LIANE HANSEN, host:
Coming up, a conversation with Kaylene Johnson, who wrote a biography of Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Johnson will tell us about Palin's early years growing up in Alaska.
But first, next year will mark the bi-centenary of the birth of one of the Republican Party's most popular presidents, Abraham Lincoln. To commemorate the event, a bronze cast of Lincoln and his horse, Old Bob, will adorn the front lawn of the Lincoln Cottage here in Washington, D.C. Today it is the Armed Forces Retirement Home, but most local residents still refer to it as The Soldiers' Home, the name it was given in the 1850s. President Abraham Lincoln spent a lot of time there during his term of office. Robert Malesky visited the site to find out why.
ROBERT MALESKY: For nearly a quarter of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln did not live in the White House. He lived here, in a large cottage on the 250-acre grounds of the Soldiers' Home. It was, in a sense, Lincoln's Camp David. And he used it well, staying from June to November beginning in 1862. It's no wonder Lincoln wanted to get away from downtown Washington. If you've ever visited D.C. during the summer, you know just how hot and uncomfortable it can be. Sitting on the veranda of the Lincoln Cottage, Director Frank Milligan says it wasn't just the heat.
Mr. FRANK MILLIGAN (Director, Lincoln's Cottage): There's one word that comes to mind: dust. Of course, in the other seasons, it was mud. So we're up high, we've got a nice breeze coming through, as you mentioned. There's very little dust. So we're all in all only three miles away, but a world away.
MALESKY: The cottage itself is large but not ostentatious. Clearly designed as a summer home, it's open and airy. Unlike Camp David, where no one gets past the gates without an appointment, Lincoln met many people here: political friends, political enemies, convalescing soldiers and even the occasional tourist.
Historian Matthew Pinsker is the author of "Lincoln's Sanctuary." Sitting in the parlor of the Lincoln Cottage, he relates one story about a well-connected British visitor named George Borred(ph), who was on a tour of the U.S. and wished to meet Lincoln.
Mr. MATTHEW PINSKER (Historian, Author, "Lincoln's Sanctuary"): He had tried to see the president in the White House and he couldn't get in. It was too busy. And it turned out that the daughter of one of the assistant secretaries of treasury said, oh, I know where the president stays in the summer. I'll take you there. It was late at night by the time they arrived. He says the butler tried to discourage them. But the daughter of the bureaucrat assured the butler that this visitor had come from England, that he had to see the president. So the man went upstairs, and then they hear this clop, clop, clop down the steps, and it turns out to be the president in carpet slippers.
MALESKY: Here in the cottage, Lincoln didn't have to be just the chief executive. He could be the gracious host and family man, as well. Matthew Pinsker believes the cottage served as a refuge that allowed Lincoln to grow into his job.
Mr. PINSKER: It gave him enough space to calm down and see the war in a different perspective, and that long perspective made him a better leader. And the new encounters escaping the iron cage of the White House, all of that just makes him a better, more informed, more engaged leader. By the summer of '64, he seems to be fully in command over his rivals, his friends, his enemies. He becomes the indispensable man of the war.
MALESKY: Lincoln couldn't help but see the war in a different perspective. Just a few hundred yards from the cottage is the Soldiers' Home National Cemetery. It was started in 1861, shortly after the Battle of Bull Run. Day by day, as the war dragged on, Lincoln could see men digging fresh graves.
Mr. PINSKER: I believe that when Lincoln was living among wounded veterans and looking into the eyes of these young soldiers who are risking their lives and then living just a few hundred yards away from gravestones of soldiers who had given their lives, it made him realize that the stakes of the war were too high for the nation to be reunified without freedom being a central part of that reunification. They had to end slavery, too.
MALESKY: So the cottage at the Soldiers' Home provided both an escape and a lens through which Lincoln was able to look at the war with a clarity he may not have been able to achieve otherwise. For that reason alone, the Lincoln Cottage was worth preserving and is worth a visit today. For NPR News, I'm Robert Malesky in Washington.