Obama praises Lincoln's legacy at Ford's Theatre

February 11, 2009 5:55:59 PM PST
President Barack Obama praised Abraham Lincoln for his conviction that a divided nation could be made whole at a gala Wednesday night celebrating the $25 million renovation of Ford's Theatre. On the eve of Lincoln's 200th birthday, the president and first lady Michelle Obama joined a crowd of Hollywood stars and Washington heavy-hitters for the celebration at the theater where Lincoln was assassinated. The building is reopening after an 18-month facelift that included new, more comfortable seats, a modern lobby and new dressing rooms.

Calling the theater "hallowed space" where Lincoln's legacy thrives, Obama praised him for restoring a sense of unity to the country, according to the prepared remarks he was to deliver to the crowd.

"For despite all that divided us - North and South, black and white - he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation, and one people," Obama said. "And because of Abraham Lincoln, and all who've carried on his work in the generations since, that is what we remain today."

The Obamas entered the theater to the tune of "Hail to the Chief" and the enthusiastic clapping of audience members who also turned in their seats to watch the first couple make their way down the aisle.

Before the event, guests ranging from Cabinet members to movie producers strode down a red carpet in sharply cut tuxedos and colorful gowns. Talk included primetime television plotlines and opinions of the economic stimulus package being hammered out in Congress.

Many were inspired by Obama.

"I still get a tear in my eye every time I see him on television," said Grammer, though he added that he didn't always agree with Obama's politics.

The evening will include honoring Poitier and "Star Wars" director George Lucas with the Lincoln Medal. Both exchanged greetings with the Obamas beforehand.

Exxon Mobil Corp. Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, who led fundraising for the theater, said officials already have garnered than $49 million for the renovation and ongoing projects. Organizers expect to raise even more, surpassing their $50 million goal, he said.

Exxon Mobil contributed $5 million to the project, and the District of Columbia government gave $10 million.

"I've been personally fascinated and inspired by Lincoln since I was a child," Tillerson said. "His ability to confront adversity with courage, find inspiration in challenges both personal and political, and shape leadership through the strength of diversity were extraordinary traits."

Also offering tributes to Lincoln on Wednesday are actress Audra McDonald from TV's "Private Practice," actors Ben Vereen and Jeffrey Wright, and opera singer Jessye Norman.

The theater will reopen to the public on Thursday for Lincoln's birthday and then on Monday for President's Day. Regular tours resume on Feb. 17. A revamped museum is slated to open later this spring and there are plans to build a Lincoln Center for Education and Leadership across the street.

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