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No. 44 Obama honors No. 16 Lincoln at scene of the black deed

February 11, 2009 |  7:28 pm

The remodeled Ford's Theatre in Washington where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865

Americans can be a, uh, intriguing people.

In many lands on this planet if a 16th president got assassinated in a dingy downtown theatre during wartime, the place would be turned into TNT dust by dawn.

Not in Washington. Which has stubbornly clung to Ford's Theatre as Lincoln did overnight to life.

The location of one of the most heinous crimes in national history has been turned into a tourist site, a National Historic Site and even 144 years after the bullet-to-the-back-of-the-brain of Abraham Lincoln, it's had a $25 million remodel to preserve the painful place.

There, tonight, on the eve of the Emancipator's 200th birthday, which isn't even its own holiday anymore, a well-dressed crowd of fancy folks celebrated a grand reopening with an artistic gala that included eloquent remarks by the country's first African American president. (Scroll down for the president's text and more photos. Or click on the "Read more" line.)

It was such an important evening that even Katie Couric came all the way from New York.

The no-longer-old theatre is close to the Pennsylvania Avenue inaugural parade route of just three weeks ago. It took the current First Family all of three minutes to get there in an armored Cadillac this evening. It took the Lincolns a little bit longer to do that on his one-way carriage trip to the theatre back in April of 1865.

The 44th president, a Democrat who used the Lincoln Bible at his inauguration, will continue his association with the first Republican president Thursday with a trip back to Illinois, the adopted state of both men.

And Obama will speak late tomorrow in Springfield, where both men served in the state legislature, where Obama launched his unlikely presidential campaign two years ago this week and where the lanky Lincoln spent his first presidential election day 148+ years ago buying a pair of socks and wandering down to the telegraph office in the evening to check voting returns.

--Andrew Malcolm

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Ford's Theatre After, circa 2009

Exterior of remodeled Ford's Theatre Washington, DC 2009

Remarks by President Obama at the Reopening of Ford's Theatre, Feb. 11, 2009

Michelle and I are so pleased to be here to renew and rededicate this hallowed space. We know that Ford’s Theatre will remain a place where Lincoln’s legacy thrives, where his love of the humanities and belief in the power of education have a home and where his generosity of spirit are reflected in all the work that takes place.

It has been a fitting tribute to Abraham Lincoln that we’ve seen and heard from some of our most celebrated icons of stage and screen. Because Lincoln himself was a great admirer of the arts. It is said he could even quote portions of Hamlet and Macbeth by heart. And so, I somehow think this event captured an essential part of the man whose life we celebrate tonight.

As commemorations take place across this country on the bicentennial of our 16th President’s birth, there will be reflections on all he was and all he did for this nation that he saved. But while there are any number of moments that reveal the exceptional nature of this singular figure, there is one in particular I’d like to share with you.

Not far from here stands our nation’s Capitol, a landmark familiar to us all but one that looked very different in Lincoln’s time. For it remained unfinished until the end of the war. The laborers who built the dome came to work wondering whether each day would be their last; whether the metal they were using for its frame would be requisitioned for the war and melted down into bullets. But each day went by without any orders to halt construction -– so they kept on working and kept on building.

When President Lincoln was finally told of all the metal being used there, his response was short and clear: that is as it should be.

The American people needed to be reminded, he believed, that even in a time of war, the work would go on; that even when the nation itself was in doubt, its future was being secured; and that on that distant day, when the guns fell silent, a national capitol would stand, with a statue of freedom at its peak, as a symbol of unity in a land still mending its divisions.

It is this sense of unity that is so much a part of Lincoln’s legacy. For despite all that divided us –- North and South, black and white -– he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people. And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who’ve carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today. Thank you, and good night."

Ford's Theatre Before, circa 1865

Exterior of Ford's Theatre 1865

Photo credits: Maxwell MacKenzie / Associated Press (Remodeled interior of Ford's Theatre); Associated Press (Remodeled exterior); Ford's Theatre, 1865.

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