Category Archives: History

10 things I like about George Washington

I made a new friend this summer: George Washington, the first president of the United States.

We got acquainted through Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow’s 900-plus page biography that  makes Washington seem so real, so human, and so appealing that I got excited about America’s democratic experiment all over again.

And obsessed with all things George Washington. I should note that I decided to read Chernow’s doorstopper of a book after reading and loving the much shorter (at 352 pages) Washington biography, His Excellency George Washington, by Joseph J. Ellis. Both are fantastic reads that I recommend, so you have both long and short options.

Here’s my list of 10 things I like about George Washington, in no particular order:

  1. He believed public service should be done for the public good, not to get rich. He often refused salary or other compensation he was due.
  2. He didn’t like being famous and tried to avoid pageants and public displays in his honor. Sometimes he would sneak out of town early to avoid a farewell parade.
  3. At a time when slavery was widely accepted in his home state of Virginia, he freed the people he held in bondage when he died, taking measures in his will to establish their care.
  4. He liked women a lot and had many female friends. Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia, gave him political advice and was a close confidant.
  5. He was an emotional person, prone to outbursts, but he worked hard to restrain himself in words and deeds.
  6. He was athletic and liked to ride his horse and dance.
  7. He was a researcher, studying up on business and politics. He consulted widely before he made decisions and considered all sides.
  8. He didn’t have his own children, but he was generous and kind to his step-children, nieces, nephews and children of friends. He offered them good advice through his letters.
  9. He had high standards for his friends, advisers, and staff, and he was very loyal to those who met his expectations.
  10. He was charmingly self-conscious about his false teeth.

The fake news of George Washington’s era

I know some people don’t like the term “fake news,” but I still tend to use it to describe intentionally fabricated information masking as a legitimate news story. “Fake news” does not mean “any news I don’t like.” (See this story for more on that issue.)

My interest was piqued recently when I learned that President George Washington had to deal with phony reports claiming he had actually been sympathetic to the British during the Revolutionary War. It’s a conspiracy theory that actually doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it was a real thing in Washington’s day, and one of his final acts as president was to lodge a formal rebuttal — really a type of fact-check — with the secretary of state’s office. Here’s the story I wrote about the episode for PolitiFact:

Politics in 2018 can seem so relentlessly negative, it’s tempting to seek escape in reading stories of the Founding Fathers.

Take George Washington.

Far from the staid-looking fellow on the $1 bill, Washington was a tall and athletic man, a skilled soldier, an avid horseman and a graceful dancer. Known for his eloquent silence, he instinctively deflected attention from himself so as to emphasize the birth of a new country and government by the people.

Still, there were ways in which George Washington’s life is like today. Here’s one: He had to fight fake news.

Forged letters from before his presidency claimed to show in his own words that he privately sympathized with the British monarchy and thought the American cause was doomed. The letters also suggested that Washington thought Americans weren’t ready for democracy. MORE …

A fact-checker’s guide to Michael Wolff’s ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’

From time to time, I happily get to review books for PolitiFact. Here’s my latest, a review of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. (And here are links to more book reviews I’ve written.)

Even books about Donald Trump seem to break norms: Trump hasn’t been in office a year, and already there’s a gossipy insider account that claims to show the real goings-on of the Trump White House. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House portrays an infighting senior team at each other’s throats, and a president too narcissistic and distracted to be capable of governing.

Is it accurate? Many details are simply wrong. Whether the larger narrative is true is a different question. …

A bigger problem with Fire and Fury, however, is that by any standard of sound journalism it has big problems with transparency and sourcing. MORE …

Poems for St. Patrick’s Day

Mark Holan and I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by reading our favorite Irish poetry aloud. Here’s are selections from what we read:

Easter 1916, by William Butler Yeats

I write it out in a verse —
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Digging, by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Whatever you say, say nothing, by Seamus Heaney

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap

On the First Day of June, by Paul Durcan

I was walking behind Junior Daly’s coffin
Up a narrow winding terraced street
In Cork city in the rain on the first day of June
When my mobile phone went off in my pocket

And of course, a poem from himself:

The Deer’s Cry, by St. Patrick

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun,
brilliance of Moon,
splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning,
swiftness of Wind,
depth of Sea,
stability of Earth,
firmness of Rock.

Glendalough

‘Get action, be sane …’

 

I loved getting to know Teddy Roosevelt through Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts. His advice for staving off depression by staving off boredom was this: “Get action, be sane … .” Another great TR quote is chiseled on the monument I viewed today at Theodore Roosevelt Island: “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Gallery

Washington by Instagram

This gallery contains 12 photos.

We’ve been exploring Washington D.C., mostly by bike, ever since we moved here earlier this year. I like to snap photos of the monuments on my iPhone and post them to Instagram; it’s an amateur endeavor and totally fun. Here … Continue reading

The 2014 Global Fact-checking Summit in London (photo gallery)

In June, I attended the Global Fact-Checking Summit in London. About 50 fact-checkers from Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Australia attended. The conference was  hosted by the Poynter Institute, organized by Duke University’s Bill Adair (PolitiFact’s founding editor), and funded by the Omidyar Network, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Ford Foundation, craigconnects, the Duke Reporters’ Lab and Full Fact.

The conference was fantastic, and seeing London for the first time was a real treat. Here are a few photos and comments from my trip. Click on the first photo to launch the gallery.

Visiting the Folger Shakespeare Library

Last weekend we made a charming visit to the Folger Shakespeare Library, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. Capitol. The library is renowned for having more than 70 First Folios of Shakespeare’s plays (and depending on how you count, as many as 82), including one on view under glass with a neat interactive display.

Founders Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger were obsessed with collecting the folios in the early 1900s, and today the library focuses its collection on all materials related to Shakespeare, as well as materials from 1450 to the early 1700s.

We signed up for a tour of the Reading Room, which includes the marvelous stained glass window depicting scenes from the “seven ages of man” speech in As You Like It:

All the world ’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages. …

See Morgan Freeman deliver the full speech here (3 minutes).  My photo of the library window doesn’t really do it justice.

As You Like It

I was also fond of the statue of Puck; the base of the statue has an inscription from the character in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Here’s its context from the play:

Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Puck

Finally, I include this marvelous bust of the Bard himself. I know there’s raging debate over which likenesses of Shakespeare are historically accurate. This one, I think, captures his artistic  spirit.

Will

Wilfred Owen speaks from the grave

When I was in school, World War I didn’t get much attention, and the poets of World War I even less. That was a real shame, because the poetry that came out of World War I has so much to recommend itself to everyday readers.

First of all, many of the poems rhyme, because the poets tended to stick to formal structure. Second, the poems were usually about the war, and things that were in the news and inherently political. The poems had a message to get across that most readers would be able to grasp quickly.

I’m reminded of all this because of the debate about Syria. I edited a report this week about chemical weapons, and then this weekend, I opened the New York Times to find an analytical report on Syria (by Steven Erlanger) that opens with a reference to the poet Wilfred Owen and his remarkable poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Before the Latin puts you off, it means, “Sweet and right it is …”; the rest of the saying is “… to die for one’s country.” The poem, which you can read in its entirety here, uses the line to be ironic and biting, contrasting the motto with the effects of chemical weapons on soldiers at the front:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I got a chill reading the poem again today, because it reminds me so much of what I love about literature: It’s a way for us to speak to each other, not only across divides of circumstance and birth, but also across space and time.

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Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog: For Downton Abbey fans, a primer on revolutionary Ireland

Mark Holan’s Irish-American Blog: For Downton Abbey fans, a primer on revolutionary Ireland: