Is said to regard recent criticism of her...


March 14, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

HILLARY CLINTON is said to regard recent criticism of her as unprecedented for a first lady. It's not.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a target of lots of poison pens and tongues. Because she associated with some very left-wing individuals and groups, many critics called her a Communist sympathizer, if not in fact a Communist.

But even that was tame compared to the attacks on an earlier first lady. Mary Todd Lincoln's critics called her a traitor to her country, a spy for the Confederacy.

The excuse for this calumny was that her family included many members who favored secession and the Confederacy. Some did more than just favor the Rebs. One brother went to South Carolina when the Civil War started, to become a surgeon in a Confederate Army hospital. Three half-brothers fought in the Confederate Army. Two were killed. One was in charge of a prisoner of war camp in Virginia and allegedly tortured Yankees.

A half-sister of Mrs. Lincoln, Emilie Todd Helm, was married to a Confederate general who was killed in battle. The first lady got the president to bring her to the White House as a guest while she was mourning, though it was illegal for a Southerner who wouldn't swear allegiance to the Union to enter the North, and Emilie wouldn't. At a White House dinner she told a Union general that if she had 20 sons, she would send them all to fight against his.

The rumors to the effect that Mary Todd Lincoln was treasonous were so widespread that, Carl Sandburg reported in his monumental biography of Lincoln, this bizarre episode occurred (I should say that many historians, such as Jean Baker, author of "Mary Todd Lincoln/A Biography," don't believe it really happened; even Sandburg says it is "vaguely authenticated"; but it's too good not to pass on):

Senate members of the Committee on the Conduct of the War held a secret meeting in the Capitol to discuss the reports of Mrs. Lincoln's "disloyalty." "We had just been called to order by the Chairman [Sandburg wrote, quoting an unnamed member of the committee], when the officer stationed at the Committee room door came in with a half-frightened expression . . . We understood the reason for his excitement . . . For at the foot of the Committee table . . . Abraham Lincoln stood . . . The President had not been asked to come before the Committee, nor was it suspected that he had information that we were to investigate reports, which, if true, fastened treason upon his family in the White House."

With "a depth of sorrow in the tone of voice," the president spoke: "I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, appear of my own volition before this committee of the Senate, to say that I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that

any member of my family hold treasonable communications with the enemy."

Franklin D. Roosevelt never had to do anything like that. Nor has Bill Clinton, yet.

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