Mr. Lincoln's Washington | History | Smithsonian
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(Cheryl Carlin)

Mr. Lincoln's Washington

The house where the conspirators hatched their heinous plot now serves sushi, and the yard where they were hanged is a tennis court.

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Washington, D.C. is chockablock with historians, but perhaps none so jaunty as satirist Christopher Buckley, who says that Congress in 1783 debated a "bill requiring air bags and rear brake lights on stagecoaches." Buckley, a Washington resident since 1981, has spent years making sport of politics; his first novel, The White House Mess (1986), gave us the feckless President Thomas N. Tucker, or TNT, who declared war on Bermuda, and Buckley's most recent, Supreme Courtship, published in 2008. Buckley makes his usual merry, but also shows a thoughtful fondness for what he calls this "Rome-on-the-Potomac landscape of gleaming white granite and marble buildings squatting on a vast green lawn." He bases his book on four walking tours, along the way tossing off facts (the spot where Francis Scott Key's son was fatally shot) and lore (a ghost is said to haunt the Old Executive Office Building). "Washington is a great city to walk around in," Buckley says. "For one thing, it's pretty flat. For another, something wonderfully historic happened every square foot of the way." In the excerpt that follows, Buckley covers the Washington of Abraham Lincoln:

On the 137th anniversary of the day Mr. Lincoln was shot, I joined a tour in Lafayette Square, on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House, conducted by Anthony Pitch, a spry man wearing a floppy hat and carrying a Mini-Vox loudspeaker. Pitch is a former British subject, and the author of a fine book, The Burning of Washington, about the British torching of the city on August 24, 1814. Pitch once saw, in the basement of the White House, the scorch marks left over from the incident. But for a thunderstorm that must have seemed heaven-sent, many of the city's public buildings might have burned to the ground. It's often said the presidential residence was first painted to cover up the charred exterior, but official White House historians say that isn't so, and point out that the building of pinkish sandstone was first whitewashed in 1798 and was known informally as the White House before the British ever set it aflame. Theodore Roosevelt made the name official in 1901 when he put "The White House" on the stationery.

But Pitch's theme today is Abraham Lincoln, and his enthusiasm for the man is little short of idolatrous. "He was one of the most amazing people who ever walked the earth,"says Pitch. "He was self-taught and never took umbrage at insults. That such a man was shot, in the back of the head, is one of the most monstrous insults that ever happened." I liked Pitch right away.

We crossed the street and peered through the White House fence at the North Portico. He pointed out the center window on the second floor. (You can see it on a twenty dollar bill.) On April 11, 1865, he told us, Abraham Lincoln appeared there and gave a speech. "It was the first time he had said in public that blacks should get the vote," Pitch explained. A 26-year-old actor named John Wilkes Booth was in the crowd outside, along with a man named Lewis Paine (born Powell). Booth had been stalking Lincoln for weeks. Booth growled, "That means nigger citizenship. That is the last speech he will ever make. . . . By God, I'll put him through."

Another man in the crowd that day was a 23-year-old physician, Charles Leale, who would be the first to care for the mortally wounded president. Pitch pointed out another window, three over to the right. "That room was called the Prince of Wales Room. That's where they did the autopsy and the embalming."

My mind went back 20 years, to when I was a speech writer for then Vice President George H.W. Bush, to a night I had dinner in that room, seated at a small table with President Reagan and two authentic royal princesses, both of them daughters of American actresses (Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly). I mention this not to make you think, Well whupty do for you, Mr. Snooty. Let me emphasize: 99.98 percent of my dinners in those days took place at a Hamburger Hamlet or McDonald's or over my kitchen sink. But at one point in this heady meal, President Reagan turned to one of the princesses and remarked that his cavalier King Charles spaniel, Rex, would begin barking furiously whenever he came into this room. There was no explaining it, Reagan said. Then he told about Lincoln and suddenly the president of the United States and the two princesses began swapping ghost stories and I was left open mouthed and a voice seemed to whisper in my ear, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto.

For two years, I had a White House pass that allowed me everywhere except, of course, the second-floor residence. One time, hearing that Jimmy Cagney was about to get the Medal of Freedom in the East Room—where Abigail Adams hung out her wash to dry, Lincoln's body lay in state, and I once sat behind Dynasty star Joan Collins while she and husband number four (I think it was) necked as Andy Williams crooned "Moon River"—I rushed over from the Old Executive Office Building just in time to see President Reagan pin it on the man who had tap-danced "Yankee Doodle Dandy"and was now a crumpled, speechless figure in a wheelchair. I remember Reagan putting his hand on Cagney's shoulder and saying how generous he had been "many years ago to a young contract player on the Warner Brothers lot."

During the administration of George H. W. Bush, I was in the State Dining Room for a talk about Lincoln's time at the White House by professor David Herbert Donald, author of the much-praised biography Lincoln. I sat directly behind Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and remember that for an hour General Powell did not move as much as a centimeter. What I also remember of the evening was Professor Donald's stories about Mary Todd Lincoln's extravagances. Mrs. Lincoln was the Imelda Marcos of her day. This woman shopped. Among her purchases was the enormous rosewood bed that became known as the Lincoln Bed, even though her husband never spent a night in it. (The Lincoln Bedroom would become notorious during the Clinton years as a sort of motel for big donors to the Democratic Party.) At any rate, by 1864, Mary Todd Lincoln had run up a monumental bill. While field commanders were shouting"Charge!" Mrs. Lincoln had been saying "Charge it!"

Professor Donald ended his riveting talk by looking rather wistfully at the front door. He said that Mrs. Lincoln hadn't wanted to go to the theater that night. But the newspapers had advertised that Lincoln would attend the performance of Our American Cousin, and the president felt obliged to those who expected to see him there. In his wonderful book, April 1865, Jay Winik writes that Abe said he wanted to relax and "have a laugh." Never has a decision to go to the theater been so consequential.

"And so," said Professor Donald, "they left the White House together for the last time."

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