George Washington abbreviated

Hello History Buffs! For my next trick I will attempt to summarize an 800 page biography in 600 words. Here are my takeaways from Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow.

The oddity about George Washington’s rise to prominence was the peculiar way stepping stones fell in his path. The young Washington seemed always to be losing a relative to an untimely death. Each time, it left him with more money and a greater position in society. If it had been a less trustworthy person, I’d  have grown suspicious. In his case, I concluded Washington was the hub of a circle of people who were significantly wealthier and unhealthier than he was – until they all died and he got their stuff. Then, they were just that much more unhealthier.

Washington made hay with the power he inherited, but all the stuff didn’t do him much good. Southern planters, for all their apparent wealth, were chronically in debt. Washington, with all his land holdings, inheritances, and whatnot, was not immune to this condition. He could have been the poster boy for it.

Who doesn’t love getting lots of big packages in the mail?

Washington’s habits kept him in debt. He had a taste for nice things. He was forever ordering crockery emblazoned with the family crest. He needed a new uniform for every camping trip and dressed all his attendants alike, as if they were bridesmaids. He kept up the décor like the Mother of His Country.

Washington was often unavailable to manage his own finances. Sacrificing his time to go fight the French, the British, and almost the French again, he had little time to spend maximizing his personal profits. Between running an eight-year revolution and serving as a two-term president, Washington was forced to leave his personal estate to managers less interested in his bank balance than he was.

George Washington could tell a lie. Washington lied in the way normal folks lie. He fibbed to protect his reputation. When a man of sound judgment makes a poor choice, he may feel pressure to fudge on the circumstances, as Washington did in his early military career. Washington also told white lies to smooth over differences with colleagues and to avoid moral dilemmas, like being a slave owner who wished he could be an abolitionist, if he could do so without inconveniencing himself.

The best thing about Washington’s lies are the ones he wouldn’t tell. He wasn’t tempted by the big, political lie. He didn’t spread lies about political foes, although he was the victim of many smears. He left it to his successors to bring official dishonesty to the presidency, which they lost no time in doing. Washington seemed more interested in setting a high bar for the presidency than in getting what he wanted at any cost.

Washington was an ambitious self-promoter. In a country full of ambitious self-promoters it was fortunate the one who rose to the top at the crucial moment was a rare man who, having gained power and fame, was content not to corner the market on it.

George Washington didn’t have the most brilliant mind of his time. He had something more important; he had wisdom. He knew where to turn when he needed help from one sort of genius or another, and he carefully considered something geniuses often overlook: tomorrow.

George Washington wasn’t a perfect man, but he was the perfect man for a particular time and place in history. It is hard to imagine many men who could have made a success out of the losing proposition that was the American Revolution. What other man, standing at the precipice of unlimited power, would have used it so benignly and handed it off so willingly?

My humble beginnings in fiction approach their 40th humble anniversary

When I was in elementary school, the Daughters of the American Revolution held an annual writing competition for 5th and 6th graders.  The story I wrote for this in 5th grade is the earliest fiction I remember writing. The entries were hand-written. My poor penmanship probably prevented the ladies of the D.A.R. from comprehending my story.  This, and the lack of effort I put into the tale, led to failure in my first writing competition.

In 6th grade, I tried harder, and my penmanship must have become more legible. I won the award for my school. I had to read my story in front of the assembled Daughters, which terrified me, but I got a little medal to pin on my chest that said, “Excellence in History.”

They were a tough crowd.

They were a tough crowd.

The theme of the contest that year was travel in colonial America. I hit that theme hard. In the space of five or six handwritten pages, my protagonist used about 10 different methods to move from point A to point B. Point B was Bunker Hill, where there happened to be a battle raging. Having gotten my main character to his destination, I wasn’t sure what to do with him. Since there wasn’t any D.A.R. contest for 7th grade, I wouldn’t need a sequel so I killed him. He died heroically, like a patriot. It didn’t hurt to hit the Daughters in their collective soft spot.

The summer after 6th grade, I decided to write a mystery novel. I had it all figured out: whodunit, why and how. It turned out that was the easy part. The hard part was all the story that needed to come before the big reveal at the end. After about a dozen handwritten pages full of scintillating dialog, punctuated by dramatic sips of coffee, I decided to take a break and go ride my bike. Riding my bike was easier, but very time-consuming. It took up the rest of the summer, so I didn’t get to do more work on my novel.

Through high school I wrote short stories for no particular reason. I’d hammer them out on my mother’s Smith Corona. My typing was no better than my penmanship, even after the keyboarding class. My mother was the only one who read my stories. She had to see where all the white-out was going, after all.

My chief rival for bottom of the keyboarding class.

My chief rival for bottom of the keyboarding class.

In college I took a couple of fiction courses, but most of the fiction I wrote was in papers for my other classes. I’d become practiced at inventing facts that seemed plausible to instructors who didn’t have time to check. College was supposed to be about learning to think critically, which was exactly how I was judging which bullshit I could get away with.

Since my school days, I’ve done less bike riding, which has allowed me to finish some novels. Certain things have come full circle. I’m still looking to hit the emotional soft spots, but for an audience wider than the D.A.R. I still usually figure out the endings before the beginnings. I’m also still busy judging which fabrications will fly. Fiction is all one glorious lie, and like any good lie, it should always be plausible.

Even my penmanship and typing  are still lousy. The only thing I’ve lost is the medal that says, “Excellence in History.”