Authors: Sarah Vowell
Tags: #Historic Sites - United States, #United States - Description and Travel, #Assassins - Homes and Haunts - United States, #Biography & Autobiography, #Presidents & Heads of State, #Presidents - Assassination - United States, #Homes and Haunts, #United States - History, #Assassins - United States, #Presidents - Homes and Haunts - United States, #Sarah - Travel - United States, #Assassination, #General, #Biography, #Presidents - United States, #Vowell, #History, #United States, #Presidents, #Assassins, #Local, #Historic Sites
Also by Sarah Vowell
The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World
Radio On: A Listener’s Diary
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Assassination vacation / Sarah Vowell.
1. Presidents — United States — Assassination. 2. Presidents — United States — Biography. 3. Presidents — Homes and haunts — United States. 4. Assassins — United States — Biography. 5. Assassins — Homes and haunts — United States. 6. Historic sites — United States. 7. United States — History, local. 8. United States — Description and travel. 9. Vowell, Sarah — Travel — United States. I. Title.
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n memory of Carlile Vowell (1904–1995)
Grandfather, principal, history teacher, Muskogee County commissioner, wiseacre, and Democrat. What I wouldn’t give to hear him cuss that a book about three Republicans has been dedicated in his name.
In the Middle Ages, relics spawned a continentwide craze. Devotees packed their bags and streamed out of towns and villages, thronging the pilgrimage trails. For most, a journey to see the relic of St. Thomas or St. James offered the only valid excuse for leaving home.
“The real Lincoln exists in my mind,” Pris said.
I was astonished. “You don’t believe that. What do you mean by saying that? You mean you have the
in your mind.”
She cocked her head on one side and eyed me. “No, Louis. I really have Lincoln in my mind. And I’ve been working night after night to transfer him out of my mind, back into the outside world.”
PHILIP K. DICK
We Can Build You
That’s what writing is. You’re keeping people alive in your head.
One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. There they were — John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz — in tune and in the flesh. The men who murdered Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were elbow to elbow with Lee Harvey Oswald and the klutzy girls who botched their hits on klutzy Gerald Ford, harmonizing on a toe-tapper called “Everybody’s Got the Right to Be Happy,” a song I cheerfully hummed walking back to the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying.
Not that I came all the way from New York City just to enjoy a chorus line of presidential assassins. Mostly, I came to the Berkshires because of the man who brought one of those presidents back to life. I was there to visit Chesterwood, the house and studio once belonging to Daniel Chester French, the artist responsible for the Abraham Lincoln sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial. A nauseating four-hour bus ride from the Port Authority terminal just to see the room where some patriotic chiseler came up with a marble statue? For some reason, none of my friends wanted to come with.
Because I had to stay overnight and this being New England, the only place to stay was a bed-and-breakfast. It was a lovely old country mansion operated by amiable people. That said, I am not a bed - and - breakfast person.
I understand why other people would want to stay in B&Bs. They’re pretty. They’re personal. They’re “quaint,” a polite way of saying “no TV.” They are “romantic,” i.e., every object large enough for a flower to be printed on it is going to have a flower printed on it. They’re “cozy,” meaning that a guest has to keep her belongings on the floor because every conceivable flat surface is covered in knickknacks, except for the one knickknack she longs for, a remote control.
The real reason bed-and-breakfasts make me nervous is breakfast. As if it’s not queasy enough to stay in a stranger’s home and sleep in a bed bedecked with nineteen pillows. In the morning, the usually cornflake-consuming, wheat-intolerant guest is served floury baked goods on plates so fancy any normal person would keep them locked in the china cabinet even if Queen Victoria herself rose from the dead and showed up for tea. The guest, normally a silent morning reader of newspapers, is expected to chat with the other strangers staying in the strangers’ home.
At my Berkshires bed-and-breakfast, I am seated at a table with one middle-aged Englishman and an elderly couple from Greenwich, Connecticut. The three of them make small talk about golf, the weather, and the room’s chandeliers, one of which, apparently, is Venetian. I cannot think of a thing to say to these people. Seated at the head of the table, I am the black hole of breakfast, a silent void of gloom sucking the sunshine out of their neighborly New England day. But that is not the kind of girl my mother raised me to be. I consider asking the Connecticut couple if they had ever run into Jack Paar, who I heard had retired near where they live, but I look like I was born after Paar quit hosting
The Tonight Show
(because I was) and so I’d have to explain how much I like watching tapes of old programs at the Museum of Television and Radio and I don’t want to get too personal.
It seems that all three of them attended a Boston Pops concert at Tanglewood the previous evening, and they chat about the conductor. This, I think, is my in. I, too, enjoy being entertained.
Relieved to have something, anything, to say, I pipe up, “I went to the Berkshire Theatre Festival last night.”
“Oh, did you see
?” the woman asks.
“No,” I say.
“What’s that?” wonders the Englishman.
To make up for the fact that I’ve been clammed up and moping I speak too fast, merrily chirping, “It’s the Stephen Sondheim musical in which a bunch of presidential assassins and would-be assassins sing songs about how much better their lives would be if they could gun down a president.”
“Oh,” remarks Mr. Connecticut. “How was it?”
“Oh my god,” I gush. “Even though the actors were mostly college kids, I thought it was great! The orange-haired guy who played the man who wanted to fly a plane into Nixon was hilarious. And I found myself strangely smitten with John Wilkes Booth; every time he looked in my direction I could feel myself blush.” Apparently, talking about going to the Museum of Television and Radio is “too personal,” but I seem to have no problem revealing my crush on the man who murdered Lincoln.
Now, a person with sharper social skills than I might have noticed that as these folks ate their freshly baked blueberry muffins and admired the bed-and-breakfast’s teapot collection, they probably didn’t want to think about presidential gunshot wounds. But when I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.
I continue. “But the main thing that surprised me was how romantic
“Romantic?” sneers a skeptic.
“Totally,” I rebut. “There’s a very tender love scene between Emma Goldman and Leon Czolgosz.”
“You know. He was the anarchist who killed McKinley. Buffalo? 1901? Anyway, the authorities initially suspected Goldman had helped him, but all it was was that he had heard her speak a couple of times about sticking it to The Man. He’d met her, but she wasn’t his co-conspirator. Anyway, the play dramatizes the moment they meet. He stops her on the street to tell her that he loves her. The guy who played Czolgosz was wonderful. He had this smoldering Eastern European accent. Actually, he sounded a lot like Dracula — but in a good way, if you know what I mean.” (They don’t.)
“He told her, ‘Miss Goldman, I am in love with you.’ She answered that she didn’t have time to be in love with him. Which was cute. But, this was my one misgiving about the performance, I thought that the woman playing Goldman was too ladylike, too much of a wallflower. Wasn’t Emma Goldman loud and brash and all gung ho? Here was a woman whose words inspired a guy to kill a president. And come to think of it, one of her old boyfriends shot the industrialist Henry Frick. Maybe I’m too swayed by the way Maureen Stapleton played Goldman in the film
She was so bossy! And remember Stapleton in that Woody Allen movie,
? Geraldine Page is all beige this and bland that so her husband divorces her and hooks up with noisy, klutzy Maureen Stapleton, who laughs too loud and smashes pottery and wears a blood-red dress to symbolize that she is Alive, capital A. Wait. I lost my train of thought. Where was I?”
Englishman: “I believe Dracula was in love with Maureen Stapleton.”
“Oh, right. I haven’t even mentioned the most touching part. Squeaky Fromme and John Hinckley sing this duet, a love song to Charles Manson and Jodie Foster. Hinckley and Squeaky sang that they would do anything for Charlie Manson and Jodie Foster. And I really believed them! Squeaky’s like, ‘I would crawl belly-deep through hell,’ and Hinckley’s all, ‘Baby, I’d die for you.’ It was adorable.”
Mr. Connecticut looks at his watch and I simultaneously realize that I’ve said way too much and that saying way too much means I might miss my bus back home. And I really want to go home. I yell, “Nice meeting you!” and nearly knock down the teapot collection in my rush to get away from them. Though before I can leave, I have to settle up my bill with the friendly B&B owner. His first name? Hinckley.
On the bus home, I flip through my
program from the night before and read the director’s note. Of course talking about the murders of previous presidents is going to open the door to discussing the current president. That’s what I like to call him, “the current president.” I find it difficult to say or type his name, George W. Bush. I like to call him “the current president” because it’s a hopeful phrase, implying that his administration is only temporary. Timothy Douglas, the
director, doesn’t say the president’s name either, but he doesn’t have to. Clearly, Douglas is horrified and exasperated by the Iraqi war. He writes,
Proportionate to my own mounting frustrations at feeling increasingly excluded from the best interests of the current administration’s control in these extraordinary times helps me toward a visceral understanding of the motivation of one who would perpetrate a violent act upon the leader of the free world. My capacity for this depth of empathy also gives me pause, for I have no idea how far away I am from the “invisible line” that separates me from a similar or identical purpose…. Please allow me to state for the record that I am completely against violence of any kind as a way of resolving conflicts.
That crafty explanation slaps me in the forehead with all the force of “duh.” Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I embarked on the project of touring historic sites and monuments having to do with the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley right around the time my country iffily went to war, which is to say right around the time my resentment of the current president cranked up into contempt. Not that I want the current president killed. Like that director, I will, for the record (and for the FBI agent assigned to read this and make sure I mean no harm — hello there), clearly state that while I am obsessed with death, I am against it.
Like director Tim Douglas, my simmering rage against the current president scares me. I am a more or less peaceful happy person whose lone act of violence as an adult was shoving a guy who spilled beer on me at a Sleater-Kinney concert. So if I can summon this much bitterness toward a presidential human being, I can sort of, kind of see how this amount of bile or more, teaming up with disappointment, unemployment, delusions of grandeur and mental illness, could prompt a crazier narcissistic creep to buy one of this country’s widely available handguns. Not that I, I repeat, condone that. Like Lincoln, I would like to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said that before he got shot.
I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, than I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us — us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. Presidents and presidential assassins are like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City that way. Even though one city is all about sin and the other is all about salvation, they are identical, one-dimensional company towns built up out of the desert by the sheer will of true believers. The assassins and the presidents invite the same basic question: Just who do you think you are?
One of the books I read for McKinley research was Barbara Tuchman’s great history of European and American events leading up to World War I,
The Proud Tower.
Her anarchism chapter enumerates the six heads of state who were assassinated in the two decades before Archduke Ferdinand was murdered in 1914: McKinley, the president of France, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, a couple of Spanish premiers. Her point being, it was an age of assassination. Well, I can come up with at least that many assassinations off the top of my head from the last two years alone as if playing some particularly geopolitical game of Clue: Serbian prime minister (sniper in front of government building in Belgrade), Swedish foreign minister (stabbed while shopping in Stockholm), the Taiwanese president and vice president (wounded when shots were fired at their motorcade the day before an election), two Hamas leaders (Israeli missile strikes), president of the Iraqi Governing Council (suicide bomber). And, in May 2004, an audio recording surfaced from Osama bin Laden promising to pay ten thousand grams of gold (roughly $125 K) to assassins of officials in Iraq representing the United States or the United Nations.
“I’m worried about the president’s safety,” I said at a Fourth of July party in 2004 when this guy Sam and I were talking about the upcoming Republican National Convention here in New York. “I think you’ve seen
The Manchurian Candidate
too many times,” said Sam. Guilty. Still, I dread bodily harm coming to the current president because of my aforementioned aversion to murder, but also because I don’t think I can stomach watching that man get turned into a martyr if he were killed. That’s what happens. It’s one of the few perks of assassination. In death, you get upgraded into a saint no matter how much people hated you in life. As the rueful Henry Adams, a civil service reform advocate who marveled at his fellow reformers’ immediate deification of President Garfield after that assassination, wrote, “The cynical impudence with which the reformers have tried to manufacture an ideal statesman out of the late shady politician beats anything in novel-writing.”