Everyone’s flawed, but only some hang


It’s settled. There is an ebb and flow in the affairs of mankind. Sometimes the tide is low, but it rises. Sometimes it’s high, but it falls. None of this happens diurnally, as the real tides do, but over time — decades, perhaps, even centuries — as old philosophies wither and new ones bloom, as fashions flaunt themselves, then are disdained, and as politicians devote themselves to mucking everything up.

For instance, George Washington is in the news again. A new biography by Ron Chernow whittles Washington as a general, according to reviewers — I haven’t read it yet — but exalts his talent for leadership. Apparently, we’ve known he was a high water mark in the affairs of men, but our reasoning to that conclusion may have been off a bit. In “Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different” (The Penguin Press, 2006), Gordon Wood writes of Washington that he “was the only truly classical hero we have ever had. He was admired as a classical hero in his own lifetime…. And he knew it. He was well aware of his reputation and his fame earned as the commander in chief of the American revolutionary forces. The awareness of his heroic stature was crucial to Washington. It affected nearly everything he did for the rest of his life.” Mr. Wood’s judgment is comforting for its familiarity. Mr. Chernow’s assessment may be more accurate, but less comforting.

So, did Washington, the one some would have made king, set out to cash in? No, he didn’t. Mr. Chernow and Mr. Wood agree, though they shade the motive for Washington’s restraint differently. He did not become a lobbyist, a corporate board member, an advisor to international investors, or an advisor to casino-minded Indian tribes. He did not behave the way so many Senators and Congressmen and Cabinet secretaries, and ex-Congressional staffers and ex-Presidents do today. “Washington,” according to Wood, “became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men. Washington epitomized everything the revolutionary generation prized in its leaders. He had character and was truly a man of virtue…. Many of his actions after 1783 can be understood only in terms of this deep concern for his reputation as a virtuous leader. He was constantly on guard and very sensitive to any criticism.” He was no military strategist, and he was not Honest Abe, but Mr. Chernow agrees that the Father of Our Country was determined to act in accordance with the public perception of his greatness.

And, when Washington’s personal star was at its apogee, he retired first from the generalship of the army, where he had been no paragon, and then from the presidency, where he steered a steady course. And he went home, to his farm and his slaves. Well, no one’s as perfect as we’d like him to be.

Washington did not follow the Captain William Kidd model, the low tide of the public man. A hundred years before Washington’s first attempt at retirement, Captain Kidd was an occasional neighbor, hanging out in Vineyard Sound, preying on coastwise shipping. Kidd did not set out to be a pirate, but he was not good in the presence of temptation. Piracy was his vocation after having received a commission from King William 3rd of England to put his military and maritime skills to work protecting the seafarers of the king’s American colonies. Born a Scot in 1654, Captain Kidd served his king, and the governor of Massachusetts Bay and the Barbados as well, until he retired to a life of lining his pockets. Kidd sailed from England in the Adventure Galley in 1696, and “Whether it was by his fault that the Adventure Galley slipped from privateering into acts of piracy, or whether, as Kidd alleged, his men forced his hand, has been doubted, but it is probable that he shared the guilt,” Amelia Forbes Emerson writes generously in her privately published “Early History of Naushon Island.”

However the blame is apportioned, Captain Kidd, having liberally rewarded himself with plunder, sailed for Boston just as the 17th century ended. He knew he was in trouble, that he’d strayed from the straight and narrow, but he anticipated the protection of the governor who had been instrumental in persuading the king to grant Kidd his commission. The pirate captain planned to cash in a big chip with the governor, who had been on the receiving end of some of Kidd’s loot. But, just in case, along the way Kidd put some plunder ashore on Gardiners Island in Long Island Sound and some more ashore at Tarpaulin Cove. He figured he’d be back after a while to retrieve it all. But, the tide had turned.

This 17th Century politician, courtier, and pirate found himself sent from the Colonies, where he could not be sentenced to death, to England where, in 1701, he could be. Kidd, whose history is recorded by Capt. Charles Johnson in his book entitled “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates” (Conway Maritime Press, 1998), may have served as a model to those searching for appropriate disincentives to this type of scandalous, self-dealing, political behavior, with which we’ve become so sadly familiar.

“Kidd,” Johnson writes, describing the pirate’s end, “made a speech to the huge crowd which had gathered at Execution Dock.” (Any occasion with a crowd is the right occasion for a speech, these people think.)

But, Johnson continues, “The rope broke when he was turned off the scaffold, and he fell to the ground still conscious. He was hanged a second time by being pushed from a ladder leaning against the gallows. His dead body was hung in chains from a gibbet at Tilbury Point in the Thames Estuary.”

A flavorful ending, but, even for the non-Washingtons among our political leaders, twice may be too much.