Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Four times the George Washington

I spent a good chunk of the morning poring over the selection of George Washington biographies at the local Books-a-Million, pacing back and forth to keep from sinking my plastic account into the hole from which no midnight Hagen-Daaz can emerge for two weeks until the next infusion. Having slurped down Paul Johnson's little "George Washington: Founding Father" tome in the spring, I have come to put Washington in my personal pantheon. Being fixated on the 18th Century, after all, why shouldn't I allow myself to adore one or two Founding Fathers, even if they did conspire to prevent Prince Henry from founding a dynasty here? Colonial America was no Periclean Athens, gods know, and our self-appointed publishing patriots would be kindly thanked by me for putting a cork in all the divinizing of our Founding Fathers. Having the virtue to found a lasting republic is something, after all, but in the fullness of time what is a Scipio or Cato compared to a Haydn or Shakespeare? We need the one just as the other, especially if we are to enjoy works of beauty and pursuits of truth in untrammeled freedom; but it is entirely too much to demand of us all to bow reverently before the genius of a James Madison (more indispensable even than his more revered peers Jefferson and Hamilton!) as if the regular person, or even a regular aesthete, could really respond to a sensible political theorist as a role model over, say, Napoleon or Alexander. Lord knows everyone from Seneca to Alexander Pope to H. G. Wells has tried to moralize us all out of the love of headstrong conquerors, but to what avail? They'd have been better advised just to advertise themselves as rivals and counterparts!: Pope, world-conqueror of wit, or Seneca, conqueror of self-- these have a certain ring! But Jefferson, Renaissance man? Oh please!: as much as I love him, let's get real: his science was shoddy compared to Franklin's, and even as a scientific dilettante he couldn't rival, say, Voltaire or the Marquise de Chatelet; his strictly philosophical arguments (on materialism and the belief in an afterlife, say) were strictly for the birds; despite his late effusions on Homer and Thucydides, he showed little real appreciation for the Greeks, and almost no disinterested concern for literature as art; he's not an original political theorist, and even as a political leader it's questionable whether he really merits the usual Top Four Presidents deference shown to him.

So it's no surprise that I've always loved that curt, rough-around-the-edges John Adams. But Washington was always a mystery. So Johnson's little book, which tackles this mysteriousness straight off, was immediately seductive to me. And Johnson, a crazed Burkean bore of a conservative, is also a terrific prose stylist and a flamboyant eccentric (also a closeted homosexual, if I read Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein" correctly). The author actually tones himself down enough to sound reasonable, and, with his Johnsonian periods and little ruffles of appreciation, his "George Washington: the Founding Father" reads like an 18th Century Plutarch life, lately come to light.
And thus Washington entered my heart and head. A man of icy exterior and Martian soul! A "sensible" man, an ironic and concealed raconteur, little schooled by his tutors but vastly schooled in the world, a native child of Nature who showed his appreciation for the Sublime and the Beautiful through his work as surveyor and as penman (his hand is, indeed, surpassingly elegant). He was born in the same year as Fragonard and Haydn, and I could genuinely feel that here, in front of me all along, was the 18th Century Representative Man of America.
But then Dubya had to stick his snout in! In keeping with his new reinvention as Reader-in-Chief (kicking Karl Rove's ass across the stacks, so they say!), Bush has taken a shine lately to boasting of the "three George Washington books" he's polished off lately (interspersed with Camus and "Macbeth", mind you). These works of scholarship have proven to him, conclusively, that Whatever Dubya Is, Is Right: for in the end, never mind the bitchy public, the losing war, and the Katrina trainwreck, historians will always talk, so who's to say I'm wrong? This historical relativism, doubtless imbibed from leading Student of History Condi Rice, should trouble any college freshman clever enough to get through "The Stranger" or most anything else, since it obviously conflicts with the absolutist tenets of his Christianity (or, more pregnantly, any non-nihilistic conception of right and wrong). I won't be surprised to hear him drop, "Life is difficult, n'est ke-pass?" But how exactly is it that the President's fevered imagination has drawn the conclusion that, since George Washington is still being writen about, History will never make up its mind about him, thus liberating him from the hell of ill-fame, if not somehow mystically delivering him up from the Hell itself which he has, arguably, done much to merit internment in? After all, unless the Revolutionary War chapter of Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" has been ballonned by the Karl Rove press machine into a 'George Washington biography', I would assume that Mr. Bush is reading unconflictingly laudatory things about the general who secured independence and who steered the Constitutional Convention through its activities and then governed the new nation for eight accomplished years. All the leading indicators would point to a similarly uncontroversial fate for Mr. Bush's future stature: starkly visible failure inspires little debate. The gabfest Dubya foresees as assuring his relief should be, and almost certainly will be, a cause of terrible consternation in his declining years, though doubtless he will rail against it with his dying breath.
Still, with all the patent nonsense of the Bush Reading List (sixty tomes, indeed!), it galls that he fashions himself some sort of George Washington wiz. The Brian Williams interview clip broadcast the other night on the NBC Nightly News shows Bush in well-deserved pain when all of his "Mr. Williams!! I did my homework!!!" handraising landed him with a demand to submit his book report. "I read three Shakespeares!" he boasted, apparently as a non sequitur to avoid an oral summation on his one Camus. As I've speculated before, graduate level reading is perhaps not to be expected, or demanded, of a sitting President-- let them do their heavy meditating before they get to office! If a candidate has mused deeply on Herodotus and Tacitus twenty years before, I can excuse them for reading only policy papers and Ruth Rendell. But Bush patently has not mastered that level of mental execution-- even common human speech stumps him!-- and neither by experience or temperament has he been suited with the skills that served his father, generally speaking, so well. And so, to spite him, as much as to revel in my love for the Founding Father, I'm going to read more than two more Washington books this year. I'm on your ass, George Dubya, I'm on your ass. And, specifically, right now I'm on Brookhiser's "Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington". Another conservative, yes, and not as elegant as Paul Johnson, but elegant enough, and there'll be more . . .

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