One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage
in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. There they were - John Wilkes
Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz - in tune and in the flesh. The
men who murdered Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were elbow
to elbow with Lee Harvey Oswald and the klutzy girls who botched their
hits on klutzy Gerald Ford, harmonizing on a toe-tapper called
"Everybody's Got the Right to Be Happy," a song I cheerfully hummed
walking back to the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying.
Not that I came all the way from New York City just to enjoy a chorus
line of presidential assassins. Mostly, I came to the Berkshires because
of the man who brought one of those presidents back to life. I was there
to visit Chesterwood, the house and studio once belonging to Daniel
Chester French, the artist responsible for the Abraham Lincoln sculpture
in the Lincoln Memorial. A nauseating four-hour bus ride from the Port
Authority terminal just to see the room where some patriotic chiseler
came up with a marble statue? For some reason, none of my friends wanted
to come with.
Because I had to stay overnight and this being New England, the only
place to stay was a bed-and-breakfast. It was a lovely old country
mansion operated by amiable people. That said, I am not a
I understand why other people would want to stay in B&Bs. They're
pretty. They're personal. They're "quaint," a polite way of saying "no
TV." They are "romantic," i.e., every object large enough for a flower
to be printed on it is going to have a flower printed on it. They're
"cozy," meaning that a guest has to keep her belongings on the floor
because every conceivable flat surface is covered in knickknacks, except
for the one knickknack she longs for, a remote control.
The real reason bed-and-breakfasts make me nervous is breakfast. As if
it's not queasy enough to stay in a stranger's home and sleep in a bed
bedecked with nineteen pillows.
In the morning, the usually cornflake-consuming, wheat-intolerant guest
is served floury baked goods on plates so fancy any normal person would
keep them locked in the china cabinet even if Queen Victoria herself
rose from the dead and showed up for tea. The guest, normally a silent
morning reader of newspapers, is expected to chat with the other
strangers staying in the strangers' home.
At my Berkshires bed-and-breakfast, I am seated at a table with one
middle-aged Englishman and an elderly couple from Greenwich,
Connecticut. The three of them make small talk about golf, the weather,
and the room's chandeliers, one of which, apparently, is Venetian. I
cannot think of a thing to say to these people. Seated at the head of
the table, I am the black hole of breakfast, a silent void of gloom
sucking the sunshine out of their neighborly New England day. But that
is not the kind of girl my mother raised me to be. I consider asking the
Connecticut couple if they had ever run into Jack Paar, who I heard had
retired near where they live, but I look like I was born after Paar quit
hosting The Tonight Show (because I was) and so I'd have to
explain how much I like watching tapes of old programs at the Museum of
Television and Radio and I don't want to get too personal.
It seems that all three of them attended a Boston Pops concert at
Tanglewood the previous evening, and they chat about the conductor.
This, I think, is my in. I, too, enjoy being entertained.
Relieved to have something, anything, to say, I pipe up, "I went to the
Berkshire Theatre Festival last night."
"Oh, did you see Peter Pan?" the woman asks.
"No," I say. "Assassins!"
"What's that?" wonders the Englishman.
To make up for the fact that I've been clammed up and moping I speak too
fast, merrily chirping, "It's the Stephen Sondheim musical in which a
bunch of presidential assassins and would-be assassins sing songs about
how much better their lives would be if they could gun down a
"Oh," remarks Mr. Connecticut. "How was it?"
"Oh my god," I gush. "Even though the actors were mostly college kids, I
thought it was great! The orange-haired guy who played the man who
wanted to fly a plane into Nixon was hilarious. And I found myself
strangely smitten with John Wilkes Booth; every time he looked in my
direction I could feel myself blush." Apparently, talking about going to
the Museum of Television and Radio is "too personal," but I seem to have
no problem revealing my crush on the man who murdered Lincoln.
Now, a person with sharper social skills than I might have noticed that
as these folks ate their freshly baked blueberry muffins and admired the
bed-and-breakfast's teapot collection, they probably didn't want to
think about presidential gunshot wounds. But when I'm around strangers,
I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I'm dormant, dormant,
quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my
silence and then, boom, it's 1980. Once I erupt, they'll be wiping my
verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.
I continue. "But the main thing that surprised me was how romantic
"Romantic?" sneers a skeptic.
"Totally," I rebut. "There's a very tender love scene between Emma
Goldman and Leon Czolgosz."
"You know. He was the anarchist who killed McKinley. Buffalo? 1901?
Anyway, the authorities initially suspected Goldman had helped him, but
all it was was that he had heard her speak a couple of times about
sticking it to The Man. He'd met her, but she wasn't his co-conspirator.
Anyway, the play dramatizes the moment they meet. He stops her on the
street to tell her that he loves her. The guy who played Czolgosz was
wonderful. He had this smoldering Eastern European accent. Actually, he
sounded a lot like Dracula - but in a good way, if you know what I
mean." (They don't.)
"He told her, 'Miss Goldman, I am in love with you.' She answered that
she didn't have time to be in love with him. Which was cute. But, this
was my one misgiving about the performance, I thought that the woman
playing Goldman was too ladylike, too much of a wallflower. Wasn't Emma
Goldman loud and brash and all gung ho? Here was a woman whose words
inspired a guy to kill a president. And come to think of it, one of her
old boyfriends shot the industrialist Henry Frick. Maybe I'm too swayed
by the way Maureen Stapleton played Goldman in the film Reds. She
was so bossy! And remember Stapleton in that Woody Allen movie,
Interiors? Geraldine Page is all beige this and bland that so her
husband divorces her and hooks up with noisy, klutzy Maureen Stapleton,
who laughs too loud and smashes pottery and wears a blood-red dress to
symbolize that she is Alive, capital A. Wait. I lost my train of
thought. Where was I?"
Englishman: "I believe Dracula was in love with Maureen Stapleton."
"Oh, right. I haven't even mentioned the most touching part. Squeaky
Fromme and John Hinckley sing this duet, a love song to Charles Manson
and Jodie Foster. Hinckley and Squeaky sang that they would do anything
for Charlie Manson and Jodie Foster. And I really believed them!
Squeaky's like, 'I would crawl belly-deep through hell,' and Hinckley's
all, 'Baby, I'd die for you.' It was adorable."
Mr. Connecticut looks at his watch and I simultaneously realize that
I've said way too much and that saying way too much means I might miss
my bus back home. And I really want to go home. I yell, "Nice meeting
you!" and nearly knock down the teapot collection in my rush to get away
from them. Though before I can leave, I have to settle up my bill with
the friendly B&B owner. His first name? Hinckley.
On the bus home, I flip through my Assassins program from the
night before and read the director's note. Of course talking about the
murders of previous presidents is going to open the door to discussing
the current president. That's what I like to call him, "the current
president." I find it difficult to say or type his name, George W. Bush.
I like to call him "the current president" because it's a hopeful
phrase, implying that his administration is only temporary. Timothy
Douglas, the Assassins director, doesn't say the president's name
either, but he doesn't have to. Clearly, Douglas is horrified and
exasperated by the Iraqi war. He writes,
Proportionate to my own mounting frustrations at feeling increasingly
excluded from the best interests of the current administration's control
in these extraordinary times helps me toward a visceral understanding of
the motivation of one who would perpetrate a violent act upon the leader
of the free world. My capacity for this depth of empathy also gives me
pause, for I have no idea how far away I am from the "invisible line"
that separates me from a similar or identical purpose.... Please allow
me to state for the record that I am completely against violence of any
kind as a way of resolving conflicts.
That crafty explanation slaps me in the forehead with all the force of
"duh." Until that moment, I hadn't realized that I embarked on the
project of touring historic sites and monuments having to do with the
assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley right around the time
my country iffily went to war, which is to say right around the time my
resentment of the current president cranked up into contempt. Not that I
want the current president killed. Like that director, I will, for the
record (and for the FBI agent assigned to read this and make sure I mean
no harm - hello there), clearly state that while I am obsessed with
death, I am against it.
Like director Tim Douglas, my simmering rage against the current
president scares me. I am a more or less peaceful happy person whose
lone act of violence as an adult was shoving a guy who spilled beer on
me at a Sleater-Kinney concert. So if I can summon this much bitterness
toward a presidential human being, I can sort of, kind of see how this
amount of bile or more, teaming up with disappointment, unemployment,
delusions of grandeur and mental illness, could prompt a crazier
narcissistic creep to buy one of this country's widely available
handguns. Not that I, I repeat, condone that. Like Lincoln, I would like
to believe the ballot is stronger than the bullet. Then again, he said
that before he got shot.
I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the
inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, than I am
astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have
the gall to believe they can fix us - us and our deficit, our fossil
fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The
egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the
two types brothers of sorts. Presidents and presidential assassins are
like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City that way. Even though one city is all
about sin and the other is all about salvation, they are identical,
one-dimensional company towns built up out of the desert by the sheer
will of true believers. The assassins and the presidents invite the same
basic question: Just who do you think you are?
One of the books I read for McKinley research was Barbara Tuchman's
great history of European and American events leading up to World War I,
The Proud Tower. Her anarchism chapter enumerates the six heads
of state who were assassinated in the two decades before Archduke
Ferdinand was murdered in 1914: McKinley, the president of France, the
empress of Austria, the king of Italy, a couple of Spanish premiers. Her
point being, it was an age of assassination. Well, I can come up with at
least that many assassinations off the top of my head from the last two
years alone as if playing some particularly geopolitical game of Clue:
Serbian prime minister (sniper in front of government building in
Belgrade), Swedish foreign minister (stabbed while shopping in
Stockholm), the Taiwanese president and vice president (wounded when
shots were fired at their motorcade the day before an election), two
Hamas leaders (Israeli missile strikes), president of the Iraqi
Governing Council (suicide bomber). And, in May 2004, an audio recording
surfaced from Osama bin Laden promising to pay ten thousand grams of
gold (roughly $125K) to assassins of officials in Iraq representing the
United States or the United Nations.
"I'm worried about the president's safety," I said at a Fourth of July
party in 2004 when this guy Sam and I were talking about the upcoming
Republican National Convention here in New York. "I think you've seen
The Manchurian Candidate too many times," said Sam. Guilty.
Still, I dread bodily harm coming to the current president because of my
aforementioned aversion to murder, but also because I don't think I can
stomach watching that man get turned into a martyr if he were killed.
That's what happens. It's one of the few perks of assassination. In
death, you get upgraded into a saint no matter how much people hated you
in life. As the rueful Henry Adams, a civil service reform advocate who
marveled at his fellow reformers' immediate deification of President
Garfield after that assassination, wrote, "The cynical impudence with
which the reformers have tried to manufacture an ideal statesman out of
the late shady politician beats anything in novel-writing."
Somewhere on the road between museum displays of Lincoln's skull
fragments and the ceramic tiles on which Garfield was gunned down and
McKinley's bloodstained pj's it occurred to me that there is a name for
travel embarked upon with the agenda of venerating relics: pilgrimage.
The medieval pilgrimage routes, in which Christians walked from church
to church to commune with the innards of saints, are the beginnings of
the modern tourism industry. Which is to say that you can draw a more or
less straight line from a Dark Ages peasant blistering his feet trudging
to a church displaying the Virgin Mary's dried-up breast milk to me
vomiting into a barf bag on a sightseeing boat headed toward the
prison-island hell where some Lincoln assassination conspirators were
locked up in 1865.
I remembered that my friend Jack Hitt had written a book called Off
the Road in which he retraced the old pilgrimage route to Santiago
de Compostela in Spain. So I floated my pilgrimage theory to him in an
e-mail and he wrote back that at one point on his Spanish trip, he saw
"the flayed 'skin' of Jesus - the entire thing, you know, with like
eyeholes and stuff, mounted on a wooden frame." Cool. His e-mail went on
to say that in the Middle Ages,
Relics were treasured as something close to the divine. Often when a
great monk died and there was a sense that he might be canonized, the
corpse was carefully guarded in a tomb - often twenty-four hours a day.
Visitors could come to the tomb. Most of the funeral vaults of potential
saints had a small door, like you might have in your suburban house for
cats. Visitors could poke their heads in the little door and breathe in
the holy dust. Most people thought that such dust had curative powers
since it was associated with a near-saint whose corporeal matter had
been directly blessed by God. So, getting near a relic, touching it,
being near it was considered extremely beneficial and treasured.
Curative powers? I wondered how taking the train to Philadelphia to look
at a sliver of the Garfield assassin's brain floating in a jar is
supposed to fix me. "There was a late Renaissance king of Spain whom I
loved," Jack went on.
He was so inbred and crazy, incapable of eating food or reproducing that
he was called El Hechizado - the bewitched. He was probably
retarded. After destroying the world's largest empire (ever, in all
history) and bankrupting a nation drowning in New World gold, he came to
die. Half the College of Cardinals arrived to recite prayers over his
feeble frail body. They split a live dove over his head every morning.
And they had brought with them the most powerful curative tool then
known to man, the putrefying, stinking rotting corpse of Saint Francis
of Assisi, then (and maybe now) the greatest saint ever. It was laid in
the bed next to El Hechizado and for the rest of his days, the
King of Spain shared his bed with the greatest relic ever in the hopes
that it would restore his health and grant him the potency to generate
an heir. Neither happened and the empire eventually dissolved into
warfare with England around 1588 and became a backwater.
Excerpted from "Assassination Vacation" by Sarah Vowell. Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Vowell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.