Friday, April 15, 2005

POTUS 1: The First President Of The United States, Pres. George Washington a/k/a The General a/k/a The Father Of Our Country

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More nonsense has probably been written about Washington than any other President. Except Jack Kennedy, about whom even more gibberish has been written because his murder literally sparked an industry of conspiracy theorists.

Did young George chop down the cherry tree? Was he lying when he said "Father, I cannot tell a lie," which may be the biggest whopper of all time? "Father, I cannot tell a lie. I cut the tree," George says when asked by his father. This story elevated him into the pantheon and onto Rushmore. It is also bunk, bogus, hokum, flim-flam::::::::::100% ca-ca. Parson Mason Locke Weems concocted the story in a biography of Washington. In The Moral Washington: Construction of a Legend Weems wanted to humanize Washington after a less than flattering earlier biography of him as 'cold and colorless.' Weems book was very popular with the public and they equated Washington with honesty.

Did he wear wooden teeth? No. He had hippomus ivory teeth--from rarely visited Africa. How they became his teeth is a mystery.

His tight-lipped grimace is often attributed to the wooden teeth. We do know that his false teeth has springs that made them adhere in place, but that is not the reason for the tight-lipped grin. The raconteur, humorist, and radio legend Jean Shepherd talked about Washington on his Washington birthday show on February 22, 1973. Shep tried to bust a few of the myths around The General. In particular, some of the notions that have arisen from Gilbert Stuart's portraits.

We remember President Washington as tight lipped and aloof because as Gilbert Stuart wrote "When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face." However, we now know that Stuart disliked George Washington and many people speculate this led to the tight lipped portrait, as well as the air of aloofness we sense in Washington. Stuart also wrote that when he would sit for him: "an apathy seemed to seize him, and a vacuity spread over his countenance, most appalling to paint."

Thanks to the portraits, we also think of him as a dandified man, wearing flouncy shirts, an ornate doublet and knickers. We think of his hair as being bright white. As was the fashion at the time, that was a powdered wig!

We tend to also think of him as a genteel and gentle man of restraint (again, partly due to the portraits). However, he was a man of large appetites who enjoyed copious flagons of Madeira wine (and would have no doubt enoyed bourbon, had it been invented yet). He was not afraid to take a another officer out for a round of fisticuffs, and usually won. Martha Washington indicated in more than one letter to friends that "George is at it again," which some have speculated refers to extramarital affairs.

George was a big man. In that time, the average height of a Continental Army soldier was five foot six inches. George Washington stood six foot, two inches. He was literally a giant among men.

Washington was also an incredible horseman, by all accounts, both in peace- and in war-time. He was a strong man, and tough as nails, as he showed in the war, living under-equipped in the appalling climate of Valley Forge and the other battles of the revolution.

Washington State is the only state named for a President. When I grew up in the 50's and 60's, Washington's birthday was still a state holiday (before that abomination known as President's Day). On February 22, in celebration of the event, cherry pies were on sale in the stores and at bake sales by the Rotary, the Civitan Club, Kiwanis, and others.

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