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The Perfect President

By John Fox · April 16th, 2008 · Editorial

I'm really enjoying the John Adams series on HBO, which ends Sunday night. I've read David McCullough's Adams book and 1776 as well as other biographies of Washington, Jefferson and Madison. Yes, I have a thing for the birth of our nation.

I know John Adams is a made-for-TV version of McCullough's historical biography, which itself is a narrative sown from Adams' letters and from eyewitness accounts and newspaper articles of the time. Liberties have thus been taken, no doubt, to jazz up the Sons of Liberty for a modern audience.

Still, I've been touched by a number of scenes from the series' first six weeks: the "holy shit" look on everyone's faces when members of the Continental Congress realize they've passed the resolution to split from Great Britain; Adams' tense audience with King George III as America's first ambassador to Britain; Washington's swearing in as the first president; and Adams' dismay as his friend Jefferson becomes his bitter political enemy.

One of the best things about these recent books and now this HBO series is how they go out of their way to portray our Founding Fathers as ordinary everyday men, warts and all. Ordinary guys who, you know, happened to start a new country.

I remember history lessons in high school offering the usual black-and-white version of the Revolutionary War story: Washington chopped down the cherry tree, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock signed his name larger than anyone else, Paul Revere had his midnight ride, the Continental Army survived a horrible winter at Valley Forge and all of the Founding Fathers were selfless, saintly souls who invented pure democracy with God's help.

Like all myths, there are kernels of truth in those tales, but Americans needed (and still need) to regard their country's founders as more than mere mortals. It makes all of us feel a little more special if we're descended from superheroes, if the government we slog through and against in our daily lives was devised by insanely wise men.

I actually find it more interesting to know that Adams believed in a strong central authority and that he didn't really trust "the people" to know what was best. Or that Jefferson basically was an anarchist who believed that each generation of Americans should revolt and form new laws -- believing this until he became president and saw how inconvenient constant revolution might be.

Or that Washington liked to wear his military uniform around in order to be asked to lead something and that, as Benjamin Franklin once said, he was asked because he was always the tallest man in the room. Or that the Adams-Jefferson rivalry began the two-party system, resulting in awful, negative political campaigns and ultimately in Alexander Hamilton's death in a duel.

Now that's a lot more fun than perfect George Washington saying, "I cannot tell a lie." And it's a lot more instructive to us today in 2008, as we work on electing our 44th president.

Adams was pompous, ambitious and bull-headed, plus he seems to have been a poor father while a dedicated husband. His and his colleagues' faults and rivalries had as much to do with shaping the United States as did their amazing dedication to duty. Even their Constitution, which all presidents swear to defend, has been amended 27 times, so they didn't think of everything.

Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama aren't perfect human beings, and that's OK. They shouldn't be dismissed because they have faults or are ambitious or don't have all the answers.

Dedication to a higher calling, sorely lacking the past eight years, would be good enough for me. That, above all, guided Adams and his compatriots.

CONTACT JOHN FOX: jfox@citybeat.com



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