The Big Picture

What Lincoln Bedroom?

Washington sleeps through its own history.

Your task today is to study the adjacent photograph carefully, then to locate the notorious Lincoln Bedroom. This is neither a trick question nor an implausible request: The Lincoln Bedroom (this is a hint) is in the White House, and that’s just what you are looking at–a photograph of the White House interior taken by National Park Service photographer Abbie Rowe in 1950.

Abe Lincoln’s room has, of course, become Washington’s most infamous place to sleep in under the Clinton administration, surpassing in moral infamy even Dick Morris’ room at the nearby Jefferson Hotel. Many unworthy people have been allowed to spend the night with Abe’s memory, fat-cat campaign contributors and the president’s Hollywood buddies among them. It has become a case of History Defiled.

Ken Bode, moderator of PBS’ journalists round-table, Washington Week in Review, spelled out the case for defilement right after the story broke that big-time campaign money would get you booked overnight with Honest Abe. This is the room, Bode told viewers, where Churchill planned the strategy that won the war, the room where Europe’s fleeing crowned heads found refuge. Bode’s implication–and it underlies all the countless portentous references by the press corps to the room’s classless guests–was clear: This is political sleaze at its lowest, with Clinton putting a price tag on the presidency and auctioning off our national integrity and memory in the process.

Now, back to the photograph, and to our search for that room. You will, by now, have noticed that the White House interior is filled with a mesh of steel girders holding up the exterior, and that the sorts of things that are usually said to make up a room–a floor, a ceiling, doors, a complete set of walls–are missing.

Where are they? Well, by the time this photo was taken, most of these things were probably in a landfill in northern Virginia; that’s where much–though not quite all–of the original White House interior went around midcentury. The fact is that the White House’s guts barely predate Eisenhower. This doesn’t get Clinton off the hook, but that’s not our text. More interesting are the rules of the Washington memory game. The Park Service’s pictures of a totally gutted White House have become a kind of forbidden imagery, evidence of something that none of us seems to want to remember happened, because it seems to snap–by our own hand–a rare link to glory. Some pictures are allowed to speak their thousand words because we like what they have to say; some pictures are silenced. This is one.

It is hardly a secret that the White House interior became a structural replica under Truman: It was about to collapse. The floor in Margaret Truman’s room had actually broken under the weight of her piano, and Harry Truman himself was directed to sleep in the comparatively sound Lincoln Bedroom (if indeed it was Lincoln’s bedroom; he may have used it only as a study), lest he find himself one morning in the Red Room downstairs.

The place was closed for about a year and a half. Work there was widely reported, and thousands of pieces of the presidents’ house–old bricks and bits of wood–were openly sold as souvenirs. There are some significant cues to remembering all this, especially the attempt on Truman’s life by Puerto Rican nationalists that occurred at Blair House–where the Trumans had to live during the reconstruction–and cost one Secret Service man his life: Giant memorial plaques are affixed to the fence in front of Blair House telling this story to anyone who hasn’t heard it.

Nor are the Park Service pictures documenting the work all that rare. Our own photograph–featuring a man bulldozing new basements that will house, among other things, the executive atomic-bomb shelter–was reproduced full-page in David McCullough’s 1992 best seller, Truman, which came out in an election year in which both major candidates were doing Truman impressions. The thorough McCullough devotes 12 pages to the details of the renovation, down to the number of old bricks (95,000) trucked to Mount Vernon for reuse there.

Yet, the myth of White House continuity keeps resurfacing–Jacqueline Kennedy’s famous television tour doubtless played a role in establishing it. When it was revealed a while back that Franklin Roosevelt had installed listening devices in the Oval Office, a workman from those days told reporters how he’d drilled the necessary holes in the floor under FDR’s desk, adding, in a phrase that was reported without comment, that those holes were “probably still there.” Of course, the many thousands of White House visitors every year line up to see where John Adams’ wife hung the laundry, where Lincoln lay in state, and where Churchill slept–not to see restorations of those locales.

McCullough writes that “by the standards of latter-day preservation,” the dumping of the White House interior represents “a needless and tragic loss.” Still, it is obviously a historic place, and not just because the famous exterior remains (as do the mantelpieces, chandeliers, and paneling that were later reinstalled). The Lincoln Bedroom, for example, contains none other than Lincoln’s own ornate bed (if indeed he ever slept in it; questions have been raised about that, too), the one for which Calvin Coolidge’s wife labored two years to make a sufficiently large quilt. On the other hand, the President’s Box at Ford’s Theatre contains the chair in which Lincoln was sitting when Booth shot him, and no one would argue that Ford’s is anything but a replica. (For that matter, Lincoln’s church on New York Avenue was rebuilt itself as a near-replica some years ago, too; rather a lot of Lincoln’s city is architectural Potemkinism.)

Beds, chairs, and pews are where history rests its aging bottom in Washington. Indeed, the capital has been having a continuing debate about its past–what to revere and what to demolish–for years now, and has destroyed a good many places with real claims to historical value, places as old as the White House, with bricks from the same brickyard. The deciding factor in what stays and goes, apart from “charm,” is often the same: Who is associated with it? Where does it rank in the Great Man Theory of Tour Bus History? Indeed, as the capital ages, its history is increasingly becoming whatever associative past you can conjure up as ornament, reward, or weapon.

Lincoln’s association with the idea of the room makes the room historic, even if there’s not much there. So, secondarily, does Churchill’s. But in fact, Churchill was reportedly ill at ease in the Lincoln Bedroom; he is said to have often moved himself across the hall in the course of the night. Why? Because while there was an unrenovated Lincoln Bedroom, there was also said to be a Lincoln Ghost. Truman himself encountered him, he wrote, in the form of mysterious knocks on the door and receding footfalls. Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, one of wartime Europe’s refugee crowned heads, fainted upon meeting Abe, or so she said. But then she is also reported to have heard Andrew Jackson’s ribald laughter coming from her bed in the Rose Bedroom.

Abe’s spirit has been pretty quiet since the midcentury restoration. But no matter. By now, we’ve turned the White House itself into a kind of clanking ghost of presidents past, its very rooms suffused with the great spirits of those who slept there. Once conjured, it throws its looming shadow over the unworthy and undeserving who dare trespass. Well might they tremble.