ASSASSINATION VACATION By Sarah Vowell. pp. Simon & Schuster. $ Not long ago, I made the mistake of thinking there was. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell – New York Times bestselling author of The Wordy Shipmates and contributor to NPR’s “This American Life” Sarah. What do you get when a woman who’s obsessed with death and U.S. history goes on vacation? This wacky, weirdly enthralling exploration of.
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Caustic safah Sarah Vowell discusses her new book Assassination Vacation, a road trip into the history of presidential assassinatlon.
In the book, Vowell travels to historical sites, piecing together stories of fallen presidents and the men who gunned them down. One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. 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 vacaion 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 asassination. That said, I am not a bed-and-breakfast person.
They’re “quaint,” a polite way of saying “no TV. 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 assassinatiln. The real reason bed-and-breakfasts make me nervous is breakfast. As if it’s assassinatiin queasy enough to stay in a stranger’s home and sleep in a bed bedecked with nineteen pillows. In the morning, asssassination 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 assassinztion, one of which, apparently, is Venetian. I cannot think assssination a thing to say to these people.
Seated at the head of the table, I am the black hole of breakfast, a silent vacationn 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.
Sarah Vowell: Death Takes a Holiday
Relieved to have something, anything, to say, I pipe up, “I went to the Berkshire Theatre Festival last night. 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 president. 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. 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 asassination a conversational Sarag St. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slopes of my silence and then, boom, it’s Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota. He was the anarchist who killed McKinley. 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.
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
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 vwcation played Czolgosz was wonderful. He had this assassinatipn Eastern European accent. Actually, he sounded a lot like Dracula — but in a good way, assaesination you know what I mean. 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.
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.
I lost my train of thought. I haven’t even mentioned the most touching part. 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.
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 darah, “Nice meeting you! 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 vwcation. 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. Proportionate to my own mounting frustrations at feeling increasingly excluded from the vacatikn 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 vscation explanation slaps me in the forehead with all the force of “duh.
Not that I want the current president killed. Like that director, I will, assassinatiln the record and for the FBI agent assigned to read this and make sure I mean no harm — hello thereclearly 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 vaction less peaceful happy person whose asswssination 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 assassimation 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 sarab and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. 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.
Vafation assassins and the presidents invite the same basic question: Just who do you think you are? Her anarchism chapter enumerates the six heads of state who were assassinated in the two decades before Archduke Ferdinand was murdered in 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 BelgradeSwedish foreign minister stabbed while shopping in Stockholmthe Taiwanese president and vice president wounded when shots were fired at their motorcade the day before an electiontwo Hamas leaders Israeli missile strikespresident of the Iraqi Governing Council suicide bomber.
Still, Assassnation 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.
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 adsassination 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 assassinatin 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: 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 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.
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.