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Jamie Stiehm
Past and Present
20 Feb 2015
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Hillary Clinton and Mary Lincoln Play Nicely Together at Ford's

Comment

WASHINGTON — I got the scoop: Hillary Clinton herself was seen at the new play about Mary Lincoln at Ford's Theatre — yes, the same place where President Abraham Lincoln was murdered on an April night in 1865. "The Widow Lincoln" takes up Mary's life from that cruel moment forward, for 40 days.

Why did she go? With no fuss, ado or press release? I think Hillary Clinton connects with a clear sense of sisterhood to the beleaguered Mary Lincoln.

There's a present within the past drama onstage. Let's channel it: Hillary Clinton comes to call — a sympathy call. She tells weeping, raging Mary Lincoln her own story will have a happily-ever-after ending back at the White House. She consoles Mrs. Lincoln, telling her the Civil War president is President Bill Clinton's favorite. She wishes they could go on a double date.

"Cheer up, Mary," she might say, "I feel your pain. Abraham belongs to the ages now. But don't you worry, I'll make sure you do, too."

Mary replies in her Kentucky accent: "Now I only have one friend in this mean town, and that's my seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. That horrid man wants me out of here (President Andrew Johnson) and did not even send a sympathy note! Where was he raised? Where will Tad and I go without Father?"

So goes my dialogue across time between bright, pretty and polished women who helped their husbands to the presidency, advising them every step of the way in the state capitals of Springfield, Illinois, and Little Rock, Arkansas. In fact, the men they married — brilliant but rough-hewn — would not have made it there without their highly educated, politically savvy wives. Don't underestimate the power of knowing poetry, French and how to dress and entertain people out on the prairie. The sophisticated young lady Mary Todd, from a posh family of Lexington, Kentucky, was a catch for a giant rising from farm dirt with nothing but dreams. Mary was also courted by Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's political nemesis. What if she had married him?

Mrs.

Clinton and Mrs. Lincoln have much in common beyond their ties to Illinois. They attracted storms of criticism almost from the day they came to Washington — one in 1861, the other in 1993. I've always thought they got a bad rap for breaking china — or buying lots of it, in Mary's case. Each disposed the old molds of their job without asking anyone and few — especially men — thanked them. From the South, Mrs. Lincoln was accused of being a spy.

The play by James Still is a heartbreaker, starring Mary Bacon in an all-female cast, including a soldier guard who turns out to be a girl. The Widow Lincoln hardly leaves her room for days and weeks, surrounded by trunks, not knowing where to go next. In her mad grief for her dead husband, she lives up to her historical reputation as difficult. She probably had (untreated) manic-depression.

But you might be, too, if your beloved was shot in the head next to you in a throng at the theater. Just when the Civil War was over at last and you had laughingly promised each other, on an open carriage ride that spring-scented afternoon, not to be "very miserable" any more — his words. The Lincolns lost their darling boy, Willie, while he was president at a low point in the war. No presidential family suffered as much in office. Of course, Mrs. Clinton has had her share of suffering — another bond between the first ladies.

The best biographer of the Civil War first lady, historian and professor Jean Harvey Baker, explains: "In the White House, Mary Lincoln was a superb hostess whose energetic efforts to improve the dingy presidential quarters transformed the building into an important meeting place for diplomats, congressmen and the general public who flocked to her soirees."

Mary Lincoln kept the lights on at her beautiful parties to show the Union was open for business — not breaking apart. In wartime, people need to congregate for cheer and morale.

At Ford's on April 14, the Lincolns were greeted with a standing ovation. They sat in a draped balcony box enjoying a British comedy. John Wilkes Booth, an actor of 26, fired during a laugh line to muffle the sound. And through that "comedic" moment, Mary Lincoln's tragedy really began.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com

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