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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

THE CURSE OF BEING BOB

I want to label the late Bob Lincoln as a shlimazel, but its a Yiddish term and not generally well known. Most people would probably call him a Jonah – but that would not be entirely accurate. See, according to chapter ten in the Qur'an, God gave Jonah a dangerous job, and to avoid the assignment he jumped ship for someplace else. God sent a terrible storm to swamp the boat, and when Jonah confessed his sin to the the terrified crew, after a few moments of theological discussion, they threw the wayward prophet overboard. That is when, in the words of the Christian hymn “...A whale came up and swallowed him whole.” During the three days Jonah was inside the great fish he prayed for forgiveness, and guided by God, the fish “threw Jonah out on a bar of sand.” Every year on Yom Kippur Jews read the Book of Jonah and ask for God's forgiveness. And now you know why Christians, Jews and Muslims have spent the last 2,000 years slaughtering each other; its because they share so many stories like this one, which differ only in the details. But as Newt Gingrich can tell you,  its the details that can cost you an election. But I digress...
Anyway, a Jonah is somebody you don't want on your boat, or babysitting your 401K. A Jonah is cursed, and he drags his curse around with him, rubbing it off on unsuspecting victims who are drowned because God is actually trying to punch the ticket of the guy in next stateroom. And a shlimazel is just like a Jonah, except that God is not involved. So, I think of the very late Bob Lincoln as a shlimazel. Allow me to explain.
On the day President Abraham Lincoln died, his eldest son, the late Robert Todd Lincoln, (above, called Bob by his father) had just gotten back from the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was late, of course, and when his parents invited Bob to go to the theater with them, Bob begged off and stayed home. He went to bed early and had to be awakened when word arrived that his father had been shot. He made it to the bedside before his father died, but then Bob had to share his private grief with the grief of millions of strangers. And maybe that was what infected Bob, and turned him into a shlimazel..
As the son of Abraham, it was inevitable that Bob Lincoln would be drawn into Republican politics, but he resisted as long as he could - late again. He never stood for election, and when President Rutherford B. Hayes offered him the post of Assistant Secretary of State, Bob said “No, thanks”. But, finally in 1881, he accepted the position as Secretary of War under President James Garfield. That job lasted barely six months, because that was only as long as his boss lasted..
Just after nine on Saturday morning, July 2nd, 1881, at the very beginning of another disgusting hot, humid Washington three day holiday weekend, Bob Lincoln was pacing around the central waiting room of the Gothic eyesore that was the Potomac and Baltimore railroad station (above), at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 6th street. The late Bob Lincoln was early this morning, I guess because he himself wasn't going anywhere. He was there to log-in a little suck-up time with his boss, President James Garfield, who was about to leave for a two week vacation on the 9:15 train to Baltimore.
Yes, Garfield had only been on the job for about three months, and it seemed a little quick to be taking a vacation, but he was the boss and the rules are different for bosses. So here was poor Bob, wandering around this cavernous hothouse, pathetically hoping to make some headway against his biggest rival in the cabinet, the even bigger suck up, Secretary of State James Blaine, known about town as the “monumental liar from the state of Maine”. Blaine at this very moment was walking into the station arm and arm with President Garfield. And that was when Charles Guiteau fired off two rounds of a Bulldog .44 caliber pistol right into Garfield's back.
Bob was not a cop. He did not run to the sound of the gunfire. But when he heard people shouting that the President had been shot, Bob ran toward the Constitution Avenue entrance. Once again he was late. He found Garfield lying on the floor of the “Ladies Waiting Room”. Guiteau had already given himself up, eagerly confessing to everyone and anyone within earshot. Bob and Blaine and Garfield's two sons helped the President to his feet, and escorted him up stairs, away from the lookey-loos. Here he was examined, and since the wounds did not appear to be life threatening – because he was not already dead - it was decided the President should be taken back to the White House. Bob left him there, and returned to his weekend.
It had all the makings of an obscure footnote in history, until the doctors showed up. There were sixteen of them, and several of them shoved their dirty fingers into the President's wounds, looking for the bullets. They did not find them, but within a few days Garfield found he had a raging infection. What finished the poor schmuck off, on September 19, 1881, was a heart attack, which is what kills you after two months of fever and diarrhea. Bob Lincoln was not at the death bed. He had already done his part.
Bob left government service after that and went back into private industry, as a lobbyist for the railroads. And it was as President of the Pullman Cars Association that he was invited to a Presidential reception at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on the afternoon of September 6, 1901. Bob was late again, and as he was just running up the short steps of the Temple of Music Pavilion (above - X marks the spot), he heard two quick gun shots.
William McKinley, the third President of the United States to be assassinated, had just been assassinated. Bob raced into the exhibit, in time to see McKinley drop to the floor. He needed to rush, because thanks to the advances in medicine in the intervening quarter of a century since Garfield's murder, McKinley suffered for only eight days, before the doctors helped him to die on September 14, 1901. Bob Lincoln slink-ed out of town, determined to avoid contributing to any further bloody historical events. It would be the last time an American President would be assassinated until 1963, and who can say that was not because Bob Lincoln chose to be circumspect about being near another President. When it was suggested Bob might wish to attend another Presidential speech, Bob responded, “No, I'm not going, and they'd better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” But it turned out Bob's affliction not only affected Presidents.
Six years later, on Tuesday. August 9, 1910, Bob and his family boarded the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, in Newark, New Jersey. They were looking forward to a few weeks holiday touring Europe when in the midst of the bon voyage celebrations an angry ex-city worker took a shot at brand new New York City Mayor, William Gaynor – shades of Garfield's shooting!  Gayner was hit in the throat, and in the famous photograph taken just seconds after the shots (above), the old man in the white hat rushing to assist Mayor Gaynor, is none other than the late Bob Lincoln - and thus we  have photographic proof that Bob was a shlimazel!  The doctors largely left Mayor Gaynor alone, and he died of his wounds, three years later.
The only other public occasion which involved a living President and Bob Lincoln was on Memorial Day, Tuesday, May 30th, 1922. Bob (above, on the right) was 78 years old by then, when he attended the dedication of his father's memorial in Washington, D.C. In fact there were three Presidents present at that ceremony. The fat man, (above left) was Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had been President in 1911 when he signed the bill authorizing the construction of the monument. He survived his close encounter with Bob by another eight years. Vice President “Silent Cal” Coolidge was also there (not shown). He would become President, after the death of President William G. Harding (above center), who gave a rousing speech at the dedication. But Harding would not die until August of 1923, fifteen months and a day after rubbing shoulders with Bob – which seems like a rather extended time frame for an effective curse. And Coolidge would last another nine years before he died. The curse, it seemed, had been either broken or maybe it was just exhausted. Bob sure seems to have been. 
In fact, Bob Lincoln himself (above) would die sooner than any of his final potental victims. He suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage in the summer of 1926. When he died Bob was the last surviving member of the Garfield cabinet, having outlived his rival James Blaine, who did not even make it out of the nineteenth century (he had died, January 1893) . Bob Lincoln was also the only man in American history to have been present at the murder of two American Presidents, not to mention his relation to a third, his own farther. Bob  was also the only child of Abraham Lincoln to reach adulthood, and to have childern of his own.  But sadly his last heir - and thus Abraham Lincoln's last blood relative - died in 1985.  The line of Lincoln is no more. Bob could not be blamed for any of the unusual coincidences that marred his life, but neither could they be ignored. To call them bad luck seems a pathetic explanation. To call Bob a Jonah seems over-wrought. I think he was just an innocent shlimazel.
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