Nov. 3, 2010
So whats wrong with the President of the United States letting his hair down, going on TV to mix it up with the coven on The View and get called Dude by comic Jon Stewart? Isnt that just another way of stripping the Oval Office of its aura. Isnt that just another way of showing youre not stuck up?
Before we had Presidents Day, and gave equal billing to Jimmy Carter and James Buchanan, we had Washingtons Birthday and Lincolns Birthday. Little children in grade school would cut out hatchets to remember the boy George Washington and the legend of the cherry tree. For Abraham Lincoln, a tall, black stove pipe hat would be our introduction to the tallest of our Presidents.
A new book, a best-seller by James Swanson, tells the story of the death pageant for President Lincoln as his body was taken back to Springfield, Illinois, following his assassination on April 14, 1865. More than a million Americans lined the tracks and brushed quickly past the open casket to pay their last respects to the man they called Father Abraham. It was an unprecedented outpouring of grief. Author James Swansons Bloody Crimes contrasts the Lincoln funeral train with the hunt for Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
One of the things we learn from Swansons wonderful book is that the funeral train was a tribute not only to Abraham Lincoln, but also to his people, all of his people, and to all the blood that had been shed to preserve the Constitution he called the last best hope of earth.
Swanson includes a remarkable account from journalist George Alfred Townsend. Townsend had been permitted to enter the dead Presidents office as his effects were being packed up, a month after he was shot.
I am sitting in the Presidents Office. He was here very lately, but he will not return to dispossess me of this high-backed chair he filled so long, nor resume his daily work at the table where I am writing.
A bright-faced boy runs in and out, darkly attired, so that his fob-chain of gold is the only relief to his mourning garb. This is little Tad, the pet of the White House...He will live to be a man pointed out everywhere, for his fathers sake, and as folks look at him, the tableau of the murder will seem to encircle him...
They are taking Mr. Lincolns private effects, to deposit them wherever his family may abide, and the emptiness of the place, on this sunny Sunday, revives that feeling of desolation from which the land has scarce recovered. I rise from my seat and examine the maps...[they] exhibit all the contested grounds of the war; there are pencil lines upon them where some one has traced the route of armies...was it the dead President?
Jim Swanson describes the passage of the great funeral train along a 1,625-mile route that re-traced Lincolns Inaugural journey of 1861. It was an unspooling of a ribbon of fire across this broad land as people from all walks of life came to offer their prayers, their flowers, their salutes.
Another Townsend, General Edward D. Townsend, has charge of the funeral train. It is his duty to make sure the remains of the dead Emancipator suffer no indignity along the route.
In Baltimore, for example, there is some fear that Lincoln haters might try to break through the cordon of guards and spit on the corpse. Nothing like that happens. In fact, Baltimores nobility shines through her tears. Black and white Baltimoreans gather to show their deep affection for the slain leader. They shuffle quietly past the catafalque in what may have been the Souths first great integrated event.
Gen. Townsend performs his function with great honor. But he is nearly dismissed when a wrathful Sec. of War, Edwin M. Stanton, learns that Townsend has permitted a photographer in New York City to make an image of Lincoln in his casket.
Stanton had wept, but then had taken brisk command during that terrible night of April 14-15, when fear ruled the nations capital and it seemed an assassin lurked behind every lamppost. Now, he belongs to the Ages, Stanton said as Lincoln breathed his last.
Stanton could not imagine anyone being allowed to hawk ghoulish souvenirs of the Presidents face frozen in death. He need not have worried, the photograph is distant, ever so respectful, and gives us the only image we have of Lincoln in repose. Its a national treasure.
Lincoln would have been the last one to stand on his own dignity. He was an awkward man whose rumpled clothing and giant boots gave no hint of elegance. When a visitor once expressed his surprise that the President was blacking his own boots, Lincoln disarmed him: Whose boots should I black?
His dignity came from his own soul, his integrity, his great mission. It was Lincoln who said right makes might. It was Lincoln who appealed to the better angels of our nature.
Not every President can be a Lincoln. We can thank God we have not had another Civil War to tear us apart. But even during the Civil War, Lincoln did not refer to the people of the South as his enemy. Yet, that is how President Obama refers to his domestic political opponents in an appearance on Univision.
When you allow the Presidency to be degraded, Mr. President, when you willingly lower the dignity of the high office to which we have raised you, you degrade us all.
Every President who comes into office has to look to Washington and Lincoln as models. All the great ones did.
Nobody looks to Andrew Johnson for a guide. President Johnson took a train trip out of Washington for a swing around the circle in the 1866 mid-term elections. He harangued drunken crowds from the back of the train. He called for his political foes in Congress to be hanged. His performance was so rancid that Gen. Grant left the Presidential train in disgust. Johnson suffered a landslide vote against him and his policies in those congressional elections.
President Obama came to Washington invoking Lincoln. Its not too late for him to return to that high road.