HAYWARD - On Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, more than 130 people packed the wood-paneled Biella Room in the library at Cal State East Bay to listen to a free lecture by award-winning history professor Gerald Henig.
Henig explained to the audience how Lincoln was ridiculed in his day by journalists, rivals and doubters. The frontier attorney from Illinois was untested and called a "gorilla from the West" who did not have the experience to serve in the highest office in the land.
Henig described Lincoln as a tall, gangly congressman with only a year of formal education, who suffered from depression and chronic illness. But with a keen mind and a love for the promise of his country, Lincoln went on to guide the nation through its darkest hour, to emerge unified and with its greatest sin - slavery - abolished.
Victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery meant that "this common man incarnate was known in the most remote corners of the world."
Henig, a history professor at the university for 39 years, has received an Outstanding Professor Award and is a four-time winner of the Phi Kappa Delta Best Lecturer Award. He is the author of two books on the Civil War, and co-wrote another. At the end of his lecture Thursday, he signed copies of his most recent book, "A Nation Transformed: How the Civil War Changed America Forever."
Oakland resident Dr. Ellamae Simmons, 91, is a friend of Henig's and was the first African-American doctor of asthma, allergy and immunology. She attended Thursday's lecture and said Lincoln's 200th birthday was especially significant because it came during the first few weeks of Barack Obama's presidency.
"I think it's so significant because Mr. Obama is a student of Lincoln and has been for years," she said.
Henig said the similarities between Lincoln and Obama are striking. Their intellect, command of language, style and temperament are comparable, he explained.
In one anecdote, Henig described how Gen. George McClellan went to bed while Lincoln was awaiting his return. Lincoln's aides believed this was the height of insubordination, but Lincoln kept his cool and was not angered (although he did eventually replace McClellan). Henig compared this to how Obama kept his cool when, during a campaign debate, Sen. John McCain referred to him as "that one."
One major difference between the two presidents, however, was how they were received when they first arrived in Washington. In contrast to Obama, Lincoln received a cold and skeptical welcome.
"Here you had our greatest president received so badly and Obama so warmly," he said.
Henig said he became increasingly interested in Lincoln while studying the Civil War. "Lincoln is infectious," he said. "He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things."
Henig will give a lecture titled "Lincoln at 200: In Fact Rather than Fiction" at 2 p.m. April 8 at California State East Bay's Concord campus. The lecture will address the controversial issue of Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War. For more information, call 925-602-6770.