On the evening of January 1, 1863, following a busy day of greeting White House visitors in the Blue Room, President Abraham Lincoln retired to a second-floor room and before less than a dozen witnesses, signed a five-page document that forever changed the course of U.S. history. From that day forward, the Emancipation Proclamation, an act that made the end of slavery a strategic goal of the Civil War, would go down in history as one of the most significant military decrees in history.
Although the room where Lincoln signed the proclamation is called the “Lincoln bedroom”, it was never one he used for that purpose. Ironically, even the bed in the room was never actually used by Lincoln either, although several presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were known to have slept in it. Even the original horsehair mattress was replaced by first-lady Barbara Bush.
In 1863, Lincoln used the room as his office and Cabinet room as all presidents had done since 1830. In 1902, however, during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the room became a bedroom after all the second-floor offices were moved to the new West Wing. When President Harry Truman moved into the White House in 1845, he named it the Lincoln bedroom after furnishing the room with the eight-foot by six-foot bed, a marble-topped table, several chairs, etc. As an avid scholar of American history, Truman wanted to turn the room into a memorial for the Great Emancipator. In fact, ever since that time, the room where Lincoln affixed his signature to the proclamation was revered as a national treasure, and to this day one of the five original copies is still on display under glass on a desk in the room.
For this reason, public sentiment demanded the Lincoln bedroom be given the respect they think it deserved as a national landmark.
But controversy over this very matter erupted during the 2000 presidential campaign when it was disclosed that the Clinton administration was offering a night in the Lincoln bedroom to big campaign contributors, entertainment celebrities, friends, relatives, and others. Obviously, politics being what it is, the outcry was instant and was used as a campaign issue by the Republicans who accused Clinton of “virtually renting out the Lincoln bedroom to big campaign donors.” In fact, of the more than 900 guests to the White House during the entire eight-years, the White House acknowledged that most of them were overnight residents of the Lincoln bedroom.
Although many former presidents had undoubtedly allowed some of their guests that signal honor, the outrage was particularly dramatic this time because it clearly pointed out the extremes the administration had resorted to in their fund-raising improprieties. Spokesmen for the Clinton White House have repeatedly denied any connection between campaign contributions and the Clinton guests in the Lincoln bedroom.
What was the “cost” for those overnighters? There is no way to know exactly, but a ballpark estimate is approximately $100,000. .
The controversy over a night in the Lincoln bedroom doesn’t end with the Clinton administration. When asked how many of the overnight guests stayed in the Lincoln bedroom while visiting President George W. Bush, a spokeswoman refused to answer the question directly. Instead, the reply was that she never asked and she was not going to pursue it any further as well.
As the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee heats up, the overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom returned as a campaign issue once again, and one pointedly used against the front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. In New Hampshire, for instance, former North Carolina senator John Edward, a candidate for the Democratic nomination himself, attacked Senator Clinton by exclaiming, “The American people deserve to know that their presidency is not for sale, the Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent.”
When all is said and done, however, we know the Lincoln bedroom will always be honored as a symbol of American’s quest for freedom and justice for all. But we also know there is nothing sacred in political fundraising.