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Back to the Future: The Fondling Father Cues Our Politics

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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."

Sex we have always had with us; the Founding Fathers were not immune to the temptations of the flesh. But it was their attitudes toward government that ignited the conflicts and controversies that endure to this day. John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were concerned, lest democracy without restraint become too much of a good thing, and prescribed a strong central government as that which needed restraint. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison saw democracy rooted in a society of doughty yeomen, eager to take on personal responsibility, and were reluctantly submissive to a local government of their peers and neighbors.

We're no longer so credulous as to believe doctored history, to take as true, for example, Parson Weems' fanciful story about young George Washington cutting down his father's favorite cherry tree and refusing to tell a lie about it to avoid punishment. Parson Weems, the first president's first biographer, aimed to teach a moral lesson with a small myth, and for years his "spin" survived. Our children today are more likely to consider only the flaws of the Founding Fathers, to regard them only as early Bill Clintons, Eliot Spitzers and Kwame Kilpatricks on the make. Every schoolboy knows, in that hoary cliché, several of the men who wrote in that declaration that "all men are created equal" owned slaves.

But men and women need both fact and myth: fact to feed the mind and myth to make the heart soar. The National Endowment for the Humanities has inaugurated a program to enable schoolchildren to see the nation's history through paintings. "Picturing America" is composed of 40 works by American artists, with fine reproductions for children of different ages. The program is available on the Web at www.neh.gov. It includes one of the most famous paintings of the Revolution -- "Washington Crossing the Delaware," immortalizing the surprise attack on the British and Hessian troops at Trenton, N.J. This was a stunning victory for the American army, turning the tide of the war at last to the Americans. There are portraits of Washington, Paul Revere and Abraham Lincoln. They're enough to erase that image of Ben Franklin and his friend in the bathtub.

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