Monday, September 19, 2011

Washington's last fear ...

Doctors, family members, and slaves witnessed George Washington's final hours and death at 67 in December 1799. Sickened with an infection in his throat, causing a part of it to swell so much that breathing became impossible, Washington's final deathbed words were "Tis well" as he took his own pulse before taking his last breath.

But before that final observation, he spoke more stridently to an assistant:  "I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead ... Do you understand me?"  That directive, relayed to us today by historian Joseph J. Ellis in his 2004 book, His Excellency: George Washington, exposes a particular fear of the first president.

"Washington believed that several apparently dead people, perhaps including Jesus, had really been buried alive, a fate he wished to avoid," writes Ellis.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Nixon's New Jersey escapade ...

Richard Nixon "had a nose for political manipulation," whether he was doling it out or the victim of it, said his longtime associate Leonard Garment in an interview on CSPAN's Booknotes television show. Garment, author of Crazy Rhythm: From Brooklyn And Jazz To Nixon's White House, Watergate, And Beyond, told of the night that he and Nixon were to spend as guests of a mover-and-shaker in New Jersey in 1965. Nixon had a speaking engagement the next day, and the plan was for the two men to spend the night at a housing development. But "(Nixon) ... realized that the next day, he was going to walk out of this house ... and on the porch would be photographers from the (housing facility) and that he was going to become a prop in a merchandising promotion," Garment said. So the two men drove some 40 miles back to their host's house, arriving to find the gates locked and no other way through the surrounding wall. "Come on, Garment. Over the wall we go," Nixon cajoled. The two men climbed up and over, spending the night in a guest house by a swimming pool.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ancient Rome ... another side

Ancient Rome a tolerant place? Pretty much, when it comes to religion, writes Pacific Lutheran University Assistant Professor of Classics Eric Nelson in The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Roman Empire. In fact, there's a strong argument that acceptance of other cultures and religions helped subdue and incorporate into the Empire conquered people throughout the Mediterranean for long periods, in turn helping guarantee Rome's success and longevity. But even as the Romans had no problem with tolerating the gods and religious practices of most of the people they conquered, they did take issue with those of some groups -- such as Christians -- that didn't recognize the authority of the Roman government. They were considered a threat, a view that led to their persecution.

"Christians' personal religious practices contradicted state practice in a manner that could not be solved without one party giving way," writes Nelson. "Neither was very good at that."

Friday, September 2, 2011

The 3 a.m. president ...

In Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter: Five Presidents and Other Political Adventures, former presidential speechwriter (for Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan) James C. Humes offers a tremendous insight into the decision-making processs:  "Sometimes -- even if the general details of a legislation message have been hammered out -- unagreed matters remain because of fights between competing departments. As the various drafts of the proposed message are relayed to various cabinet heads for approval, one cabinet secretary knocks out one word or item and his rival puts it back in. A change goes in -- then it's taken out ... The hours pass from late night into the wee hours of the next day, when the president is scheduled to deliver the message. Finally, the department heads go to bed and final decision is left to the (speech)writer -- hence the 3 a.m. president."

"I remember one message on mass transit by President Nixon. The bone of contention was funding," from either the gasoline tax or general revenues. "I had to decide. I chose general revenues. Strangely, my decision drew no backlash. Everyone assumed the president had made the decision."