3 New Ways to Peer Into the Presidency

"Meeting" some of our nation's first families—including the Washingtons and Lincolns—through theater, tours and exhibits

In the capital city, of course there’s no shortage of sites related to the chief executive, from George Washington’s Mount Vernon and President Lincoln’s Cottage to memorials on the Mall. In honor of upcoming presidential birthdays—Lincoln on Feb. 12, Washington on the 22nd—we look at three new ways to get the lowdown on the highest office.

In the Theater

"The Widow Lincoln"

The last time playwright James Still and director Stephen Rayne teamed up at Ford’s Theatre was in 2009 for the premiere of “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” a drama marking the theater’s renovation on the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Now the two are back together again on the 150th anniversary of the president’s assassination here.

For the new play, “The Widow Lincoln” (through Feb. 22), Still puts the spotlight on Mary and the 40 days post-assassination that she spent in self-imposed imprisonment in a White House room. Because few facts remain from that time, Still imagines how the grieving first lady coped with her loss and in whom she confided. He attempts to humanize her by exploring “that extremely intelligent, complex, politically savvy, outspoken, opinionated woman in Victorian America,” he says in an online video interview, and “what happens if your authentic self is in conflict with what culture of the time insists you must be.”

The all-female cast of characters includes Queen Victoria and slave Mammie Sally as well as dressmaker and confidante Elizabeth Keckley. Nettie Colburn, a medium who conducted séances for Mary, also makes an appearance. In the title role, actress Mary Bacon, whose credits include shows on Broadway and TV (“Boardwalk Empire,” “The Good Wife”), channels the first lady’s conflicted character. It was, says Bacon, “magnetic and appalling.”

With a Tour

Miniature portrait of George Washington

“I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern.” So begins a 1775 letter from George Washington to wife Martha telling her of his appointment to lead the Continental Congress. This heartfelt correspondence and a miniature painted portrait of Washington reside in the collection of Tudor Place, the elegant Georgetown home of Washington’s step-granddaughter, Martha Custis Peter.

For one day only—President’s Day, naturally—the two rare artifacts go on display. And during February and March, the tour “Patriotism, Protest, and the Presidency” highlights through archives and stories the Peter family’s White House connections and influence over two centuries, from the administrations of Washington to Nixon.

Through an Exhibit

The White House Visitors Center

Yes, these days scoring tickets for a White House tour requires advance planning, but the White House Visitor Center, free and open daily, gives deep insight into the executive mansion and its residents. Re-opened last fall after a two-year, $12.6-million remodel, the 16,000-square-foot space in the Department of Commerce’s ornate Baldrige Hall holds 90-plus artifacts, many on display for the first time.

See wartime telegrams, the plain wooden desk where Franklin Roosevelt sat to deliver his “fireside chats” and a gilded copper eagle that topped the White House flagpole for nearly 100 years. But not everything here relates to official business. Photos of Dwight D. Eisenhower barbecuing on the roof, a young Caroline Kennedy bouncing on a trampoline and Grace Coolidge cradling her furry friend—a pet raccoon named Rebecca—remind visitors that the majestic manse is also a home.

Brooke Sabin
About the author

Brooke served as the Washington, D.C., edito...