Monday, February 20, 2017

Thoughts on Presidents

It's President's Day, which means it is also load in day for the Garden Show as it has been for some years. In a couple of hours I go to build a mini book store inside the Washington State Convention Center, which I'll then run for a few days before we break it down and move on.

But it's also a day to think on the Presidents. When I was little, we still had Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday as distinct holidays a week or sometimes two weeks apart from one another. Sometime in the 90s, I think, we switched over to President's Day, taking the place of Washington's Birthday and banishing Lincoln's Birthday into the void. I feel bad for modern children, not having those two February holidays any longer, but then, they now get a midwinter break that lasts this entire week, so my sympathy is misplaced.

I'm reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose now; it's about President Jefferson, who is probably more consequential than Washington. It's hard to say though, with major presidents. Washington did one enormous thing: he stepped down. There was strong interest in having him as a lifetime ruler, and he could have done it, either as life president or as King; he did neither, and after two terms, he was done, which set a precedent unbroken until FDR, and now unbreakable due to amendment. But of Washington's other accomplishments, not much stands out. He did a fine job of steadying and uniting, and that is admirable, but it's subtle work, hard to measure. Lincoln, another great man, was made great by circumstance. He might have been a nobody of a president but for the Civil War, which gave him a chance to show his mettle, and his assassination, which gave him depth and pathos that forever make him "great". Jefferson, on the other hand, is great no matter how you look at him (with one exception, soon to be discussed.) He was brilliant and clever, he was educated and creative, he was driven and determined, he could be ruthless at need, he adapted well, he was charming and gracious. A driving force behind the creation of the country as it came to be, he orchestrated the expansion of the states and the purchase of a third of the country.

But of course as with all things of the early Union, there is slavery.

Washington was a slave owner, of hundreds of humans during his life time from the age of 11 onward. He was strict with them, meaning he was a terrible human being by any standard. The lash and other physical punishments, and the selling of slaves into the Indies, was common. He manumitted his slaves in his will, with a delay to wait upon his wife's death; she freed them before her death out of fear they might murder her. There isn't any real indication Washington wanted to do away with slavery, despite his long fight for liberty for white propertied Americans.
Lincoln was conflicted about slavery, generally wishing it abolished, but not committing to the fact until the Civil War had gone on more than a year, and even then only hesitantly. In the end, he did what was necessary to free them, and he had never owned slaves, but his commitment to the cause of Abolition was not until the crisis complete.
Jefferson, though. He owned slaves, masses of them; he perhaps never himself lashed them, but he certainly had them lashed; he sold them to the deep South cotton states; he took at least one as his mistress (and probably more) and had children with her, a thing that is occasionally romanticized but is nothing but a long and extended rape; he wished dearly that slavery would end for the corrupting influence it had on white men, but did nothing to make it happen in his life. And despite training up folk all about him to be slave owners, and never much speaking to them about Abolition, he assumed the next generation after his would eliminate slavery for some reason which cannot be fathomed.

Well. Presidents are, after all, human. They are far from angels, and have dark sides, perhaps more than those who are never driven by that level of ambition. Willful cruelty might serve well in a national leader, carefully shaped and aimed.

We have of course the lowest and most wretched man ever to occupy the office (not that we have a large sample) squatting in the White House even now. He is cruel, but it's not a shaped cruelty and serves no purpose. You can be certain he would own slaves, if they were legal; you can be certain he'd mumble a few pious words about how it's a terrible institution, and God willing, one day it would end, but not now, what could you do, anyway, they're not ready, the slaves, to be free. In that, he'd not be any worse than Jefferson, so there's a nice comparison for him to brag about: he's no worse than Thomas Jefferson, the man with the greatest claim to be the father of our country out of all our fathers.

I'm going to pick and choose with Presidents to honor today: yes to the first 5, yes to Lincoln, yes to both Roosevelts and to Eisenhower and to Carter (a man too good to be president) and LBJ and Grant and Polk. No to Jackson because fuck him; no to Buchanan and Pierce and both Bushes and Harding. I will grant Nixon the praise he deserved and the rasher of scorn he earns; I will damn Reagan for the multitude of sins while recognizing it could have been even worse, and admitting there were one or two things he did right. I will lament that I am honoring Barack Obama in his absence for the first time (I will lament that for many years, I suspect) as he is likely to be the greatest president of my lifetime. And the current incumbent, well, I hope he enjoys what one can hope will be his only year to be honored as the incumbent on this day. He's a shitstain on the office, and may he vanish from it before the next chance to ruminate upon the collection of men who have held it.

What are you reading? Are you daft? I said I'm reading Undaunted Courage. It's 21 years old now, so I'm a bit late to the party. Only in the early stages. It's a good read, though: brisk and with the right balance of factoid to action, hagiography to gritty detail.

How's the weather? Mild. Damp. It's normal Seattle. We're in that weird span of February, so common here, where the highs for a week or so approach 60 degrees. It's often followed by a few days of freezing weather, sometimes with snow. We don't need more snow. I hope we give that a pass this year.

How do you feel? My left knee is troublesome off and on; it aches a bit here and there but not in any way that seems particularly consistent. My pills do their job still. I don't need to mention that after this, I don't think, as I'm more than a month in and they seem to be steady. I haven't gotten bronchitis, which has afflicted at least three people at my work; this is about the sickest winter I can recall at the book store, full of affliction on all fronts.

What do you feel about The Cherry Orchard? Oh, yeah, I went to see The Cherry Orchard at ACT with the husband yesterday. It's a little goofy in places. I read that Chekhov meant it as a comedy, with elements of farce, and that the first staging of it was as a tragedy, and this conflict has been present every since. And I quite see that: it's ridiculous in many spots, with clear elements of clowning. There is a hint of tragedy, but that could be entirely turned into farce if the characters were played more broadly. Was that Chekhov's intent? We'll never know, as he died about the time the play premiered. They did a great thing, when the party is going on midway through, where all the cast was on stage dancing away while the play went on, and it was incredible: for fifteen minutes there's a string trio playing live music, and 8 to 10 people on stage dancing away, while two or three of them carry on with the dialogue, often while being dancers. The work that went into that must have been intense. I couldn't stop smiling more broadly the longer it went on, and I couldn't help being disappointed when the dance ended.

And with that, I'm off to go set up the Garden Show store booth.

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