Saturday, April 14, 2012
As I See It by John Scanlon,
Editor of the Northeast Times
OK, true, John Wilkes Booth never would have been recalled fondly as Abe Lincoln’s relatives flipped through photo albums during family picnics, but you have to acknowledge one thing about the presidential assassin. The guy had a lot of chutzpah.
He also was the subject of some fuss last week. Seems there’s some dismay that J.W. has his very own bobblehead doll for sale.
My recollection of high-school history is that learning about the Civil War era was by far the most fascinating part. The tragic overtones of that staggering, nation-destroying conflict defy comprehension generations later, but I’ll admit to still being mesmerized by that scenario of Southern sympathizer and respected actor Booth ambushing Abe with a gunshot to the head as the president sat in a balcony box at Washington’s stately Ford Theater, enjoying a comic farce called Our American Cousin, and then leaping to the stage below and fleeing as all hell broke loose.
Booth was like the 1865 version of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. In 2012, I don’t feel any rage toward J.W. I don’t think back to what could have been if only Abe had decided to skip the tuxedo and theater and head instead to a D.C. karaoke bar that night. It’s not even worth fretting about how J.W.’s fanaticism caused us to be stuck with President Andrew Johnson, a Southern career lawmaker and racist with anger issues who almost got his butt removed from office after impeachment by the House.
In fact, who does dwell on all this stuff? None of it matters. Abe got whacked 147 years ago. Personally, when I think of Booth, I just shake my head and think, “Man, that J.W. was one brassy S.O.B.”
They call it history. Which brings us to the John Wilkes Booth bobblehead doll. No, really. Maybe you heard or read of the little brouhaha last week when the Gettysburg National Park gift shop cleared the shelves of Booth bobbleheads, suddenly deciding it wasn’t politically correct after a local reporter, obviously bored by a slow news day, wrote a story about whether it was prudent to be peddling J.W. dolls at the hallowed site where Abe somberly stood in the glow of his most shining moment on Nov. 19, 1863, the day of his truly remarkable Gettysburg Address.
It’s unfortunate that they surrendered this time at Gettysburg. Come on, these are ceramic dolls! Maybe 6 or 7 inches tall. J.W.’s big head is exaggerated on his small body, and yes, he’s holding his little pistol, which makes sense because, as far as we know, he didn’t zap Abe with a Taser.
Even a spokeswoman for the Gettysburg Foundation noted there’d been no complaints during the week the Booth bobblehead was for sale, at which point the decision was made that Abe’s bobblehead could stay but that J.W.’s probably should go.
Booth got a raw deal here. Like it or not, J.W. — just like Abe — was a key player who symbolized a defining moment in our nation’s history. And history also tells us that J.W. got his comeuppance in the end, ultimately tracked to a Virginia farm by Union soldiers and shot to death in the barn about two weeks after Lincoln’s slaying.
Depending whether you’re from the North or the South, the Civil War has long been politicized and even censored, depending how you want to change the course of history. There are elements of that here.
Does putting J.W. back in his box and toting him to the storage room make things right? Not really. If you want J.W.’s bobblehead as an offbeat collectible, buy it. And if you want to buy J.W.’s bobblehead simply to smash it to smithereens, perhaps a bit of cathartic retribution for an evil deed he committed nearly 150 years ago, then do that too.
Let the public decide what’s tasteful.
It probably says a lot that BobbleHead LLC, the Kansas City firm that produces the novelties, has sold more than 150 of an original run of 250 Booth dolls, at roughly $20 each, with plans to make more.
Of course, when it comes to bobbleheads, I’ll concede there are folks who are off-limits and would have zero marketing appeal. You don’t do terror leaders. You especially don’t do the Kardashian sisters. Lee Harvey Oswald? I think he’s bobble-worthy. When it comes to John F. Kennedy, I’d likely refrain from producing the deluxe bobblehead edition of him and Marilyn in their bathrobes, but Oswald, much like John Wilkes Booth a century before him, shares a historic footnote in the assassination of a storied president whose legacy still thrives nearly 50 years later.
Booth’s bobblehead deserves a shelf in Gettysburg’s gift shop. He is a villain, no doubt about it, and there was everything cowardly in his rise to martyrdom among compatriots in the war-torn South, but you can’t rewrite April 14, 1865. He and Abe shared equal billing on that history-making night at Ford Theater. ••