Remarks at a Fundraising Gala for Ford's Theatre

June 8, 1986

Mr. Speaker and Mrs. O'Neill, Mr. Chief Justice, and members of the Cabinet, Members of the Congress, members of the diplomatic corps, distinguished members of the business community -- who's tending the store? [Laughter]

But Nancy and I are honored to be able to participate in this, the 1986 festival at Ford's. To the performers -- I know I speak for everyone watching here and at home when I thank you for a show that started on a peak and went up. By the way, Victor Borge, that business about punctuation, could I try that on the Congress? [Laughter] You know -- now, Tip -- [laughter] -- we may have had our differences -- [laughter] -- but I think we can both agree that Ford's Theatre is a wonderful place to be. [Laughter] I never played Ford's Theatre. [Laughter]

Well, tonight's gala will enable this historic hall, as we've been told, to continue and expand its work in bringing theatre to the heart of our Nation's Capital. And to everyone here tonight, especially the remarkably generous Carl Lindner, Nancy and I are grateful for what you've done. After all, it's our own neighborhood that you're helping to spruce up. To Ford's Theatre chairmen Millie O'Neill, Carol Laxalt, executive producer Frankie Hewitt, and gala chairman Mary Jane Wick -- you've made special efforts, and we want to join in giving you our special thanks. And by the way, congratulations to you, Mary Jane, for your recognition here tonight.

Ford's is a theatre set apart. Seriously, it is a kind of shrine, one of those rare buildings that puts us directly in touch with the great men and events of our past. And what gives this house its sense of presence, what makes Ford's central to the history of our country and indeed of the world, is what took place here one foggy night more than a century ago, up there, in that box.

On the evening of Good Friday 1865, President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln drove in their carriage from the White House to this theatre through streets so thick with mist that the Lincolns could hardly make out the buildings they passed. And just 5 days before, Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, and the long and terrible war was coming to an end at last. On that gloomy night Mr. Lincoln came here seeking some measure of relaxation, some measure of refreshment, from a comedy entitled ``My American Cousin.'' And when the President and his party entered the theatre, an actor on stage ad-libbed a line: ``This reminds me of a story, as Mr. Lincoln would say,'' and the audience roared. When the President and his party entered the state box, no one noticed that a peephole had been dug in the door. And it was during the third act that the shot rang out. And for an instant, no one moved. Then Mr. Lincoln slumped forward. As Mrs. Lincoln reached to support him, John Wilkes Booth leapt from the state box to the stage below -- from that box to this stage -- and escaped through a side door. Mr. Lincoln was carried to a house across the street. At shortly past 7 the next morning, he died. Lincoln, Father Abraham, was gone.

Is it fitting for us to come here tonight in a spirit of celebration, for this theatre once again to ring out with laughter? I believe that Mr. Lincoln himself would have wanted it so. He loved the theater, his biographers tell us, and nothing could have pleased him more than the performances we've seen here tonight. But more profoundly, it was the message of his life, as it is the message of our history, that joy must triumph over sorrow, that good is greater than evil, that laughter, in the end, must do away with tears.

Some of his harshest critics when he was living as President in the White House assailed him because they said there was too much laughter and he was too prone to joke. And he said, ``I could not perform for 15 minutes the tasks that confront me here if I were not allowed to laugh.'' Well, his laughter in the end must do away with tears, and that's why we're here tonight. That's why we must fill this hall with song and dance and comedy and above all with the most triumphant sound known to man -- the sound of joyous applause. And certainly, the people standing behind me here on the stage and behind Nancy have richly deserved that kind of warm and happy applause.

Thank you all for being here. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 10:31 p.m. at Ford's Theatre. In his remarks, the President referred to comedian Victor Borge's sound-effects rendition of punctuation. He also acknowledged Carl Lindner's $500,000 contribution to the theatre and the naming of the Mary Jane Wick Endowment Fund for Ford's Theatre, in recognition of her fundraising accomplishments. The remarks were released by the Office of the Press Secretary on June 10.