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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The current Lincoln library got its start in 1889, the year the General Assembly created the Illinois State Historical Library. Today, the crown jewels of the vast collection are the materials related to Abraham Lincoln. The 1,500 manuscripts written or signed by Lincoln-including one of the five existing copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting-are second in number only to the materials held by the Library of Congress. The collection also contains hundreds of photographs, prints, paintings, sculptures, and priceless artifacts.

Over time, these treasures proved an invaluable resource to scholars, biographers, and documentarians, but they went largely unnoticed by the average citizen. The main problem was the library’s location. For years it bounced around the capitol, before finally landing in the basement of the newly modernized Old State Capitol in 1969. In 1981, Julie Cellini, then a trustee for the library, was invited to view the Lincoln collection. “Here were these incredible treasures that belonged to us as citizens of Illinois,” recalls Cellini. “I thought how wonderful it would be to have a showcase for all that.”

Cellini began her campaign by, as she puts it, “bugging” Governor James Thompson, who eventually established the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and named her as chairman. (Cellini is the wife of the developer and Republican insider William F. Cellini, whose projects include the controversial Renaissance Hotel in Springfield, which was built with the help of state-backed loans. In December 2003, in the face of new ethics regulations, Bill Cellini terminated his registration as a state lobbyist so that his wife could remain at the preservation agency.)

Richard Durbin, then the U.S. congressman representing Springfield, had paid his own visit to the old capitol and was similarly appalled at the location of the Lincoln collection. (By then, not only had folks at the state’s historical library run out of space, but problems with the building’s heating and air conditioning system were compelling librarians to scrub down the shelves each day to prevent mold from building up.) Durbin got Congress to fund a preliminary study of the feasibility of building a new center for the Lincoln collection, perhaps as a small adjunct to the visitors’ center near the Lincoln Home in Springfield. In 1998, Governor James Edgar earmarked another $10 million for the project.

More clout weighed in behind the project, including U.S. representatives Ray LaHood and John Shimkus, Springfield mayor Karen Hasara, and Illinois House Republican leader Lee Daniels and his wife, Pamela, a trustee of the preservation agency. Now the clamor grew for a new library and a museum devoted to Lincoln. “We realized very quickly that we didn’t want just a library,” says Susan Mogerman, the executive director of the preservation agency from 1991 to 2002. “We wanted something interpretive that could support the Lincoln legacy.” Estimated costs for the project rose accordingly, jumping from $40 million to $60 million before topping out at $115 million. In his last month in office, Edgar announced that the architectural firm Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum would design the complex, now slated to go up on land donated by the City of Springfield. As a sign of the project’s prestige, the firm’s 75-year-old founding partner Gyo Obata-the architect behind the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.-said he would personally undertake the design.

When he became governor in January 1999, Ryan picked up where Edgar had left off. “God bless George and Lura Lynn Ryan,” says Cellini, who remembers making her pitch to the governor as his wife stood nearby. As Cellini recalls the meeting, Ryan was easily convinced of the project’s worthiness. “Honey,” she remembers him saying, “I don’t need any presentation. I’m in.”

The governor backed his words with actions-as did his wife. Thomas Schwartz-now the Illinois state historian and the manager of research and collections at the library and museum-remembers regularly promoting the project with the First Lady. “She was a tireless advocate for the library and museum,” says Schwartz. Her enthusiasm, explains Mrs. Ryan today, sprang from her deep respect for Lincoln. “I have always admired the way he governed and the way he lived his life,” she says. “He is a son of Illinois, and the epitome of what a President should be.”

Meanwhile, her husband was doing his part. When the federal dollars didn’t come through at the level hoped, the governor sat down with the state legislature to ensure that money would be there, eventually lining up a $50-million cash advance so that the building could proceed as scheduled. Still, this being Illinois, some skeptics worried that the Lincoln library would turn into a trough to feed the well connected. One of the noisiest critics was a member of Ryan’s own party. In October 2000, Peter Fitzgerald, the state’s junior U.S. senator, worrying that the contracts would not be competitively bid, tried to hold up federal funding for the project. Ryan denounced Fitzgerald’s attacks. “For Peter to take a shot at my integrity,” griped the governor, “absolutely amazes me.”

Fitzgerald’s gambit failed, and by the summer of 2001, with work on the site under way, news reports suggested that Ryan’s chief of staff, Robert Newtson, wanted the job of directing the library. Newtson, then 48, had been with the governor for more than 20 years, serving as his chief of staff when Ryan was Illinois House minority leader, speaker of the House, and lieutenant governor. Newtson served Ryan in several capacities when he was secretary of state-but had no training as a historian, librarian, or museum administrator.

In August 2001, the governor dropped a bombshell. Using his amendatory veto, Ryan-who had just announced he would not seek a second term-blocked a bill that codified the preservation agency’s jurisdiction over the library and museum. Without saying who should oversee the complex, Ryan argued that, since the project was not a historic site, it did not fall under the agency’s purview. A few days after delivering his veto, the governor said that a university might be a good match for the Lincoln complex-and that Newtson was “certainly qualified” to serve as its director.

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Steve Neal’s column praising Ryan had appeared the previous spring, and at first Neal didn’t write in response to this latest turn. Eventually his attitude toward the governor would change, though it’s not clear why. “I have no idea why Steve turned on me,” says Ryan. “I always thought he was a friend.” Like others associated with the project, Ryan is reluctant to explore the subject further-but Susan Neal willingly offers her perspective. “Steve thought some mistakes were made,” she says. “He was told one thing by the governor, and then he would learn that something else was going to happen. Initially he had liked Governor Ryan quite a lot, but he came to distrust him over the library.”

Neal unquestionably knew his way around the world of politics. Born in Oregon in 1949, he once considered a political career himself. At the University of Oregon, he served as class president in his sophomore and senior years. “I made it clear that if he was interested in being a politician, he should know that that’s not the life I had in mind for myself,” says Susan Neal, who met her future husband when they were both freshmen. “He finally decided that he would rather write about politics than be a politician.”

After earning an M.A. at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Neal worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, then joined the Chicago Tribune, serving as its White House correspondent from 1981 to 1983. During that time he met Richard Norton Smith, a young member of Senator Robert Dole’s staff who was writing a biography of the New York politician Thomas E. Dewey. “Richard used to come for dinner once in a while,” recalls Susan Neal. “He had such a boyish enthusiasm. I’ve always had friendly thoughts of Richard.”

In 1984, the year Neal published Dark Horse: A Biography of Wendell Willkie, he was named political writer for the Trib. He moved to the Sun-Times in 1987, where he usually produced about three columns a week while writing books about Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and others. “Steve had utilized the resources of many Presidential libraries around the country,” says Susan Neal. “He felt it was a shame that Illinois, which had this wonderful Lincoln legacy, didn’t have a Presidential library.”

Neal’s opening salvo came on October 5, 2001, in a column headed “Lincoln Library project running aground.” While still saluting Ryan as the man who had originated the project, Neal worried that it was “in jeopardy of becoming a $115-million boondoggle.” The chief culprit by this account was Newtson, who Neal claimed not only had “engineered Ryan’s veto,” but was angling for the director’s job himself. Neal claimed that Newtson had thwarted the selection of Richard Norton Smith, who at the time was director of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum in Michigan and who had earlier overseen libraries dedicated to Presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, and Reagan. (Smith would also go on to direct the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas.)

Interviewed by Springfield’s State Journal-Register, Smith acknowledged that he had indeed withdrawn his name from consideration. “It became reasonably clear to me that there is a very real risk that the [Lincoln] library might not enjoy the kind of scholarly independence it will require to establish its own credibility,” Smith said. “If the Lincoln Library comes to be seen as a political pawn, it will suffer immensely.”

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for the governor, did nothing to calm growing concerns when he reported that Newtson had said he “may be interested in applying [for the director’s job] and he might not.” Though Ryan still backed Newtson-in a letter to the State Journal-Register, he called him the “chief visionary” in the development of the library’s policies and programs-the governor did name a six-person panel to find a director.

None of this was enough for Neal. On October 17th, he wrote that it was “shameful that Ryan and Newtson are plotting to turn the Lincoln Library into an employment agency for their lame-duck administration,” and that the two men were only “looking for golden parachutes.” Neal then introduced a new character into the drama: Gerald W. Shea, the powerful lobbyist and former Illinois House majority leader from Chicago’s southwest suburbs. In 1999, Ryan had appointed Shea, a Democrat, to a six-year term on the board of trustees of the University of Illinois, and two years later, Shea’s fellow board members had elected him chairman. Now Neal claimed that Shea, a “co-conspirator” with Ryan and Newtson, wanted to make the Lincoln library part of the U. of I. at Springfield so that it would be easier “to give tenure to [political] hacks.”

Neal may have been reacting in part to a letter from Bob Newtson that had appeared in the Chicago Tribune only a day earlier. “Personally,” wrote Newtson, “I believe the University of Illinois is a better choice [than the preservation agency] to govern the [Lincoln] facility because the primary mission of this project is educational. . . . The governor will not be rushed or bullied through this process. The intimidation and attacks on my character and reputation from pundits and editorial writers will not cloud our thinking.”

A week after Neal’s column appeared, Shea threw fuel on the fire with a letter published in the State Journal-Register. Insisting that the university was the ideal “arm of state government” to oversee the Lincoln complex, Shea rebuked “a small group who insist on using the muscle of public opinion to engineer the selection of the [preservation agency] as the governing board for the library and museum.” (While he still thinks the university and the Lincoln project would have been a good fit, Shea says the completed complex is “magnificent” and that he bears Neal no ill will. “I got on with my life after I left the board [in December 2002],” he says.)

Neal responded two days later, and once again Newtson bore the brunt of the attack. Recalling Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s eulogy as Lincoln died-“Now he belongs to the ages”-Neal asserted that “Newtson seem[ed] to think that Lincoln belong[ed] to him. . . . In truth, the public officials most involved with the Lincoln center are appalled by the prospect of Newtson’s appointment.” Those officials, wrote Neal, included the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Illinois congressman Dennis Hastert; former governor Jim Edgar; Congressman Ray LaHood; and Illinois House minority leader Lee Daniels. Like Ryan, they were all Republicans-and they had now all gone on record as opposing Newtson’s selection as director.

Within days, Newtson responded. In a letter published on October 30th in the State Journal-Register, Newtson insisted he had never told anyone he was interested in the director’s job at the Lincoln library and museum. “The fact is that all of this speculation and controversy-all of it-has been generated by a Chicago newspaper columnist who never had the courtesy to talk to me before running a column wholly designed to smear my professional reputation.”

The next day Newtson made it official, telling the governor he didn’t want the job. On November 2nd, in a letter to the Sun-Times, he took on his antagonist by name. “For over three weeks, Steve Neal has written a series of columns accusing me of orchestrating a campaign to seize control of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum project now under way in Springfield. Unfortunately, none of it is true. . . . I understand that Neal is entitled to print whatever fiction he wants in his column. But the truth should matter.”

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Through the first four months of 2002, the only noise surrounding the Lincoln library and museum came from the construction site. But with the approach of summer, things heated up. In May, citing personal reasons, Susan Mogerman resigned from the preservation agency. She had worked there since 1989, and few people had been more integral to realizing the Lincoln library and museum. In July, she became executive director at Downtown Springfield Inc., a chamber of commerce type of organization, which meant that she would still be involved with the Lincoln complex. Still, her sudden departure from the agency raised eyebrows.

Around that time, dignitaries gathered at the Lincoln library for a ceremony emceed by Stedman Graham, Oprah Winfrey’s steady. Though the Lincoln museum had a long way to go, the library was about two-thirds of the way toward completion. “Buildings like this library represent the best, I believe, that our generation can offer the future,” Governor Ryan said before he and his wife bolted the cornerstone in place-a 320-pound slab of yellowish Egyptian limestone inscribed with the words “George H. Ryan / Governor.”

Two more incidents followed in quick succession. The directors of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation-an organization created in 2000 to solicit private donations-named Newtson as its executive director. Then the Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield officially changed its name to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Center for Governmental Studies and announced a long list of Lincoln-related programs that would be funded by a $1.5-million appropriation from the Illinois General Assembly.

To Neal, the evidence of a conspiracy seemed obvious-the bureaucrats in Springfield were making end runs to get their hands on the complex. “The Lincoln conspirators are back in business,” his August 23rd column began. He charged Newtson with arranging Mogerman’s ouster and diverting $1.5 million for the renamed policy institute-money, said Neal, originally slated for the preservation agency. “The looting of this national treasure must be stopped,” wrote Neal. A U. of I. spokesperson said the columnist was “misinformed,” but the more important response came from the two major-party candidates vying to succeed Ryan-Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican Jim Ryan, who both vowed to keep politics out of the Lincoln project.

Neal briefly exulted: “The looting is about to stop,” he wrote on August 28th. But a few days later, he argued that Newtson should resign from the fundraising foundation. “The man who killed the 16th president had some things in common with the man who is slowly killing the Lincoln library,” Neal wrote on September 2nd. “Like [John Wilkes] Booth, Newtson is a sneaky operator. . . . If Newtson doesn’t quit, the foundation is in trouble.” (Today, Newtson says: “The columns that Steve Neal wrote were painful for me and my family. But I’m not going to get into a point-by-point response to his accusations.”)

In mid-November 2002, with the election over and Blagojevich on his way to replace him, Governor Ryan held a ceremonial grand opening of the unfinished Lincoln library. In his remarks, Ryan praised his chief of staff. “The library would still be a piece of paper on a drawing board if it hadn’t been for [Newtson],” he said. “There’s an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. And Bob has endured more than his share of punishment for carrying through on this good deed.” (To this day, Ryan-who is awaiting trial on racketeering, fraud, and other charges connected to his tenure as secretary of state-insists that “Bob Newtson did not want to be director at all.”)

The ceremony occurred on a Monday morning; Neal jumped into the fray the following Friday, calling the premature grand opening “ridiculous” and “bizarre.” What riled him most was that the governor, in the face of his state’s $3-billion deficit, “had no qualms about spending $287,000 in public funds for Monday’s party.”

Before exiting the stage, George Ryan had one more scene to play. His office announced that the governor’s panel had settled on Harold Holzer to run the Lincoln complex. (Holzer, the author of scores of books and articles about Lincoln and the Civil War, is the senior vice president for external affairs at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Ryan and his wife had traveled to New York to recruit Holzer for the job. “He talked about the Lincoln museum as a public treasure,” recalls Holzer. “He said the place needed a star director to get it past the issues that had ensnared it in controversy.”

Holzer considered the offer for nearly two months before finally declining. “I do wish to reiterate,” he wrote in a letter to the State Journal-Register, “that under the right circumstances-under the circumstances that the search firm, the blue-ribbon panel, and Governor Ryan described-I would have likely accepted this position in a heartbeat.” Today, Holzer is reluctant to go into specifics. “It’s all in the past,” he says.

* * *

On March 3, 2003, Steve Neal provided the new governor with a blow-by-blow description of the troubled history of the Lincoln library and museum. “It won’t be easy,” he wrote, “for Blagojevich to undo all the damage done by Ryan and . . . Newtson. Their looting and plundering of the Lincoln legacy is a national disgrace.” That was the columnist’s last significant attack on the men he held responsible for the turmoil surrounding the Lincoln project. In June he again went after the University of Illinois at Springfield and its Lincoln presidential center, but by then Governor Blagojevich had already taken the $1.5 million allocated by Ryan for the center and assigned it to the library and museum. The university’s center even got another name change: Today it is known as the Center for State Policy and Leadership.

Neal’s last columns about the Lincoln library and museum were celebratory. In September he announced that the new governor had selected Richard Norton Smith as the first director. “By recruiting this nationally renowned scholar, Blagojevich has served notice that he intends to build the presidential center into a major cultural institution,” wrote Neal. “What a difference a governor makes.” In January 2004, Neal again praised Blagojevich, this time for appointing Jim Edgar to head the library’s foundation. (In July, Susan Mogerman joined Edgar at the foundation as its chief operating officer.)

On February 11, 2004, Neal wrote about the exciting plans Smith had for the institution. It would be Neal’s final pronouncement on a subject that had engaged him for three years. Early on the evening of February 18th, responding to a carbon-monoxide alarm, Hinsdale police found the columnist slumped behind the wheel of his car in his garage. His death, ruled a suicide, surprised everyone who knew him, though some friends said that Neal had seemed especially tired as he wrapped up work on his last book, Happy Days Are Here Again (his account of the 1932 Democratic convention was published last July). Two days before his death Neal had been hospitalized for various ailments, and he was suffering an adverse reaction to medications. But even now, a year later, Susan Neal cannot understand what drove her husband to end his life. “I have absolutely no clue,” she says. “Steve was not a depressed person. It was a shock.”

Two days after his death, an ad appeared in Springfield’s State Journal-Register. It read, “In Memory of Steve Neal . . . A Class Act,” and was signed “Richard Norton Smith.” “Steve was a good friend, and it’s a great loss,” says Smith. “It’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be here but for two people. One of them, of course, is Governor Blagojevich, but the second is Steve Neal.” Smith, for one, thinks Neal’s columns about the Lincoln library and museum need to be remembered. “The good thing about [the turmoil]-and I’m not grasping at straws-the good thing is that it dramatized as nothing could the political vulnerability of this institution,” he says. “At the first sign of political pressure, all I or any of my successors or colleagues will have to do is remind people of how close this thing came to becoming a patronage dump.”

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Last October, nearly two years after George Ryan’s ceremonial opening, the Lincoln library finally opened to the public. At a small ceremony attended by Neal’s family and others, the library’s reading room was named in honor of Neal. “It was raining, so it was not a nice day outside, but the dedication was nicely done,” recalls Susan Neal, who helped Governor Blagojevich unveil a portrait of her husband. “In times when this project might have gotten off track,” said former governor Jim Edgar, “Steve played a major role in keeping it on track.”

After the ceremony, Smith led Mrs. Neal on a tour of the museum, leaving behind the reading room and a plaque that reads: “Steve Neal 1949–2004 / Respected journalist / Devoted husband, father and friend / A true champion and defender of this library.”