Oh, dear. There sat Ben Franklin in the bathtub, playing chess with a heavily made-up French woman of a certain age. HBO's continuing series on "John Adams" and the founding of the republic leaves out little, not even an affair of the intellect (chess is a mind game, after all) by the man regarded by historians as a fondling father as indulgent in his time as certain politicians who would follow him.
We're in the midst of a resurgence of interest in the Founding Fathers. We see them wrestle with events, personalities and the lesser angels of their nature in a profusion of best-selling biographies and television narratives. They're armed with intellectual grounding and skilled in the arts of finesse, and like politicians of our own time, display a decidedly mixed morality in their public and private lives. They're subject to constantly shifting judgments as we learn more about them. Franklin's considerable reputation as a master of diplomacy and forger of artful compromise probably survives because there were few newspapers. And neither was cable TV nor the avaricious Internet around to catalog all the warts.
Franklin, eager to get Adams out of Paris where they were negotiating for the intervention of France, "went negative" to cut the considerable reputation of Adams down to manageable size, and Abigail rushed to defend her husband as "a man of principle" who would not violate his conscience to please a crowd. When Abigail later became first lady, she would not (like a certain thoroughly modern first lady) exaggerate her influence to suggest she faced danger when there was none, nor that she solved a diplomatic standoff by watching her husband do it.
John Adams, a devoutly religious man, fretted over the nature of man in the process of governing. He worried that human selfishness and love of ease would trump duty and obligation. He was afraid that a crowd could be too easily led. He was suspicious of power and how it could be easily abused. In our own time, we become easily jaded by the private arrogance of public men.
The fall of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, one of the rising stars of the Democrats, is an example that Adams might appreciate. (Franklin would appreciate the technology). Mayor Kilpatrick was caught lying under oath about an affair with a woman on his staff, brought down by "text messaging." The messages, like everything else on a hard drive, survive. The Detroit mayor follows in the wake of Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, forced to resign by revelations of what we could delicately call "commercial romance."
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