TRUMP AND LINCOLN WALK TO CHURCH: A PLAY BY PLAY
(A word of explanation. In the spring of 2021, I will be releasing my next book, a history that comes in two, interconnected parts. The first part chronicles a dinner I had at the Trump White House, and my bicycle ride on my way to the dinner through “Civil War Land Central (and peripheral),” as I called it. The second part focuses on a dossier. The pages within that file detail a reporter’s multiple encounters with President Lincoln as the Civil War played out. The reporter worked for the Richmond Daily Whig. His Virginian citizenship didn’t stop something resembling a friendship from forming. The reporter visited with Lincoln many times at the White House, and beyond. Lincoln referred to the reporter, jocularly, as a “foreign correspondent.” Unbeknownst to Lincoln, the reporter was a secret agent. He reported directly to the highest ranks of the Confederate government. He joined the clandestine operations of the “Booth Action Team,” as those conspirators referred to their group. The dossier uncovers a history never before told. I discovered it during my ride through Civil War Land Central (and peripheral).
Below, you will find the final chapter to my upcoming book. The chapter is unfinished and unedited, but recent events have made its publishing necessary. If there are unresolved references to earlier parts of the book, please be patient. Those references will be explained when the book hits the market. In the meantime, all of my books are available here: https://satanssynagogue.com/buy/.)
President-elect Lincoln snuck into the capital city early on the morning of February 23, 1861. He arrived at the New Jersey Avenue Station, the terminus on the B&O railway line. No crowds met him. Nobody recognized him. Most Washingtonians had never seen Lincoln, and certainly not a Lincoln with black whiskers on his face.
Lincoln and his bodyguards took a carriage from New Jersey Avenue to the Willard Hotel on 14th Street. Basically the carriage traveled the mile and a half on the Pennsylvania Pike. The president-elect checked into his suite for the 10-day stay before the inauguration. His wife and boys arrived later that night. Their bill totaled $773.75. Lincoln paid it with his first paycheck as president.
The 23rd of February was a Saturday. Early the next morning, Lincoln left the Willard alone. No bodyguard. Not his man, Ward Hill Lamon. Not Allan Pinkerton, who would effectively organize the first real spy agency in this country’s history. Not a policeman from the local precinct, not that a Lincoln beat existed at that time. Nobody. Lincoln liked to survey the scene as he walked. He was not an exercise walker. He was a slow walker. He gathered. He slow-walked south to what would become Pershing Park on Pennsylvania. At that point in time, a series of stores and bars occupied the strip. He then hung a right, westward to White House grounds.
Lincoln would not have used the term White House to identify his forthcoming digs. The term, though in use, hadn’t arrived as the dominant description. The Executive Mansion, or the President’s House, was the standard address.
An early Sunday morning with nobody around. Lincoln, who would spend his years in office seeking solace from the chaos of wartime governance, found solitude on this, his first morning in Washington.
In 1861, there wasn’t a roadway connecting Pennsylvania on the South Lawn of the President’s House to Pennsylvania on the North Lawn. The building of that roadway, now called East Executive Avenue, commenced in 1871. Lincoln walked on the grass. He probably soiled his fresh black boots. Weeks earlier in Springfield, Lincoln had purchased a new suit as a gift to himself for his victory in the general election. The suit came with new boots and a new Top Hat. Lincoln habitually owned one suit, and he wore it everyday. For some reason, his one suit never quite fit right, even though Mary Todd Lincoln would never have allowed her husband to go about his business in an untailored suit.
As Lincoln walked alone, and as Lincoln never publically shared his thoughts on this walk, the historical record has no idea where his thoughts went. Maybe, as he slow-walked beside the great house to his left, the Treasury Building to his right, his eye went to the second floor of the mansion, and the windows on the east end. Maybe he tried to gaze into what would become his office space. Maybe, through the years of his presidency, he stood inside that office, beside the window, and gazed out, beyond the grounds to the east. Maybe he thought of his younger self on that first morning in Washington.
Lincoln slow-walked to Lafayette Square. He crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and entered the park at the southeast point, with the statue of the Marquis de Lafayette in a hero pose in front of him. Lincoln slow-walked around the statue and made for the center of the square. There, he stood below his hero, Andrew Jackson, sculpted in bronze on his horse. Again, Lincoln’s thoughts at that moment are not known. Perhaps he looked up at his predecessor with hopes of following in his legacy, or the Jackson legacy as Lincoln believed.
Here’s what is known. A companion joined Lincoln at that moment, a rival, who would become a great ally. William H. Seward, then known as the former governor of New York, and the great senator from the same state, lived near the corner of Madison Place and Pennsylvania Avenue. He exited his house and quick-walked, in the Seward style, into the square. He circumnavigated the statue of Lafayette and beelined for the center. There, he greeted the president-elect. Rumors then had Seward as Lincoln’s choice for secretary of state. Lincoln, though, had not communicated his plans. At that point in time, Lincoln knew Seward only as a rival, and in his rival he saw distrust. Seward saw Lincoln, at that point in time, as someone he could manipulate. The two men standing below the statue of a third must have formed an awkward threesome.
What occurred next has been documented, but never shared publically. Seward passed his reflections of that day to his adopted daughter, who might have been his girlfriend, too. She, in turn, passed the reflections on to her daughter. The reflections then got passed matrilineally through the years, in Judaic tradition.
In late May of 2020, with the Coronavirus shuttering significant swaths of America, and just prior to the massive demonstrations that erupted following the death of a black man in the chokehold of a white police officer, I interviewed one of Seward’s descendants. I did so over the phone. Maggie Risley was 70 years old. She lived in Washington D.C. in a retirement home. The initial part of our interview focused on Risley’s great fear. Maggie Risley was surrounded by virus-related death. When would it come for her? For some anxiety-relief, I think, she gladly turned to the oral history of February 24, 1861.
Like her great, great grandmother, Maggie Risley was a writer. Olive Risley, in fact, would pen a bestselling travelogue entitled William H. Seward’s Travels Around the World. That book was published in 1873. Some eight years earlier, and only two months after the assassination attempt on William Seward, his wife died of a heart attack. Seward, according to both the historical record and the oral history passed down through women, grew increasingly lonely. He had lost his wife; he had lost his confidant in Lincoln; he had been brutally attacked; he craved companionship. He found it Olive Risley. She was forty years younger. Rumors in Washington and beyond had the secretary of state conducting a salacious affair. If those rumors were true – and, personally, I hope they were – Seward attempted to quell them in 1870. While on a tour of the world with Risley – in China, according to Risley’s travelogue – he officially adopted her. He changed his will to include her along the same inheritance lines as his other children. Risley’s biological father, interestingly enough, was still alive.
At some point during their travels, Seward told Risley the story of February 24. Risley chose a non-writer’s tactic. She didn’t document the story in her travelogue or anywhere else. Instead, she formed an oral history. When she had a daughter – some years after Seward’s death, so clearly not his – she passed on that history. And so began the story’s line of travel.
According to that oral history, Seward and Lincoln spent the morning of Sunday, February 24 together. During those hours, Lincoln made his final decision. Seward would be his man at Foggy Bottom.
Well, let me immediately amend. The State Department then was located in the Treasury Building, adjacent to the President’s House on the east side. Eventually, the Treasury Building would be moved to the Seward-owned plot of land, across from Lafayette Square on Madison Place. The Seward children would make a killing off of that sale. Olive Risley would inherit her share. She would then help to fund a Catholic women’s college. A statue of her near Seward Square commemorates her efforts.
Once the Treasury Building moved to the Seward space, the State Department became a bit peripatetic. It moved into the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington in 1947. So it didn’t gain its highly applicable nickname until the Truman years.
Anyway, the burgeoning relationship between Lincoln and Seward, and how that relationship in fact changed the nation, is not the story of note here. The historical record brims with anecdotal and harder evidence. Here’s what the historical record misses. Seward took Lincoln to church that Sunday morning. Following services, Seward and Lincoln then slow-walked to the President’s House. They had a luncheon with James Buchanan in his private dining room on the second floor. The president then showed the president-elect and the soon-to-be secretary of state around the residence. While that tour is a story all of its own, never before told outside the Seward/Risley familial lines, let’s leave the telling for another time and place. Let’s focus on the president-elect at church. And another man at church some 159 years later.
For Donald Trump took a similar walk as Lincoln to the same church. Trump did so on Monday, June 1, one week after the searing events of Memorial Day 2020. On that day, the black man named George Floyd walked into a deli in Minneapolis and bought cigarettes. He used a $20 bill. He departed. Meanwhile, the deli employee felt the sheen on the face of Andrew Jackson. It wasn’t edgy, the way it should be. It didn’t have ridges. He called the police.
What occurred next is caught on video. The police found their suspected perpetrator on a sidewalk. Their line of questioning immediately turned intensely hostile. A white police officer, and his three fellow offices, took George Floyd to the ground. The lead officer, a white man named Derek Chauvin, pinned Floyd to the ground. At no point did Floyd resist. Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck. He held it there for nearly nine minutes. He did so casually, like taking a stroll with his wife, like enjoying the spring weather. Meanwhile, the pressure on Floyd’s neck grew extreme. He struggled to breathe. He let the officers know. “I can’t breathe,” he said. He died on the ground, with his hands behind his back, and the weight of Chauvin on his body.
His death, caught on video, set off a cannon. A country shuttered by the Coronavirus became an explosion of protest and pain, mayhem, looting and burning. The historical record notes many race riots in this country’s history, dating all the way back to the Civil War and the antebellum era. This race riot was like no other. America in fear of a viral disease formed the backdrop for America in fear of race. The next week saw an Americaquake.
Trump responded to the Americaquake with swagger. He called himself the law and order president. He responded by threatening to use military force against violent rioters. He responded with a civil rights-era inglorious tweet, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Did he personally reach out to the shocked and suddenly grieving family of George Floyd? Did he try through his channels to get the actual story of what occurred? Did he consider making a statement of empathy, unattached to his swagger? The historical record remains incomplete.
A week later, he took a walk. Or tried to. The scene outside the north portico of the White House blocked his path. There were thousands of demonstrators holding a protest. They were chanting, “Black lives matter.” They were chanting, “Defund the police.” They were chanting, “‘I can’t breathe.’” One homemade sign, held by a protestor, read, “End the Jim Crow days once and for all.” Another homemade sign, held by another protestor, offered a question. “Where is our humanity?”
The protest, at that moment, was peaceful. The scene the night before had not been. Demonstration gave way to vigilante justice, to graffiti, to destroying property, to looting and fires. Some of the looting occurred at one of Washington’s most sacred institutions, St. John’s Episcopal Church on the northern edge of Lafayette Square. The church responded by boarding up its windows. As the church had already been shuttered by the Coronavirus, the further shuttering seemed reasonable. Church officials, though, had no idea that their institution was about to form the backdrop for a photo opportunity.
At 6:15 p.m., on the evening of Monday, June 1, the press gathered in the Rose Garden outside the Oval Office on the west side of the grounds. The president had called for a press conference to commence at that moment. He was running late. Though they couldn’t see the demonstrators on Pennsylvania Avenue to the north, they could hear the chanting. “Black lives matter,” protestors chanted. “Defund the police,” protestors chanted. “‘I can’t breathe,’” protestors chanted.
Suddenly, the chanting gave way to a new noise. Loud booming sounds dominated the airspace. The booming sounded like cannon fire. A reporter in the pool would later say that she wondered if “war had come to Washington.”
One hundred and fifty-nine years earlier, Lincoln paced the President’s House, wondering when the cannon fire of the Confederates – or Rebels, as he referred to them – would come. His level of anxiety was at an all-time elevation. The country then, too, was experiencing an Americaquake.
Trump arrived at the Rose Garden some 20 minutes late. He faced west toward the Eisenhower Building. In Lincoln’s day, he would have been looking west toward the Navy Department. Trump had the military on his mind. He had watched the television for a week straight. He hadn’t made official remarks, as cameras, held by professionals and amateurs, documented the Americaquake of unrest. In his first official remarks, Trump threatened, “If a city or state refuses” a military response in the form of the National Guard, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
The booming to the north sounded like cannon fire. The pool of reporters, facing east, couldn’t help looking north, toward the booming cacophony. They couldn’t see around the west wing.
Trump continued to threaten, “As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism assaults and the wanton destruction of property.”
The booming to the north sounded like cannon fire. Clouds of heavy smoke began to billow over the roses. The smoke elicited coughing. Nobody coughing wore a mask. Not at the Trump White House.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, built by Thomas Jefferson to separate the White House from Lafayette Square, police unloaded rounds of tear gas into the demonstration. The tear gas, or aerosolized chili powder, caused immediate crowd dispersal, and panic. The police didn’t stop there. Dressed in riot protection gear – full body armor, helmets, some police even wore masks under their helmets – they indiscriminately fired rubber bullets into the crowd. The rubber bullets were made of beanbags. They had been further weaponized into pepper balls, as they contained pepper spray. Upon impact, the pepper spray supplemented the tear gas. A general roar went up amongst the demonstrators. “I can’t breathe.”
Smoke filled Pennsylvania Avenue. Smoke and panic, shouting, fear, running, a full-blown pandemonium. An Americaquake. The booming cacophony continued. The coughing from the smoke. The rubber bullets flying. The cries of pain. “I can’t breathe.”
A recent public health study decried the use of rubber bullets. According to the study, entitled “Death, Injury and disability from kinetic impact projectiles in crowd-control settings,” rubber bullets are to be fired selectively at a person, never indiscriminately, never above the shoulders, never at close contact. The study found that these “less than lethal” projectiles maim. They break bones. They lacerate skin. They damage nerves. They fracture skulls. They break orbital plates. The list goes on. They cause traumatic brain injury. They damage internal organs.
The police, in their riot gear, masks under helmets, continued to fire their rubber bullets indiscriminately, at close range, into the crowd. The rubber bullets, weaponized into pepper balls, supplemented the tear gas. The pandemonium reached to the deep blue sky of an early evening. The booming cacophony. The coughing from the smoke. The Americaquake. “I can’t breathe.”
The authors of the public health study found that the “firing of kinetic impact projectiles had the opposite effect.” Rather than a means of crowd-control, such actions “raised tensions, resulting in further violence.”
The police, in their riot gear, masks under helmets, continued to fire their rubber bullets indiscriminately, at close range, into the crowd. The booming cacophony. The opposite effect. Demonstrators in full-blown panic mode. Crowds of people dispersing. Rubber bullets flying. Smoke hovering. All of this during the Coronavirus.
The public health study ended on an ominous note. In this “season of Covid-19,” the study decried, “kinetic impact projectiles will bring about a wider dispersal of respiratory droplets, leading to a wider field of possible infection. We, the undersigned, advise the disuse of kinetic impact projectiles in crowd-control settings.”
The police, in their riot gear, masks under helmets, continued to fire their rubber bullets indiscriminately, at close range, into the crowd. Smoke hovering. Coughing. Respiratory droplets widely dispersing. None of the demonstrators wearing a mask, given the preponderance of smoke.
Over at the press conference at the Rose Garden, the coughing grew. A cascade of symptoms followed. Eyes tearing up, vision becoming blurry, mucus membranes on overload, sneezing, coughing, struggling to breathe. None of the reporters wore a mask. Not at the Trump White House.
Trump seemed immune. He ended his remarks with a blurb of attraction. “And now I am going to pay my respects to a very, very special place,” he said. As he walked back to the Oval Office, the president’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, told the press to gather on the North Lawn “in a few minutes.”
McEnany coughed as she spoke. She did not wear a mask. She might have said “a few” minutes. She might have said “fourteen minutes.” Noticeably, the effects of the tear gas didn’t make her makeup run. Such is the look of the women in Trump’s circles. In this case, the outer circle. There is the look of Botox, or chemical peel, or permanent makeup.
According to the public health study, tear gases and pepper sprays can lead to chemical burns.
Some twenty minutes later, Donald Trump swaggered through the front entrance of the White House. He wore one of his many blue suits. He wore one of his many blue neckties. He had the American flag insignia pinned to his left lapel. He began his walk northward.
Who gave the order for the police to disperse the demonstration with tear gas and rubber bullets? The question remains unanswered. The police in Washington answer to both local law enforcement agencies and federal authorities. Did the order come from the highest level of the federal government? While the answer isn’t specifically known, what happened over the next five minutes suggested some serious clues.
C-SPAN covered the action live. To watch the seven-minute video is to see a phalanx of secret service, augmented by police in riot gear, on the path emblazoned by the president. The press moved about in herky-jerky style, as various White House officials screamed at them to keep the president’s path clear. The president’s direction was unknown to the press.
Trump walked alone, though surrounded by a seeming infantry. Members of his cabinet walked some ten feet behind him. White House staffers joined in the walk. Ivanka Trump was there. Jared Kushner was there.
Leading the strange parade, Trump walked with his shoulders raised. Though, at the age of 73, old age and physics has turned his posture into a curve. Clearly he strained to roll his shoulders upright. At any rate, Trump kept his eyesight straight ahead. He wanted to promote… what? Confidence? Command? Security? Greatness? Swagger? Trump swagger-walked.
He crossed Pennsylvania Avenue into Lafayette Square. His pace across the avenue slowed, as if he had to look both ways for traffic. All traffic, both car and demonstrator, had been cleared. “Targets” was the ominous word used by the police and secret service. All “targets” had been cleared.
All press had been cleared, too. A boundary of a good 20 feet separated the president from the press. That boundary was ever-changing as the president pursued his course.
A second C-SPAN camera caught one reporter on Pennsylvania Avenue, following behind the Trump swagger-walk. He picked up a handmade sign. From the viewer’s perspective, it appeared that he read the sign over and over. “Where is our humanity?” the sign read.
In the aftermath of these events, I reached out to the reporter. His name was Baker Karl. The interview took place on Zoom. I began the interview by asking how long he’d covered the White House beat. “Since the assassination of Kennedy,” Correspondent Karl responded. “I had been on the congressional beat before. That was my first assignment. I covered Kennedy’s attempt to get a civil rights act passed through the senate. I covered the filibuster. That was June 1963, I believe. In November 1963, everything changed. I moved to the White House beat just in time to watch Johnson push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the congress.”
To Karl, I praised the act. It shifted America from discrimination and racial hatred toward something brighter and more inclusive, or so I’d always been taught. I grew up in white suburbia, though. I received a sanitized suburban education.
Baker Karl offered a far different take. His ancestors, slaves who worked the tobacco plantations of northern Virginia, settled in Prince William County during Reconstruction, then traveled north during the Great Migration. “The race riots following the Martin Luther King assassination proved that the Act of ‘64 meant little across white America,” he said. “States still governed along racial lines. I grew up in Chicago. You think we saw one bit of justice on the South Side?”
Silence followed his question. I looked over my computer and out the window, through the dirty glass, at a series of rowhouse backyards. I watched the cats, lounging in the sunshine. I can’t say what Baker Karl looked at. I felt inadequate. I felt ashamed. Perhaps Baker Karl sensed my shame. He brought the interview back to its objective. “You wanted to talk about the Trump walk,” he said. “You suggested in your email that you saw something specific.”
“Yes,” I replied, grateful to be redirected. “The C-SPAN feed caught you picking up a sign on Pennsylvania Avenue. For whatever reason the camera stayed on you for a few moments. You seemed to have some reaction to the sign. Can you talk about that reaction?”
“Yes,” Karl responded. Then he took a moment to place himself back on Pennsylvania Avenue, picking up the handmade sign, reading the words over and over.
“The sign read, ‘Where is our humanity?’” Karl continued. “I picked it up and thought of my father. I was born right before Pearl Harbor. Twenty years earlier my father walked in a protest in Washington. Those were the days of lynchings, Brian. There was a period there, some 75 years, when white mobs lynched nearly 5,000 black men, women and children. My father couldn’t have been twenty years old. He traveled to D.C. He marched in an all-black, silent protest, demanding an end to the lynchings. I have a photograph from that time. There’s a man, not my father, carrying a sign. The sign has a black man on it, being lynched from a tree. The words on the bottom read, ‘Is This Civilization?’ That’s what I thought about when I picked up that sign on Pennsylvania Avenue. From the 1920s to 2020, the signage remains.”
After talking with Baker Karl, I looked up the protest. According to the historical record, it was held on June 24, 1922. Some 3,000 black men and women marched silently through Washington. To look through the photographs, all of them wore their finest threads. One man carried a sign that read, “Congress Discusses Constitutionality while the Smoke of Burning Bodies Darkens the Heavens.” Another man carried the American flag. The walk reached Pennsylvania Avenue, and those blocks in between the White House and Lafayette Square.
June 24, 1922 was a Saturday. Warren G. Harding was the man in the White House. If Harding looked northward to the demonstration on Pennsylvania, there is no record. There is no record of the police dispersing the demonstration, either.
Harding, it should be noted, did take a stand on lynchings. A year earlier, as race riots pushed through the Deep South, as the Tulsa race riot burned the businesses of a black neighborhood, Harding traveled to Birmingham. He pushed for anti-lynching legislation, then in the congress. The house of representative passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. The senate filibustered it into non-existence.
Nearly 100 years later, President Trump crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and entered Lafayette Square. He swagger-walked around the statue of President Jackson on his horse. Notably, his swagger-walk traveled over pavement only. Trump’s pristine loafers never touched grass or soil.
One hundred and fifty-nine years earlier, at that same spot, president-elect Lincoln greeted Senator Seward. Lincoln, some 10 days into his 52nd year on the planet, stooped when he shook Seward’s hand. Lincoln had that dynamic in his body that many tall men learn. In a world of shorter folk, they shorten themselves. They shrink and stoop. Also physics was just beginning to play a role in Lincoln’s body. His body parts were dropping.
William Seward was nearing his 60th birthday. Though physics had clearly set in on his body parts, he did that thing that smaller men do around men of height. He elongated. He raised the top of his head for the deep blue sky of an early morning. At the handshake point, both men projected an equal height.
They set out northward. Seward, who so wanted to lead, who so wanted the presidency and the command for himself, let Lincoln set the pace. In Lincoln’s way, he slow-walked. He surveyed the scene. He gathered. The cold of a February sky. The White House, his future home, behind him. The quiet of a Sunday morning in Washington.
According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, that scene set the backdrop for what would amount to a great friendship. “Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward hardly knew each other. They certainly didn’t walk arm in arm. But a ‘communion’ began with the walk. That was the word Seward used.”
Seward’s word choice instantly struck me. Was he talking about communion as in the Eucharist, or communion as two men engaged in an intimate conversation, or both?
The oral history traced Seward’s appointment as secretary of state to this date. Had the two men not slow-walked to St. John’s, perhaps events would have swung in another direction. Another man was greatly politicking for the position. His name was Salmon P. Chase. The historical record shows that Chase was always politicking for something. He would become secretary of the treasury. He would become the Mnuchin of his day: intensely greedy, loyal only to his bank account, a parvenu.
The fundamental moment occurred after the slow-walk to St. John’s, and the davening that went on inside. Lincoln and Seward walked from St. John’s to the President’s House. Lincoln, with Seward as his guide, had a luncheon with Buchanan. In Lafayette Square, as the two men curved around Jackson on his horse, Lincoln asked Seward to be his secretary of state, according to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley. Seward accepted.
Risley captured the moment. “The two men were walking side by side as Lincoln offered the position. Both had their eyes on the great house, across Pennsylvania Avenue. Neither man looked at the other. There wasn’t a handshake. There wasn’t an elbow bump.” Note her reference to our form of greeting here in the Coronavirus season. “There wasn’t a halt to the walk, and a face-to-face acknowledgement of the agreement. There was simply a head nod. A very quick, impromptu, head nod. Both men were head nodders.”
As the two men walked toward Pennsylvania Avenue, with the statue of Jackson on his horse behind them, Lincoln brought Seward into his thoughts on the cabinet. He set his sights on the justice department and the attorney general. According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Lincoln knew he wanted a “westerner,” or an outsider. He knew he needed “a Republican, but a former Whig.” He knew he needed someone with evolving positions on the slaveocracy. Not an ideologue. He knew he needed someone who could “stand the test of time. Not someone who is easily dismissed.”
Seward replied, “Basically, you are looking for yourself.”
Was Seward’s retort an attempt to gain the president-elect’s confidence? Was it pure sycophancy? The retort hit its mark. According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Seward noted Lincoln’s reaction. He “tilted his head to the left. His left eyelid drooped severely.”
Maggie Risley probably didn’t understand the gesture, although she might have chalked it up to the actions of a “head nodder.” Perhaps Seward would come to witness that change in Lincoln’s physiognomy, and what it signified. In this case, it signified an energized Abe Lincoln.
The historical record shows that Lincoln appointed the man from Missouri as his first attorney general, Edward Bates. Bates had a little Jeff Sessions to him. Like Trump’s first attorney general, Bates was a bigot who wanted a larger title. Sessions wanted the presidency. Bates wanted a Supreme Court justice appointment. Neither succeeded.
Lincoln kept Bates until the end of 1864. Then he appointed another “westerner,” James Speed. Speed was nothing like the current attorney general in personality and principle – Speed was an abolitionist from birth, Barr stands for nothing – but a similarity formed in that both men did the bidding of their bosses. In Speed’s case, he gained his position due to cronyism. Though he fit the profile as Seward laid it down, he was the brother of Lincoln’s great friend and business partner from earlier in life, Joshua Fry Speed.
All of this history can be traced to Lincoln and Seward slow-walking southward in Lafayette Square to the President’s House. One hundred and fifty-nine years later, Trump swagger-walked northward in Lafayette Square. The video on C-SPAN shows the perimeter around Trump. Nobody punctured the perimeter. Not a reporter, though they lobbed their questions into the perimeter. Not a White House staffer. Not Ivanka Trump. Not Jared Kushner. Not William Barr, though the video repeatedly catches the attorney general sort of rolling behind Trump. Barr didn’t walk so much as wobbled. He wobble-walked. Still, he never wobble-walked beside Trump’s swagger-walk. Trump crossed H Street alone, but with the world watching.
Noticeably, Trump crossed at the intersection of H and 16th. He crossed against the traffic light. Not that it mattered. The established perimeter cleared all traffic in the area. Had Trump turned to his left, he would have swagger-walked beside the Hay-Adams Hotel. In Lincoln’s day, that plot of land belonged to the Adams family. John Quincy Adams, 6th president of the United States, built a “retirement” home there and, after his one term in office ended in 1829, he moved in. Adams’s “retirement” included a return to congress. Unlike any other president, the man won a seat in the House of Representatives. He became a staunch abolitionist. He died in the Capital Building in 1848, according to the historical record. Another representative in the House witnessed the death scene. His name was Abe Lincoln. When Lincoln became president, he appointed Adams’s son to the Court of St. James.
After President Adams’s death, the house on the corner of H and 16th went to his wife, then to their son, then to their grandson, the historian Henry Adams. A deep irony then left a terrible stain on the Adams family legacy. The human rights of John Adams, who so strenuously called for the abolition of slavery, and the human rights of John Quincy Adams, who so vigorously argued for the rights of slaves in the Amistad case in front of the Supreme Court, met the deep and troubled anti-Semitism of Henry Adams. He basically believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy some two decades before The Protocols of the Elders of Zion found publication. Another Henry funded the English-language version of that book. As Henry Ford funded The Protocols, an ultra-nationalist, fervently anti-Semitic organization in Germany murdered the Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau. As history would have it, his death in Berlin occurred on the same day as the all-black, silent protest against lynchings coursed through the streets of Washington, D.C., where a demonstrator bravely held a sign. “Is This Civilization?”
Adjacent to the plot of land owned by the anti-Semite Henry Adams, John Hay built a home. Hay, all of 23 years of age when he moved with Lincoln from Springfield to Washington, spent the Lincoln administration as a secretary in the President’s House. Early in the presidency, Hay and his co-secretary, John Nicolay, asked Lincoln if they could write his biography. Lincoln agreed. The Lincoln biography then set a precedent. Not only was it the first biography on a president from an insider, working with complete access to the subject, but the book became the first bestselling presidential biography. Even though he split the profits with co-author John Nicolay, Hay made enough to purchase the choice location, and build a house.
The Adams/Hay plots of land eventually became the Hay-Adams Hotel. The Obamas stayed there in the two weeks prior to his inauguration. I’m sure their bill totaled a bit more than $773.75.
Four days after Trump crossed the intersection at H Street, Mayor Muriel Bowser closed off 16th Street for two blocks. A paint crew hit the pavement. Within a short time, huge yellow letters filled a two-block radius. “BLACK LIVES MATTER” could almost be seen from space.
Mayor Muriel took the order further. She renamed that radius, “Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
Let’s get back to the Trump swagger-walk. When he crossed the intersection at H Street, he turned to his right. C-SPAN’s camera then panned to St. John’s Episcopal Church. An advance team had clearly set the staging area. Trump knew exactly where he wanted to stand.
He stood in front of the church, but not directly in front. The entrance to St. John’s from H Street has six steps leading up from the sidewalk. The steps end at the main door. The door, on this day, had been boarded up. The frame around the boarded up doorway was painted in white. The church itself was painted a pale yellow. Two large windows on each side of the doorway occupied the facade. All four windows were boarded up on this day. All windows had frames around them, painted white.
Trump stood on the sidewalk to the right of the steps. Stage right. He wanted to project a right-leaning president. As he stood in front of the window furthest to the right of the doorway, he wanted to promote a hardliner. A law and order president.
Off-camera, someone handed Trump a bible. The video shows Trump holding the bible with both hands at tummy level. He held the spine facing out, so that everyone could identify the book. The obviousness of the messaging was comical. Had Trump held the spine up against his body, would anyone have identified the book as one of the many books credited to him, like Trump 101: The Way to Success or Think Big and Kick Ass? In front of a church, what other book would a person display?
Trump stood tall. Or, as tall as a man of his age and declining physics can stand. He pursed his lips into a thin line. He appeared… what? Devoted? Faithful? Stentorious?
He shifted the bible to his right hand. He raised it up to shoulder level. A reporter yelled a question, “Is that your bible, Mr. President?” Trump answered, “It is a bible.”
Why did Trump differentiate? Why did he answer at all? When historians write about the Trump epoch some years from now, I hope they note the moment. It’s the most honest thing he’s ever said. I hope the historians also note Trump’s actions. He never opened the bible. He didn’t quote from John, which would have been entirely applicable. Maybe the raising of Lazarus would have signified the rising of humanity. Instead, he stood for the cameras. Is this civilization?
Another reporter asked for his thoughts at the moment. Trump thought for a moment. Noticeably, he looked to his right. His advisers – members of his cabinet, White House staff, Ivanka and Jared – all stood off-camera, stage right. He then turned back to the camera, but not the reporter, and answered, “This is the greatest country in the world. We’re going to keep it that way.”
Trump then called for certain members of his staff, and cabinet, to come stand with him. It’s noticeable what happened. William Barr joined him on the sidewalk, to Trump’s right. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows joined him on the sidewalk, to Trump’s right. Kayleigh McEnany joined him on the sidewalk, to Trump’s left. Surprisingly, Trump didn’t call the only military in the crowd, General Mark Milley in his camouflage, to the sidewalk. Trump also didn’t call his daughter, Ivanka. Perhaps the black mask covering Ivanka’s face led to that decision. Ivanka was the only person in the entire scene to wear a mask.
The foursome all stood quiet on the sidewalk, shoulder-length apart. They all social distanced. Did they mean to social distance? Nobody was wearing a mask. Not at the Trump White House.
As I watched the video on C-SPAN, I was reminded of my negotiations with the White House Office of Scheduling and Advance a year earlier, as we set up my visit with the president. I had been invited to play a round of golf with Trump before dinner. The invitation mentioned 18 holes with “the President and a special guest.” I reacted the way a golfer would, wondering who would comprise the fourth player. The Office of Scheduling and Advance replied, “The President likes threesomes.”
Apparently the president went with another image in front of the church, with the world watching. The golfing foursome, somehow wholesome and good. Perhaps that traditional quartet explained Trump’s decision not to call General Milley to the sidewalk. Still, that decision must have been difficult. Trump, who always has golf in mind, sure likes a man in camouflage.
A reporter asked a question. The audio could not be heard in the C-SPAN feed. All four faces reacted. To the right of Trump’s face, Barr and Meadows looked to their left, for their boss’s response. To the left of Trump, McEnany’s face looked at the reporter. She looked impressed, like the reporter had waded through the layers of the event to ask a provocative question.
Trump was not impressed. He pursed his lips into a thin line. He switched hands with the bible. He pointed aggressively at the reporter with his right index finger. He then ran that finger dictatorially over his pursed lips. Shut up! – his gesture screamed – Or else!
The reporter’s response has been lost. Trump’s has not. He did not enter the church. Nor did he let church elders know of his visit. Instead, he began his swagger-walk back to the White House.
One hundred and fifty-nine years earlier, Lincoln and Seward slow-walked northward across H Street, at the intersection of 16th. They didn’t turn to their left, and the Adams house, but rather to their right. At that moment in time, according to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, St. John’s was undergoing a cosmetic makeover. “The white church was being painted a pale yellow,” she described, “to differentiate itself from the great house across Lafayette Park.”
On this Sunday, I would imagine, there weren’t painters present. Seward led Lincoln inside. Seward led Lincoln to his pew in the front. A question immediately arises. Did Lincoln know the president-related history of the church? Did he know that James Madison began to worship there after the church’s official opening in 1816? Madison, it should be noted, took a different route from the President’s House to the church. He didn’t walk through Lafayette Square. Instead, Madison walked northward on Madison Place.
Did Lincoln know that Madison then began the tradition known as the presidential pew? The presidential pew at St. John’s sat front and center and every president since Madison sat there for services.
There were two exceptions. Abraham Lincoln never sat in the presidential pew. According to church records, Lincoln attended services many times at St. John’s. Mainly in the evenings. St. John’s wasn’t his official church during his presidency, but Lincoln walked across Lafayette Square often enough. Lincoln sat in a pew in the back.
According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, the back pew “was a refuge, a shelter. Lincoln could enter without any attention, any notice from the other parishioners. He could sit there and listen to the sonorous voice of Reverend George Williamson Smith. He would always attend alone, and he would always arrive just after the service began and leave just before it ended.”
The vignette, though entirely believable, struck me as curious. How did it make it into the oral history of William Seward? I asked Maggie Risley. She responded, “The secretary of state sat in his pew in the front, just adjacent to the presidential pew. He routinely had an inclination, a premonition, that Lincoln would attend. Midway through the service, he would turn his head and look behind him. He would catch a glimpse of the president in the back. His wife, Frances, would then give him a soft elbow. She knew that many eyes were on her husband and she didn’t want anyone to question his attentions.” His attentions were on Lincoln.
Who is the other U.S. president never to sit in the presidential pew at St. John’s? Donald Trump, who has never entered the sanctuary.
Back on Sunday the 24th of February 1861, Seward and Lincoln walked to the front of the church and sat down in Seward’s pew. According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Seward’s attentions were on Lincoln. Apparently he was the lone observer. “Nobody recognized Lincoln,” Risley reported. “To most people in Washington, he was known by pictorial representation. Those representations presented a hard-looking man, clean-shaven, western-rough.” The Lincoln with whiskers, in a new though ill-fitting black suit, presented a different image. Frances Seward, who did not attend services with her husband that morning, thought of Lincoln as “almost good looking,” according to Risley.
That’s a compliment, I suppose.
Services began on February 24 and the oral history went quiet. The rector of St. John’s, Dr. Smith Pyne, presided over services that morning. According to the oral history as told by Maggie Risley, Lincoln “listened to the accent, Pyne’s Charleston upbringing mixed with his Oxford education. The accent turned Lincoln inward. Seward and Lincoln exchanged not a word.”
What was Lincoln thinking that morning in church? As there are no records, I can only presume. As he listened to the strange Southern/English accent of Pyne, I wonder if the accent didn’t turn his thoughts to the accents of the West. The accents of Kentucky, where he was born. The accents of Indiana, where he was raised. The accents of Illinois, where he began his career and raised his family. I wonder if his thoughts went to distance. He was almost 900 miles removed from his 8th Street residence in Springfield. How would that distance impact his decision-making? Who would he become in the capital, so far removed from his homeland?
Lincoln and Seward sat through the whole of Dr. Pyne’s services. Pyne was famous, or infamous, for going on for hours. Lincoln was then a little late for his luncheon with President Buchanan. Still, he slow-walked southward across Lafayette Square. The world was waiting for him and he was in no hurry.
One hundred and fifty-nine years later, Donald Trump swagger-walked southward across Lafayette Square. He was in a hurry. Trump had never walked out of the White House before, through the front gate and into the city. Though it seems like Trump is a much-traveled president, the historical record documents the polar opposite. In travel, Trump pales to the Bushes, and to Clinton, and to Obama, and to both Roosevelts. The second Roosevelt traveled halfway around the world by ship to meet with Stalin and Churchill in Tehran. Trump mainly travels to Florida and New Jersey.
Lincoln walked out of the White House all the time. Though he never made an international trip – Theodore Roosevelt would be the first president to leave the country on official state business, with his secretary of state, John Hay, beside him – Lincoln was probably the most traveled president. He used the Lincoln Express to visit battlefields. He used his horse, Old Abe, to ride out to the Soldiers’ Home. He used the presidential carriage to take him and his wife to many theaters and concert halls across the city. Lincoln was in his element when traveling.
Trump was out of his element. What was he thinking as he swagger-walked back to the White House? Where were his thoughts as he saw the great house from the statue of Jackson on his horse in the middle of Lafayette Square? Did Trump have a Lincoln-like moment, looking up at his predecessor with hopes of following in his legacy, or the Jackson legacy as Trump believed? What does Trump know of Jackson, other than the face of a $20 bill? The answers aren’t known.