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James Swanson scans the street scene before him and shakes his head in disgust. It is the morning of April 14, the 141st anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The usual crowd of tourists outside Ford’s Theatre in Washington has swelled to a sidewalk-clogging mass. Many of the visitors are snapping photos of a rangy Lincoln impersonator standing in front of the place where the real Lincoln was shot. The look-alike is wearing a stovepipe hat and beard and next to him stands a smiling Mary Lincoln in a hoop dress. “Imagine if this were Dallas. Would you see JFK and Jackie impersonators walking around?” Swanson asks. “It would be considered obscene.” This is hallowed ground for Swanson, and that night, he says, he’ll be paying proper homage, dining nearby with friends and then visiting the same scene after 10, around the time Lincoln was shot. Swanson, 47, has held this annual vigil for years; this day has had iconic meaning for him since long before he turned the story of Lincoln’s death, and the ensuing search for his assassin, into a runaway best seller. Swanson’s book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’s Killer, is into its eighth printing, with 240,000 copies in circulation. In fact, it’s the top history book in the nation right now. Plans are well under way for a film version starring Harrison Ford, and a deal has been struck for a children’s edition of the book. On this anniversary day, Swanson has already done seven radio talk shows and appeared on a taped “Today” show segment. It is a heady place to be for a bookish, bona fide member of Washington’s conservative legal establishment. Swanson’s former colleagues at the Cato Institute and his current ones at the Heritage Foundation call it a good day when they’ve polished off an op-ed on federalism or eminent domain. But for years, Swanson held his fire, saving his literary energy for Lincoln, his lifelong obsession. LIFELONG PREPARATION “In a sense I’ve been writing this book all my life,” says Swanson, whose birthday is Feb. 12, the same as Lincoln’s. For his 10th birthday, Swanson’s grandmother gave him a framed print of the pistol John Wilkes Booth used to kill Lincoln. From then on, he devoured any information he could find about Lincoln. “Every time I read a book I was preparing to do this book.” And so, like a choir member who suddenly tops the charts with a hit solo song, Swanson has broken out of the pack of conservative scholars. He did it with a riveting, you-are-there narrative that friend and fellow historian Ron Collins predicts “will be read a century from now.” In a significant way, however, Swanson did not go it alone. Even as he toiled to finish his book at night and on weekends, Swanson also made himself into a sort of patron of the arts and literature by forming the kind of literary salon that seems reminiscent of, say, Lincoln’s time. For the past several years, Swanson has thrown book parties in his Capitol Hill town house, filled with Lincoln memorabilia. Authors have included House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, and former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, his boss at Heritage. Guests have included four Supreme Court justices, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and most of the judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, where Swanson once clerked for Judge Douglas Ginsburg. That, in turn, widened Swanson’s circle to include the likes of former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger III and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, another historian with a Lincoln book in print. She calls Manhunt “a triumphant book.” So when it came time for a book party for Swanson, Ambassador and former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray turned over his Georgetown mansion for the occasion, and the District’s legal lions turned out. The Federal City Brass Band played Civil War-era tunes. Swanson had arrived. But surely, someone who a) sets out to create a literary salon and b) thinks he has something new to say about Lincoln, after a thousand other authors have said their piece, must be insufferably pretentious, right? Amazingly, no, say his friends, and in person, Swanson is direct and confident but amiable and not full of himself. “He’s not trying to create some A list with himself in the middle,” says Heritage colleague Todd Gaziano. “The events are not about him. He’s having fun. He has a real love of books and of scholarship.” And Swanson seems to have immunized himself from what others on the right have described as the affliction that strikes when conservatives become darlings of the literati: They move leftward. “I don’t want to give up on the cause,” says Swanson. Swanson speaks fondly of another bearded Republican who has been important in his life: Robert Bork. After clerking for Douglas Ginsburg in 1986, Swanson worked on the Reagan Justice Department team that strategized, unsuccessfully, on behalf of Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. “He is a great man and would have been a great justice.” The Bork defeat taught Swanson an important lesson that informed his writing. “I learned that unless you are really participating in the event, you have really no idea what’s happening.” Media covering the Bork nomination just “skimmed the surface,” he says, adding, “When I saw how often the rough draft of history is wrong, it was an eye-opener.” In Lincoln’s day, newspapers had “no pretense of objectivity,” Swanson says, so by immersing himself in every contemporary account of the assassination and the search for Booth, he could survey the terrain and find the truth. Swanson bought hundreds of books and entire collections of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Herald from that period, so he could turn the real pages and understand how the American public learned, day by day, of Lincoln’s murder, his funeral, the staggering national grief — all taking place while the assassin was still at large. He also acquired “Wanted” posters for Booth, the blood-stained swatch of a dress worn by an actress at Ford’s Theatre that night, and a lock of Lincoln’s hair. Primary sources matter to this man. Swanson also can draw a direct line between Lincoln and his own conservative beliefs. “Lincoln stood for the kind of liberty I believe in,” he says. “Personal liberty, civil liberties, freedom of speech, and also property rights. Slaves couldn’t own property and couldn’t own themselves.” A DRAMATIC TRIUMPH? But the book itself does not presume to use Lincoln’s life or the Booth manhunt to make modern-day political points. Instead, Swanson subsumes everything to the narrative, which he describes as “far too incredible to have ever been made up.” He humanizes actor Booth and his quest for one last dramatic triumph, leading some critics to say that Swanson has glorified him. But Swanson dispatches that notion in his epilogue, dismissing Booth as a damnable racist failure. “He got his fame, but at the price of his life,” Swanson writes. “But he lived long enough to recognize his failures and endure the public condemnation of his act.” Swanson seems genuinely stunned by the popularity of the book. “I didn’t write it for the masses; I wrote it for me.” He acknowledges that some of the crowd in front of Ford’s Theatre may have come because of his book. They may be there to try to understand, in this high-security age, how easy it was, in Swanson’s retelling, for Booth to walk into the presidential box at Ford’s and shoot Lincoln in the head. But Swanson seems relieved to leave the scene. As he does, he cannot resist stopping at the anonymous alleyway off of F Street where, he explains, Booth had an accomplice keep a horse at the ready for his escape after the assassination. No tourists are nearby, and for a brief moment, Swanson slips back in time, ready to start the narrative again. “This,” he says, “is where the manhunt began.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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