Think of every American failure. Then go to the little house at 516 Tenth Street and you'll feel better.
Even at the hour of his death and even in this somewhat cruddy dwelling, Abraham Lincoln was all that anybody needs to know of American glory.
Of all the capital's monuments, the Petersen House on Tenth Street where Lincoln died is as significant as any and more touching than any.
He had wondered whether "any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."
Liberty and equality -- would any-body really give a damn for them? He was by no means certain. Neither were Washington or Jefferson, and neither is anybody with a brain in his head.
High officials and low functionaries:sometimes you wonder if there's anybody left who for a few bucks will not sell out the highest responsibility he's charged with, and you can be excused for wondering if the old days were not better. Better and closer to the dreamof American honor.
But there were deserters at Valley Forge, even, and God knows Lincoln in the next century saw enough to make lesser men lose heart. Despair, after all, is pretty cheap commodity, and commonly is an excuse for not getting on with the job.
Lincoln had the right notion:
The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or to detract.
I remember once asking an attorney general why he had wanted that job, and he said he always been curious whether Americans really wanted a nation of law. And I never quite had the courage to ask him, after he left office, what he concluded.
It depends which Americans you are talking about. There are more than 200 million of us. The president says we suffer from malaise, and the Russian press agrees that we seem not so optimistic anymore about the future.
Of course, if you have a loon for a brother, bumbling about in all directions, it's easy to suppose everybody else feels a bit sick, too. And all I have to do is read the papers for a few decades and I can say as well as anybody that we're in a right smart jam. The arteries are clogged and not just the ones to Washington and New York.
But there are still the brave who still consecrate the land beyond all efforts to add or to detract, and for all we can see, there is never going to be a shortage of Americans who think their job means more than 50 bucks on the side.
For almost two years now the house where Lincoln died has been closed for refurbishing. It opens to the public today (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas) operated by the National Park Service.
When I dropped in yesterday I was astonished to realize that for the first time the house now looks as it did when Lincoln was shot and brought across to this tailor's house from Ford's Theater.
Gary scott, Park Service supervisorsaid the new work cost $35,000 excluding the new wallpaper and a new Brussels carpet. Considering what the nation would readily have been willing to spend, and considering what restoration works commonly cost in Washington, it seems an unbelievably low figure.
A comprehensive plan for furnishings was drawn up by Vera Craig, now retired from the Park Service, from every source she could lay hands on. A newspaper fellow sketched the room shortly after Lincoln's body was removed He showed the humble coat rack, the little wall lamp, the pictures of horses the wall.
As you enter from Tenth, you turn to the left into a little front parlor, in which Mary Todd kept vigil until the president died at 7:22 the next morning, April 15, 1865.
A small bedroom adjoining it is wherethe secretary of war, Edwin Staton, sat, by the little marble table and tooknotes from his interviews with witnesses.
The even smaller back bedroom is where the president lay. It had been the bedroom of one of the young Petersen girls (then off at school) and her enthusiasm for horse pictures is apparent. It was not really a "boarding house" as we think of them. Housing inthe capital was almost impossible during the war, and the Petersens moved into the basement and rented out the other rooms. The room where Mrs. Lincoln waaited had been rented to a couple who ran a small store where household goods were sold. An ancient sewing machine is still set up ready for action in the corner (the store sold just such sewing machines).
The president's room had been rented to a fellow who was, as it happened, out on the town the night Lincoln was shot. He only returned in the wee hours to find his bed was no longer his.
Young women in costume act as docents, or as the Park Service calls them, interpreters for visitors. The ones I heard were Beth Waldow, Maureen Paccione and Beth Braeman, along withJohn Oster. Gal Glicksman, the curator of the building, stands in the entrance hall and gets you started into the parlor, where the others take over.
The wallpaper and furniture were chosen by John Brucksch, who found the 1850 light fixtures, the handsome Virginia provincial armoire and so on. The firm of Scalamandre made new paper for the president's room, based on a fragment of the original that had been found, and on photographs and drawings. f
It is a sad muted green stripe, almost utterly depressing, but that's the way the room looked at the time. Visitors for the first time now see the house as it must have existed in 1865, the woodwork restored to its original drab yellow.
The original bed, which obviously should be returned to the house, is owned by the Chicago Historical Society, and an antique one that looks almost exactly the same is in the room now.
"well,"cried a bright teen-aged voice, breaking the silence, "that's your own personal opinion" and another teen-aged girl looked a bit shy when asked to relay that particular personal pinion toa reporter.
"it's weird," she said. "weird." And admittedly the colors, the styles of furniture, the general tackiness of the place did seem weird to the modern sense of light and crispness.
"we're catching a plane for Arabia,"said Vaughn Martin, an engineer working on the international airport at Jedda, from which millions of visitors will approach Mecca, the holy city of Islam.
"this restoration is fantastic," he went on. I've only been to Washington once before, when I was a boy, and this experience is fantastic."
"and sad," said his wife, Debbie. "sad."
You don't like to think of the hours during which Lincoln weakened and died and maybe you don't have to. At least he saw the Union still in one piece before he left it. And here we are in one very modest, very grim, very unstylish part of that Union, the room Lincoln's body lay in.
A portion of that larger field, a resting place for those who gave their lives. That we should take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure.
And outside it was hot as hell, as muggy as Washington. And it wasn't bad at all, not at all.