Lincoln, Whitman, 16.4

Who could imagine in 1865 that 144 years after John Wilks Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln in Ford Theater, America's first black president would be attending ceremonies in Lincoln's honor?
The gala event on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth was celebrated with the theater's reopening last week after a $25 million, 18-month face-lifting. President Barak Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were joined by Hollywood stars, Washington politicos and TV audiences nationwide.
President Obama called Ford Theater "hallowed space," adding, "For despite all that divided us – North and South, black and white – Lincoln had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people."
Many present in the audience surely recalled a more-recent presidential assassination: John Fitzgerald Kennedy's on Nov. 23, 1963.
(I was 27, working at Wayne State University. JFK – cultured, charismatic, young, witty, boyishly handsome, Camelot's prince – was gone. It seemed horrifically beyond belief. For days, weeks, months, years, his assassination left us stunned, empty, infinitely sad.
In 1965, I met Army staff sergeant Larry, who was to be my partner for eight years. He was in the Kennedy funeral honor guard at Arlington and a riflemen firing a farewell salute to the slain president. Larry spoke first hand of Jacqueline, John John, Caroline, brother Bobby – himself in line for assassination three years later.)
Few know that on the night Lincoln was shot and Wilks Booth jumped from the balcony presidential box into history shouting, "Death to tyrants," there was a gay witness sitting in the audience. Peter Doyle, longtime companion of Walt Whitman.
Whitman, America's best known 19th century poet (along with Emily Dickinson), wrote several poems in memory of Lincoln's martyrdom, including, "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd."
Whitman, 47, met Doyle when he was 21.
The meeting took place in January 1865 on a horse-drawn trolley moving slowly down snowy Pennsylvania Avenue – Route #16.4 – between the Navy Yard and Georgetown. For Whitman, seeing handsome conductor Doyle was electric. (Music, please. Judy Garland! "Clang, Clang went the trolley. Ding, Ding, went the belle!")
Doyle, born in Limerick, Ireland, emigrated to Virginia with his folks. During the Civil War he served in Richmond's Fayette Artillery, bravely enduring several hard-fought campaigns. (Whitman was attracted, so he confessed in "Leaves of Grass," to "powerful uneducated persons.")
Doyle recalled their first encounter years later. "Walt was my only passenger; it was a lonely night, so I thought I would go and talk with him. Something in me made me do it, something in him drew me that way. Walt used to say there was something in me that had the same effect on him.
"Anyway, I went into the car. We were familiar at once – I put my hand on his knee – we understood. He did not get out at the end of the trip – in fact went all the way back with me. From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends." Indeed. No need to read between the lines!
The couple spent idle afternoons riding streetcars. Visited crowded city markets. Held hands during moonlight walks along the Potomac River. Walt recited Shakespeare's sonnets. Pete matched him with teasing, blarney-tinted limericks.
Of Lincoln's murder Pete told Walt, "I heard the pistol shot. I had no idea what it was, what it meant…until Mrs. Lincoln leaned out of the box and cried desperately, 'Our president is shot!'"
Their male bonding lasted 30 years. Whitman died in 1892. Doyle, in 1907. What's past, proved prologue. Presidentially speaking.

Topics: Opinions

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