- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2011

By Edward G. Lengel
Harper, $25.99, 249 pages

One of the better moments in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple,” a minor comedy set in Revolutionary America, occurs when a baffled Blimp by the name of Major Swindon, appalled by the prospect of imminent British defeat at Saratoga, asks the suave but outmaneuvered British Gen. John Burgoyne a question: “What will history say?”

An unruffled Burgoyne - as scripted by Shaw - blithely replies, “History will tell lies as usual.” Truer words were never spoken … at least not in a play by the curmudgeonly Shaw.

Folk history, that unsavory amalgam of rumor, superstition, wishful and malicious popular legends, irresponsible journalism and cynical political manipulation, always has been and always will be with us. Individual myths and canards are exposed and discarded only to be replaced by new ones, all pandering to the same insatiable public appetite for the smutty and the maudlin. The next time some sanctimonious soul complains to you about the tabloid media of today, you might remind them that the tabloid approach to history, politics and celebrity has been with us far longer than tabloids themselves.

Consider the smarmy, usually fictitious speculation about everything from the private lives of the Caesars to the indoor equestrian antics of Catherine the Great, the (nonexistent) secret gay life of Abraham Lincoln, alleged UFO sightings in the Bible, the dimensions and whereabouts of certain parts of legendary 1930s gunman John Dillinger, and a secluded Greek island where, thanks to the largesse of the late Aristotle Onassis, JFK, wounded but not really slain in Dallas, supposedly lived on in a vegetative state. And that’s just skimming the surface.

No figure in American history has suffered more at the hands of fabulists - both friendly and hostile - than George Washington. There is something obsessive, almost Oedipal, about the way, beginning within days of his death, the courageous, dignified and heroically sensible Founding Father Figure was buried in an avalanche of plaster saintliness. The cherry tree, the silver dollar, phony pieties and unctuous quotes faked by 19th-century pamphleteers and politicians were followed by equally false but more malicious concoctions of early 20th-century debunkers, first and foremost William E. Woodward, whose “George Washington: Image and Man” portrayed a petty, grasping proto-Babbitt whose failures were all his own, but whose successes were a result of blind luck. Even the dutiful, devoted and universally respected Martha Washington was dissed as “small,” “dumpy” and “anti-democratic.”

All of this wretched historical excess cries out for correction and, in Edward G. Lengel, the editor in chief of the University of Virginia’s Washington papers collection, fate has found the perfect corrections officer. With humor, concision and deep background knowledge, Mr. Lengel catalogues and explodes myth after myth, slander after slander, some of it still very fresh - so much so that there are moments when the reader may suspect that he has wandered into a George Washington-centered version of News of the Weird.

Thus we are told about Caroline Myss, a contemporary mystic and holistic healer who, besides appearing on Oprah Winfrey’s television program, claimed to have uncovered a psychically-transmitted “autobiography” of George Washington. Among other things, in an amazing feat of time-bending, the autobiography tells us that, as a youth, Washington was “inspired” by the “romantic figure” of the Duke of Wellington, leading young George to conclude that he, too, “could make a career as a soldier.”

This is interesting stuff, especially since Wellington was born 32 years after Washington and won his most celebrated victory at Waterloo in 1815, by which time George had already been pushing up daisies for 16 years.

Mr. Lengel even offers us an 1877 New York Times account of an on-stage attempt to materialize Washington’s ghost in Oshkosh, Wis. While things began well with “a tall, properly attired Washington clutching a Farewell Address in his hand,” malicious spirits must have been present as well, since Washington’s ghost “slipped on an orange peel that had been tossed on stage by a skeptic.” Possibly stretching its definition of “all the news that’s fit to print,” the Times then described the ensuing pandemonium:

“When the stately ghost sat violently down, his sword and his Farewell Address flying in different directions, the spectators were pained, but their suspicions would not have been aroused had not Washington immediately remarked, “By gosh!” This unguarded expression, together with the fact that the Farewell Address was captured by an irreverent person, and found to be nothing but a certificate of stock in a petroleum company, aroused a great deal of indignation, which … took the form of prehistoric eggs and the limp bodies of specially prepared cats, and ultimately led to the abrupt departure of the medium from the town.”

Woodward and Bernstein, eat your hearts out: They just don’t make investigative journalism like that anymore. And thank you, Edward Lengel, for stripping away some of the myths and malice surrounding our Founding Father, and for reminding us in an edifying and entertaining manner of the constant danger historical truth faces at the hands of unscrupulous hucksters and past, present and future generations of suckers. Alas, there’s never a shortage of the former; as for the latter, as W.C. Fields warned us long ago, they continue to “born every minute.”

Aram Bakshian Jr., who served as an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes frequently on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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