts, the company that designed the museum’s futuristic displays. The museum, larger and pricier than expected, has already drawn criticism, but most people agree that the complex has successfully weathered a dispiriting series of crises: alleged mismanagement, a flap over the choice of director, some vocal if short-lived opposition from the state’s Republican U.S. senator, and a squabble with the University of Illinois.

For much of the time, Steve Neal was at the center of the disputes, by some accounts stirring up acrimony; by others, rescuing the project from politics and patronage. The story of Neal’s precise role in the library’s birth remains somewhat unclear-most of the principals in the infighting are not offering details. “It would serve no purpose to trot out all the tough times,” says Julie Cellini, chairman of the board of trustees of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which oversees the library and museum. “I would just like to keep that time behind me.”

Bob Newtson, today living in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he is the director of corporate and foundation relations for the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, echoes Cellini. “That’s behind us now,” he says.

But Governor Rod Blagojevich and the current library administration regard Neal as a hero, recently naming a reading room at the library in his honor. “Steve Neal had a hand in leaving something behind that will last forever,” Blagojevich told the small group of people that had gathered for the ceremony. Neal was not among them. In February last year, for reasons that remain mysterious, he took his own life at age 54. “There were a lot of disappointments,” says the columnist’s widow, Susan Neal, “but now that [the library is] done, Steve would be very, very pleased.”

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