March 26, 2009
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
I took particular interest in a comment you made during your recent 60 Minutes interview regarding your difficulty in escaping the Presidential “bubble” to spend time with ordinary Americans in ordinary places. As a student and admirer of Lincoln, I thought you would appreciate knowing that he shared your frustrations in this regard and spoke of them to one Charles Halpine during the height of the Civil War. Halpine, an Irish-American journalist who served as a staff officer during the Civil War and, using the pseudonym ‘Miles O’Reilly,’ wrote some highly popular pieces from the viewpoint of an army private, had asked Lincoln his thoughts on being isolated, to which Lincoln replied:
Though the tax on my time is heavy, no hours of my day are better employed than those which thus bring me again within the direct contact and atmosphere of our whole people. Men moving only in an official circle are apt to become merely official, not to say arbitrary, in their ideas, and are apter and apter, with each passing day, to forget that they only hold power in a representative capacity. Now this is all wrong. I go to these promiscuous receptions of all who claim to have business with me twice each week, and every applicant for audience has to take his turn as if waiting to be shaved in a barber’s shop. Many of the matters bought to my notice are utterly frivolous, but others are of more or less importance, and all serve to renew in me a clearer and more vivid image of that great popular assemblage, out of which I sprang, and to which at the end of two years I must return. I tell you, Major, I call these receptions my public-opinion baths; for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way and though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of reasonability and duty.
Mr. President, I am director of the recently restored and opened President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, located three miles from the White House. This was the Lincoln family’s seasonal retreat and it was to this place that Lincoln insisted on returning, either on horseback or by carriage, at the end of every exhausting White House work day. In all, Lincoln spent over a quarter of his presidency living at the Cottage and it was here that he thought through and worked on drafts of the emancipation proclamation. Today we are sharing this important story with Americans from across the country and the response has been wonderful and rewarding.
Lincoln insisted on this dangerous commute in part to escape the bubble that you referred to in your 60 Minutes interview. It gave him an opportunity to visit with “contrabands” (those African Americans who were freed following DC’s 1862 emancipation), soldiers marching to or returning from the southern campaigns, the resident veterans who lived at the Soldiers’ Home, our country’s first military retirement home, and with many others who lived along his commute route that followed today’s Georgia Avenue.
I look forward to the time when you can escape your “bubble” and retrace Lincoln’s steps to the place he so loved. I look forward as well to the day when I can share this national treasure with you and your beautiful family.
Frank D. Milligan, PhD