Abraham Lincoln

As I noted in a post yesterday, today is the 5th anniversary of when then-Gov. Mitt Romney signed a universal healthcare bill into law for Massachusetts. But that’s not the only — or even the most important — anniversary of significance to be marked today.

Of course, the most significant is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. I began to commemorate the day this morning by dusting off my Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion II CD and playing it, beginning with the first track, “Civil War.” Then my wife and I hiked at Starved Rock State Park, where there weren’t many people today, giving us the opportunity to truly appreciate the solitude of nature and, at one point, reflect on how far we’ve come as a society since the Civil War — and even since the 100th anniversary 50 years ago.

You don’t need me to explain all that, but I do wish to take this time to mention a few Civil War-related books I’ve read or that are on my to-read list: Jay Winik’s “April 1865: The Month That Saved America” (about the final days of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath); James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” and “Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse”; David O. Stewart’s “Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy”; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”; and George B. Kirsch’s “Baseball in Blue and Gray: The National Pastime During the Civil War.”

If anyone has suggestions to add to my reading list, I’d love to hear them. Also, if you have any Civil War sites you recommend I visit between northern Illinois and Atlanta, Ga., during a road trip planned for later this year, I’d love to hear those, too.

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Today is also the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight (by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) and the 30th anniversary of the American space shuttle program’s first flight. NASA celebrated by not giving one of the retiring space shuttles to Chicago’s Adler Planetarium — but at least the planetarium will get the flight simulator used by astronauts during their space training.

The four space shuttles were assigned to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum near Washington, D.C.; the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex near Orlando, Fla.; the California Science Center in Los Angeles; and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.

I’ll also be visiting the Kennedy Space Center during my aforementioned road trip planned for later this year. Suggested stops in the TOM (Tampa-Orlando-Miami) triangle are welcome, too. (Baseball games and Everglades National Park are already on the agenda.)

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Finally, today is the 1-year anniversary of when the Chicago Cubs front office started its official Twitter feed, @CubsInsider. This isn’t very notable, except to illustrate a point.

Lately I’ve noticed a few people in my Twitter timeline mention that they’ve been on Twitter for a year now. I’m glad they’ve been on Twitter that long, but I’m not sure why they think the anniversary is a big deal. I’ve used Twitter since early 2009 — proudly ahead of the curve with this form of social media — but I don’t know what day I tweeted for the first time. Nevertheless, if you’re on Twitter and don’t already follow me, I hope you will change that! I’m @thebreadline.


Sunday was the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, but instead of doing something to honor our country’s 40th president, I did something related to our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

“Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made in America,” a traveling display of reproduced artifacts related to Lincoln’s life and death, opened at the Ottawa Scouting Museum this past weekend. It will be there until April 12, at which time the exhibit will be transported to the next stop on its two-year tour around Illinois. (Interestingly, April 12 also will mark the 150th anniversary of when Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter, starting the American Civil War.)

The Lincoln exhibit consists of seven learning stations and a dollhouse-sized replica of Lincoln’s home in Springfield. (The dollhouse was created by Ottawa resident Nancy Dominis.) Among the reproduced artifacts are Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, an ax the president used to chop wood for Union soldiers, a toy cannon given to his son Tad, and two Lincoln life masks.

Mollie Perrot, executive director of the Ottawa Scouting Museum, told me turnout for the exhibit was better than expected during its opening weekend, considering the Super Bowl took place Sunday.

The exhibit is worth seeing and doesn’t take long to go through it. If you get an opportunity to see it in Ottawa or elsewhere, I recommend you do so.

My column from last week’s issue of Ottawa Delivered:

Since U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk decided to stump in Ottawa on the anniversary of the local Lincoln-Douglas debate – and in the same location, no less – I must admit to a bit of disappointment that the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate didn’t try harder to channel the Great Emancipator.

I know some people will think I’m picking on Kirk unfairly – he did, after all, actually come to Ottawa, despite knowing his opponent, State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, wouldn’t be here – but his choice of date and venue is clearly designed to make a connection between Kirk and Lincoln, the first and greatest Republican president. I’m certainly not going to let the opportunity pass.

First, let’s address Kirk’s appearance. He should’ve donned a top hat and wore platform shoes to make himself appear more Lincoln-esque. Even though Lincoln didn’t sport a beard when he debated Stephen Douglas, Kirk also could’ve grown out his facial hair to add to the Lincoln look.

The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates were held 152 years ago, and topics of concern to citizens and politicians have changed in the past century and a half. Kirk addressed this matter, noting that slavery was the topic of the day for Lincoln and Douglas. Rather than talk about repression of people based on creed or color – a great opportunity to address the Ground Zero mosque and Arizona immigration law controversies – Kirk instead talked about government spending, a hot topic for those seeking elected office nowadays.

Although he knew Giannoulias had agreed to only two debates, both in October, Kirk still came to Ottawa looking like he was expecting a debate. He held a list of talking points in his hand, occasionally looking down at them to make sure he told the small gathering about everything he wanted to talk about in a debate with Giannoulias. And, of course, he noted his opponent’s absence three times.

The fact that Kirk spoke for only eight minutes also is of concern. Each Lincoln-Douglas debate lasted three hours – imagine sitting through that on a hot August day in a park packed with people – but since Kirk didn’t have a sparring partner to debate, I’ll cut him some slack and reduce his expected politicking time to only 90 minutes.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine sitting through that on a hot August day, either. But for the sake of comparing Kirk’s Ottawa visit to the Lincoln-Douglas debate, here’s one more topic I wish the Republican candidate would’ve addressed:

Early in his debate, Lincoln talked about accusations of him selling out the old Whig Party in order to advance the fledgling Republican Party. Kirk could have talked about the tea party movement and whether he thinks it is helping or hindering Republicans. Unlike some other GOP candidates in other races, Kirk is not a tea party darling, so it’s worth hearing what he thinks about the movement.

I guess I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed that he talks about it during one of his October debates with Giannoulias.

I’ve been meaning to post this column all week, but it’s been a hectic five days in OD land. We’re hiring a new reporter at Ottawa Delivered, and we’ve been interviewing candidates all week. On top of that, I’m working on next week’s cover story and, well, there’s the rest of the usual daily deadline and managing editor stuff to juggle. It’s an invigorating experience, and quite time-consuming — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Back to the column: I wrote this last week as part of Ottawa Delivered’s package of articles about the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America. I was very involved with Boy Scouts as a youth — as a matter of fact, I’m an Eagle Scout — and little did I know at that time, my journalism career would find me writing in the hometown of W.D. Boyce, founder of the Boy Scouts of America, and in BSA’s 100th anniversary year, no less.

Strangely, Scouting doesn’t seem to be a big deal in Ottawa, at least as much as it was in the Chicago suburbs when I was growing up, or compared to the popularity of 4-H in La Salle County. Perhaps that is because, equally strangely, Ottawa doesn’t really embrace Scouting the way you would think the city where the BSA founder lived and is buried would. This column addresses these things.

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My name is Craig, and I’m an Eagle Scout.

I chose to start this column with an Alcoholics Anonymous-style greeting because, for many years, I felt like I couldn’t talk about my Scouting career except with a select few people. Too many people find Boy Scouts an easy target to mock, and at some point I got sick of hearing their comments, so I stopped mentioning my involvement unless it was on my resume.

Eventually, though, I realized how foolhardy it was to ignore what was an important foundation in my life. In addition to providing me with a focus point during my parents’ divorce, Scouting taught me many useful skills and helped form the person I am today. For instance, Scouting helped instill a love of the outdoors – which makes me appreciate living near four state parks and inspires me to regularly plan trips around visits to national parks and other nature points of interest.

Success in Scouting – especially to achieve the Eagle rank – requires determination and drive, community-orientation and leadership. Obviously this is a good set of skills to hone before entering the real world. The same skills that lead to success in Scouting can lead to success in the workforce, too.

Yet, for some reason, staying in Scouting well into one’s high-school years is an act shunned by many, making those of us who do feel an uncalled-for embarrassment of sorts. Surprisingly, in Ottawa – the cradle of Scouting in America – this active shunning seems to extend to people in high places.

Yes, I am suggesting that Ottawa is not outwardly proud enough of its connection to BSA’s birth, even though one of its own founded the century-old organization that has directly influenced more than 100 million people.

Sure, Ottawa has a Scouting Museum, though that opened just 12 years ago and mainly thanks to the tireless efforts of a small core of very dedicated volunteers. But, in honor of W.D. Boyce, how about a nod to Scouting in the city’s marketing plan?

I understand that Ottawa’s powers-that-be believe the city must focus on a single “brand” – specifically, marketing Ottawa as the gardening and horticultural hub of the Midwest – but I respectfully disagree. I think any community with multiple potential draws should take advantage of them all. In the case of Ottawa, that includes the city’s historical ties to Abraham Lincoln and W.D. Boyce – even if we aren’t the only town in America with connections to those men. What draws one tourist may not draw another, so why not cast the widest net possible?

If nothing else, Ottawa should commission a Scouting mural to be added to the growing collection of historical depictions adorning the city’s buildings. Hasn’t W.D. Boyce earned that honor? More importantly, haven’t the Scouts earned that recognition?

By recognizing its connection to Scouting more openly, Ottawa could help lessen the stigma for any Scout who feels too embarrassed to mention his involvement with a quality, character-building organization. I wish that had been the case for me.

Last month I finally got around to visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill. (I went on a behind-the-scenes media tour six months before the museum opened in April 2005, but that doesn’t really count because most of the exhibits weren’t in place yet.) All the exhibits and shows inside the museum are of high quality, but I was disappointed because there should have been more. Lincoln is one of the most written-about people in history, yet the ALPM is one of the least comprehensive presidential museums I’ve toured.

If you are an Illinois resident interested in visiting the museum, try to do so when your county will get you half off the $10 adult admission price. (Click here for details.) I suspect the museum is more impressive if you only have to pay $5 to get in the door.

In December 2006, I wrote a travel story for The Times about two other presidential museums I’ve visited. What follows is my take on the places commemorating the presidencies of Harry Truman and Gerald Ford.

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History buffs thirsting for presidental knowledge in the Midwest beyond the Land of Lincoln can get their fix in several surrounding states.

I recently visited two of the Midwest’s presidential museums: Harry S. Truman’s in Independence, Mo., and Gerald R. Ford’s in Grand Rapids, Mich. While I found both museums worth touring, what you’re probably thinking is true: Though the Truman museum covers the birth of the Atomic Age, it’s the Ford Museum that bombs in comparison.

Naturally, the Truman museum has a lot more source material to work with than the Ford museum. While the Ford presidency had a few memorable, if not controversial, moments, it was mostly forgettable. Upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Truman inherited World War II and, ultimately, the decision whether to use an atomic bomb as a weapon of warfare.

During two terms as president, Truman also oversaw the Korean War and the start of the Cold War, witnessed the signing of the United Nations charter and was involved in negotiations to create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Truman’s Fair Deal proposal called for, among other things, an increase in minimum wage and health insurance for all Americans, while his secretary of state, George Marshall, unveiled a plan that stimulated economic recovery in post-World War II Europe.

The United States also desegregated its military and recognized Israel as a country during the Truman presidency. So you see the museum’s planners had plenty to work with.

The Truman museum presents all this in an interactive fashion, making it less stale than a traditional “look, learn and move to the next artifact” museum, and probably more accessible to a society that collectively has an increasingly shorter attention span.

The first of the interactive displays is about the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Video monitors show footage of the fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and audio clips of Truman and others discussing the decision to use the atomic bombs.

Visitors to the Truman museum also have the opportunity to weigh in on the discussion via a comments book. I don’t know what ultimately happens to those comments — maybe they’re stored in a back room for historical purposes — but it is a nice touch to the museum, and it’s interesting to flip back through previous pages to read what others had to say about this controversial issue.

Throughout the museum there are other video displays with footage from Truman’s presidency. Two in particular stood out for me. One was Truman’s farewell speech to the nation, played on a monitor shaped like a 1950s-era television. The other was a montage of commercials and TV show intros from the ’50s, providing a glimpse of (or a look back at, depending how old the viewer is) what televised entertainment was like in the heyday of “I Love Lucy.”

There also is an interactive display that quizzes visitors on what they learned at the Truman museum, in the lower level where the former president’s personal life and early years in politics are chronicled.

All things Truman in Independence, Mo., are not limited to the presidential museum. After leaving the White House in 1953, Truman retired to Independence, where he resided until his death in December 1972. Although the retired president was easily Independence’s most recognized citizen, he was seen walking around town almost daily.

The city capitalized on this in the 1990s, creating the Truman Historic Walking Trail. There are some curiosity stops along the way, such as the home where Truman and his wife, Bess, lived in retirement, the Jackson County Courthouse where Truman presided as a judge, and the barber shop where he got his hair cut.

The Ford Presidential Museum pales in comparison to the Truman museum, though that’s not really unexpected, since Ford’s presidency pales in comparison to Truman’s, too.

Still, the Ford museum is worth checking out, although it may dredge up some bad memories about how Ford came to power in the Oval Office.

One of the more interesting things to be found at the Ford museum are the tools used in the Watergate break-in, an unexpected treat considering I (and many others, I’m sure) thought those would be in the Nixon Presidential Museum or a police evidence locker somewhere collecting dust. The tools are a nice kickoff to an interactive display chronicling Ford’s rise to power. There are plenty of documents to read and footage of TV news coverage to watch.

The most interesting parts of the Ford museum deal with the 38th president’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon, his offer of amnesty to draft dodgers, his role in the Warren Commission’s investigation into the Kennedy assassination, and America’s bicentennial, which came and went during Ford’s presidency.

Probably the most fascinating artifact in the museum, though, comes from Vietnam and is in an exhibit about the fall of Saigon. If you’ve ever seen news footage of when Americans and some Vietnamese refugees escaped to helicopters using a staircase atop the U.S. embassy in Vietnam — well, you can see the actual staircase in the Ford museum now.

I was alive when Saigon fell, but am too young to remember anything about it firsthand. I do remember the Berlin Wall coming down, though, and there are a couple chunks of that on display at the Ford museum, too.

For children there’s an interactive cabinet room where they can take a quiz about what they learned at the Ford museum. For adults, there’s a display about Betty Ford’s alcoholism.

And for those looking for the Ford Presidential Library — it’s in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s the only case in which a former president’s museum and library are not on the same grounds.

I find it interesting that two of the most influential men of the past few centuries, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, were born on the same day, 200 years ago today.

In honor of Lincoln’s bicentennial birthday, I strolled through Washington Square park in Ottawa, site of the first debate between Lincoln and U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas. There are statues of Lincoln and Douglas in the center of the park, and there is a Lincoln-Douglas debate mural painted onto the side of a building across the street. I attended the dedication ceremonies for both the statues and the mural. U.S. Sen. Paul Simon was the keynote speaker when the statues were unveiled in September 2002.

I didn’t do anything special to mark Darwin’s birthday other than continue believing his theory of evolution.

With so many Chicagoans flocking to Washington, D.C., to see Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States, several Chicago-area newspapers and Web sites have put together lists of things to do in D.C. I’m going to jump on that media bandwagon by posting a travel piece I wrote for The Times in September 2007, a month after visiting the nation’s capital for the first time. I listed five pleasant surprises and five disappointments. Feel free to add your own by posting a comment.

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Visiting Washington, D.C., can be a monumental trip.

But it can be even better if you look beyond the obvious sightseeing spots like the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. You don’t need another travel writer to tell you about those tourist sites. What I can offer, however, is a list of lesser-known sights and places to visit or, in some cases, avoid.

First, the pleasant surprises:

Ford’s Theatre: I thought I would walk in, see where President Lincoln was shot and then leave. But Ford’s Theatre proved to be much more interesting than I expected. In the basement there is a plethora of artifacts related to Lincoln’s assassination, including the weapons John Wilkes Booth was carrying, the medical tools Dr. Samuel Mudd used on Booth’s broken leg, the flag Booth’s boot spur snagged when he jumped from Lincoln’s box (causing him to break his leg) and a still-stained pillow Lincoln bled on as doctors tried in vain to save the president.

Postal Museum: This branch of the Smithsonian Museum doesn’t sound too interesting, does it? I must admit, had I not seen a segment about it on the Travel Channel, I wouldn’t have visited. But I’m glad I did. The museum presented a history of postal service that was unexpectedly fascinating. Did you know rural America didn’t get postal service initially? And that changes in mail transportation over the decades clearly mirrored how Americans traveled at different times in our country’s history?

Interactive features include televised documentaries, a speed test to see how fast you can sort a bundle of mail and computer kiosks where you can create a preprinted postcard addressed to anyone in the country. An abundance of those types of things helped the Postal Museum earn my stamp of approval.

FDR memorials: The bigger, more well-known one located between the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River is quite comprehensive, showing different aspects of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four terms as president, and includes waterfalls and shade trees. This contrasts most other presidential memorials that basically consist of a statue and quotes etched in stone.

I practically stumbled upon the smaller, lesser-known FDR memorial by accident while walking to a Metro station. A stone tablet about the width of a desktop is simply inscribed: “In memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882-1945.” An accompanying plaque explains the simple memorial was created and placed in “the center of that green plot in front of the Archives building” in accordance with Roosevelt’s wishes, on the 20th anniversary of his death. Three decades passed before the larger memorial opened.

Holocaust Museum: Very educational and by far the most compelling Holocaust memorial I’ve seen. In addition to photos and film footage of the Nazi death camps, there also was an extensive explanation of how Germany’s culture changed to allow Adolf Hitler to take power — something that usually isn’t described in enough detail to truly understand how that situation came about.

U.S. Capitol at night: The Capitol building lit up at night is a must-see. That impressive building glowing in the dark, and its image reflected in the nearby pool, are majestic sights. Bonus if, like me, you get to see a reddish-colored full moon rising behind it.

Washington, D.C., disappointed in a few places, too:

National Aquarium: Not to be confused with the bigger and better National Aquarium in Baltimore, this one is an all-around letdown. Do yourself a favor and skip paying $5 to see a small selection of water-loving animals whose cages are mislabeled. Instead, go to the free Smithsonian Zoo and see a more interesting assortment of animals that includes giant pandas and a komodo dragon.

Museum of Natural History: The best part of this museum is the Hope Diamond. Otherwise it pales greatly in comparison to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Chinatown: Also pitiful by comparison to its Chicago counterpart. D.C. Chinatown is about a block long and has a single store where Chinese knickknacks can be purchased.

Billy Goat Tavern: Hoping to get a taste of home while on the East Coast, I checked out the D.C. locale of this classic Chicago restaurant — and was severely disappointed. The gritty character of the original Billy Goat Tavern is nowhere to be found here. Instead, there’s an antiseptic atmosphere that barely acknowledges its Chicago heritage, save for the Bears, Cubs and (gasp) White Sox pennants hanging above a small corner bar. At least they had the Cubs on TV instead of the Nationals.

World War I Memorial: After seeing the impressive World War II Memorial, I was disappointed in the much smaller monument to D.C. citizens who fought in World War I. Apparently D.C. tourism types are embarrassed by it too, because they didn’t include it on any visitor maps.

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