On the Trail of Presidents

Since US chief executives leave behind long trails of documents, reminiscences, and rumors, presidential history can range from the fascinating to the fraudulent.

It now rests with the courts to determine whether a purveyor of memorabilia had anything authentic to offer when he sold collectors documents purportedly signed by President Kennedy. These papers were pitched as confirming such seamy episodes as the rumored liaison between the president and actress Marilyn Monroe. Federal prosecutors smell fraud here.

Fascination of a much more wholesome kind arises from another set of documents getting attention today. These presidential papers are unquestionably authentic, coming right out of the National Archives in Washington. They are Civil War court martial records, which reveal President Lincoln's deep involvement in decisions on punishment or pardon.

Thomas Lowry, the amateur historian and retired psychiatrist who with his wife undertook the research, has noted that the records, which carry Lincoln's signature and sometimes his comments, confirm the president's compassion and humanity. "Whenever there was an element of doubt," Dr. Lowry said, "he would give the man a second chance."

At a time when the connection between moral rectitude and the stature of presidents is hotly debated, it's good to have something morally admirable confirmed about one of the greatest of them.

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