By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
FORT WAYNE, IND. — The Senate may have let President Clinton off the hook yesterday, but the children at The Lincoln Museum weren’t so kind.
“President Clinton, he just lies to our country,” said Kevin Hay, 10, a fifth grader at Brentwood Elementary School here. “President Lincoln, he brought our country back together, and he didn’t lie to us.”
Abraham Lincoln turned 190 yesterday, and everyone from senior citizens to schoolchildren were at the museum to learn more about his history of honor and integrity – and to draw a clear contrast between the nation’s 16th president and its 42nd.
“I think Lincoln would probably be ashamed of the state of the presidency today,” said Ron Perkins, a Fort Wayne insurance agent.
The Lincoln Museum is filled with tales of truth-telling, like the time Lincoln, then a shopkeeper, walked for miles to return change to a customer who had forgotten it. Lincoln’s life is treated alternately as a triumphant rise from a hardscrabble youth and a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion.
Mr. Clinton’s early life in Arkansas was certainly rough, but the museum’s visitors said that his current situation is more pathetic than tragic.
“Lincoln did something for us, and Clinton didn’t do nothing,” said 11-year-old D’Andre Douglas, also a fifth grader at Brentwood.
“Clinton’s just brought the presidency to such a low level,” museum docent John Pawlisch said. “It’s too bad. There probably won’t be any museums like this for Clinton.”
Several patrons contrasted the simple grandeur of Lincoln’s speeches, like the Gettysburg Address, to the legalistic banter of the current commander in chief.
“He manipulates words to make things appear how he wants them to,” Karen Perkins, also an insurance agent, said. “There’s no truth or honesty in him.”
The Perkins have lived in Fort Wayne for more than 25 years, but this was their first visit to the museum. They didn’t even realize that yesterday was Lincoln’s birthday, its observance having been cannibalized long ago by Monday’s Presidents’ Day.
But at least one visitor saw the two men’s verbal talents as a similarity, not a difference. “Lincoln really could put emotions into words,” retiree Dot Rademaker said. “With Clinton, you don’t believe everything he says, but he can really put it together well, too.”
Fort Wayne is, at first glance, an odd place to have a Lincoln museum. The only potential link between the city and the man is that he may have changed trains there in 1860.
But when local businessman (and Lincoln fan) Arthur Hall decided to start an insurance company in 1905, he decided to name it The Lincoln National Life Company. In 1931, he started a museum in the president’s honor.
The insurance company announced in November that it would move its corporate headquarters to Philadelphia. But the museum will stay behind.
The day’s festivities were topped off by the appearance of old Abe himself, in the form of Fritz Klein. The museum’s staff called him “the finest Lincoln impersonator working today.” Needless to say, this is his busy time of the year.
Replete with stovepipe hat, the 50-year-old Mr. Klein is entering his 22nd year as a Lincoln impersonator, he ruefully admits that he doesn’t need nearly as much makeup to become the aged president now as he did as a 28-year-old.
Asked for his own impression of the Clinton scandal, Mr. Klein responded diplomatically: “No comment.” But he did say that when he speaks to groups of children, “I always encourage honesty. A free society is built on trust, and as soon as that trust is gone, freedom is gone.”
Mr. Lincoln, reached through Mr. Klein, also declined comment.