Three cheers for dull George

Posted: Feb 20, 2002 12:00 AM
Some pundits and politicians are calling for the United States to re-establish Feb. 22 as a Washington's Birthday holiday, and to drop the generic President's Day. Only then, they say, will more Americans learn who the father of our country was. Not a bad idea, but here's something to keep in mind: The success of American Revolution was due more to what Washington wasn't than who he was. He wasn't like his chief rival for the position of top American commander, Charles Lee. Lee had greater experience than Washington and was considered a "consummate general," even by one of Washington's supporters, Nathaniel Greene, but Lee was also, as Washington correctly surmised, "rather fickle, and violent, I fear, in his temper." Lee was also an adulterer, and that activity caught up to him in December 1776, when British cavalry nabbed him after he had gone three miles outside the American camp to cavort with a young woman. Washington wasn't like British generals, who typically kept a mistress in whatever city was their temporary base. General Sir William Howe, who through much of the war commanded the British army that occupied New York City, did not aggressively pursue Washington's inferior army. Instead, he absorbed himself in the city with his mistress, Elizabeth Loring, wife of a British commissary officer who traded his spouse for a promotion. American Tories, worried that Howe was not paying attention to the war, circulated a ditty: "Arouse, Sir Billy/ There's forage on the plain./ Ah, leave your little filly,/ And open the campaign." Washington wasn't like the man in charge of the British Navy, the Earl of Sandwich (after whom our lunch food is named, since Sandwich -- at the gambling tables and not wanting to leave -- had his servants bring him meat and two slices of bread). Sandwich in his 40s fell in lust with a teenager, Martha Ray, and moved her into his house, but an ensign who was in love with the young woman shot and killed her. When Sandwich was informed of her death, as the British Navy was entering a critical part of the war, he flung himself on his bed and refused to pay attention to business, crying, "Leave me alone, I could have borne anything but this." And Washington was not like the British cabinet minister in charge of the war effort on land, George Sackville, who as a major general in 1759 had been court-martialed for cowardice. By 1775, he had re-emerged as a favorite of King George III, and that year, the king appointed him secretary of state for the American colonies. But it was Sackville's other activity on land that untied the tongues of British gossips. The Earl of Sandwich was probably England's most notorious heterosexual adulterer at the time, and it turned out that Sackville was England's most notorious homosexual. Sackville's promotion and protection of young gay guys made Sandwich angry with him, because Sandwich believed that Sackville's chief aide was selling naval information to the French. But it was a Sackville mistake brought on by lust that allowed the Americans to gain their biggest military victory before the final one at Yorktown. In 1777, he was so eager to get away for a weekend tryst that he never sent some crucial orders, and General Burgoyne's army -- marching south from Canada and left without proper support -- had to surrender. Even after that debacle, Sackville hung on, on, though many talented leaders refused to work with or for him. His foolhardy military policies also made possible the British defeat that essentially ended the war: Sackville liked General Cornwallis and developed a southern strategy that would allow Cornwallis to become famous. Cornwallis succeeded by allowing his forces to be pinned in at Yorktown in 1781 by Washington's troops and the French navy: His surrender brought about American independence. Washington was a great man, but what's crucial is that he was not Charles Lee, Howe, Sandwich or Sackville. He was boring. Instead of coming up with fine verbal concoctions, he sometimes mangled his sentences. He went to sleep early. He was faithful to his wife. Sounds like another George, the one in the White House now. And the "dullness" of both is worth celebrating.