Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting a Handle on Mr. Adams

When I was a child, somehow I developed a fascination with the American presidency.

I don't remember how or when this fascination started. I do recall that it was pretty well established by the time I was in first grade because I remember making a sort of presentation on the presidents to one of the first grade classes in my elementary school one day.

I remember my mother standing in the doorway next to my teacher. Both were beaming as I told the class stories about the presidents. At that age, I think I was mostly telling stories my mother had told me. As I got older, I confirmed most of them for myself.

All these years later, I am still fascinated by the American presidency. You might think I would be jaded by this time, disillusioned by what I have read and observed of the many incompetent leaders and failed presidencies in our nation's history and the pain and suffering their mistakes have caused — but I'm not.

The story of the American presidency is all the more fascinating to me because it is so often the story of essentially ordinary men facing unusual circumstances they cannot tame.

The more I have studied the presidency in my life, the more I have come to realize the truth in the adage that history repeats itself. It really does — not always precisely, not entirely predictably, but it definitely does repeat itself.

We are living through difficult times, but we have been through difficult times before. Sour economies have sunk many well–meaning presidents. So have unpopular wars.

After more than two centuries of existence, there are few things that could possibly be firsts in the American experience.

You have to go back quite a ways to find most of the originals. But John Adams was one of them.

It's hard to get a handle on him, though. His friend and rival Thomas Jefferson seemed to have mixed emotions about him.

"I never felt a diminution of confidence in his integrity, and retained a solid affection for him," Jefferson wrote.

But Jefferson also wrote, "Mr. Adams and his Federalists wish to sap the [r]epublic by fraud, destroy it by force, and elect an English monarchy in its place."

He didn't cut an imposing figure, actually, at least not when compared to many of his better–known contemporaries. George Washington was a large man, muscular, 6'2", between 175 and 200 pounds. Thomas Jefferson was half an inch taller and thin.

Adams stood more than half a foot shorter than either man, and he was portly. He must have seemed almost comical whenever he stood next to them — and, unlike either of those men, he is not memorialized for all time on the side of a mountain (in a place that was barely a territory at the time Adams died).

Anyway, my father went out of town for a couple of weeks during the Christmas season. Before he left, he loaned me his DVD of "John Adams," the HBO miniseries from a few years ago.

I told him I would watch it — and I have — and here are my thoughts on it. (Well, perhaps I'm being misleading with my use of the singular. It should be a plural. It's a three–DVD set. But never mind.)

I read historian David McCullough's book on which the series was based, and I think the book and the TV series provide probably the most accurate telling you can find of the life story of a largely misunderstood president.

Maybe it was inevitable that Adams should be misunderstood — or at least overlooked. His one–term presidency was sandwiched in between two of the giants of that time in American history, Washington and Jefferson.

I get the sense that, during Adams' own time, his family and friends knew him to be a warm and loving man, but he was regarded as cold and aloof by those who did not know him.

I touched on this when I wrote about Adams last July 4.

Of course, at that time, I had not yet seen the HBO series, which was co–produced by Tom Hanks (who happens to be my favorite contemporary actor) and co–starred Laura Linney (who happens to be one of my favorite contemporary actresses).

The part of Adams was played by Paul Giamatti. I can't say he is one of my favorite actors, but I have seen him in other films like "Sideways" and "Cinderella Man," and I respect his talent.

Long before I was aware of him, I was aware of his father, Bart Giamatti, who was the commissioner of major league baseball in 1989. I worked on newspaper sports staffs in the 1980s and 1990s, and we often ran stories about Giamatti. He banned Pete Rose from baseball for gambling — then, shockingly, he died of a heart attack eight days later.

Paul Giamatti was 22 when his father died.

But I digress.

The HBO story of "John Adams" actually started in 1770, several years before independence was declared, when Adams agreed to defend the British soldiers who were charged in the Boston Massacre.

That must have been about as popular a task in Adams' time as defending Timothy McVeigh or the so–called "20th hijacker" in ours.

But, while Adams was concerned — to a certain extent — with his popularity (he had misgivings about the effect that defending the soldiers would have on his reputation), he was far more interested in the concept of the rule of law, and he believed the soldiers had acted in self defense.
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

John Adams
(Dec. 4, 1770)

If the soldiers had acted in self defense, if they felt threatened by the angry mob and acted accordingly, he reasoned, the most with which they could be charged would be manslaughter.

And Adams did such a fine job of defending the soldiers that most were acquitted. The two who fired directly into the crowd were convicted of manslaughter, not murder.

Part 2 of the series fast–forwarded us to a re–enactment of the moment when this nation was born.

It told a riveting story of how Washington was chosen to command the Continental Army, how the Declaration of Independence was shaped in Philadelphia while the Southern delegates awaited their instructions — and how Adams persuaded Jefferson to write the document.

That's a story I never tire of hearing, and it is a very familiar one for me. When I was a child, my family often traveled to New England in the summers. My parents had friends there, and we visited places that most people only read about in their history books in school — Lexington, Concord, the Old North Church. We walked the Freedom Trail in Boston. We toured the USS Constitution, also known as "Old Ironsides" (which actually was not launched until the year Adams became president).

American history really lived and breathed for my brother and me when we were children. We could see it and touch it as well as hear stories about it.

In the third installment of the miniseries, Adams and his son (and future president), John Quincy, departed for France, where Adams was to represent the nation in a largely diplomatic role — even though Adams did not speak French, which was, at the time, the preferred language of diplomats.

To not make that point was — if you'll forgive the phrase — a faux pas.

That's the sort of historical observation I would expect such a biographical series to make — and, in fairness, it did make the audience aware of Adams' deficiency in French, but I didn't feel it adequately expressed the misgivings that many people had about his ability to be an effective diplomat without that linguistic skill.

It did give what seemed to be an authentic re–creation of encounters with British warships, which was part of the story of Adams' diplomatic appointment. And it did a pretty good job of dramatizing Adams' general frustration with the post.

"If I have committed some crime," Adams complained bitterly at one point, "I believe I deserve to be told what it was."

He was equally frustrated later in the series when he was vice president and was excluded from the meetings of Washington's Cabinet and inner circle. His unhappiness with the job was well documented.

Factually, I did have a few issues with the third installment. At one point, John observed that his son was 14. In fact, John Quincy was 10 when the two of them made the trip to France in 1777. The two returned to America when John Quincy would have been about 12. As the installment ended, Abigail was seen relating to the remaining children that the British had surrendered and the war was over.

Adams was sent back to France to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783 following the British surrender. That was in the fourth installment. I don't know if John Quincy accompanied his father on that appointment to France. He would have been 15 or 16 by that time.

The timing of that episode raised another interesting historical inaccuracy. In that fourth segment, Abigail (who comes across as too modest to be comfortable with any public display of affection, even when she and her husband are reunited in Paris) chastised Benjamin Franklin for being unfaithful to his wife while he was in France.

I don't know if Abigail was as prim as she appeared, but I do know it wasn't possible for Franklin to have cheated on his wife during his time in France.

Yes, the audience saw (accurately) how Franklin had given in to the — shall we say — sexually liberal atmosphere of 18th–century Paris.

But Franklin's wife died of a stroke in 1774, which predated the events in the second segment. And Franklin, who did not remarry after his wife's death, did not become minister to France until 1778.

Abigail was portrayed, in this series and in books I have read, as a sharp woman. Very little escaped her notice. It seems implausible, to say the least, that the fact that Mrs. Franklin had been deceased for many years could have eluded Abigail's personal radar.

Facts are, indeed, stubborn things.

I became aware of several factual inaccuracies in the series — some could be considered significant, others were less so — and I would have thought that a series that proposes to tell the life story of an American president would be more meticulous about its facts.

For example, in that episode I mentioned earlier in which Adams struggled in the diminished role of vice president (more than a century later, John Garner described the vice president as the president's "spare tire") the Senate's vote on the Jay Treaty was presented as a contentious, pivotal moment in Adams' career, ending in a tie and forcing a rare tie–breaking vote by the vice president.

That must be some sort of alternate reality because, in fact, the Senate gave two–thirds of its votes to the treaty. Adams' vote wasn't needed.

In the next–to–last episode, the Adamses moved into the just–completed Executive Mansion. The building was painted white, and 21st–century viewers would recognize it instantly as the White House.

But the building was not painted white until more than 15 years after Adams left the presidency. That was prompted by the fact that the building, along with several other government buildings, had been burned by the British in the War of 1812.

Certainly, I would have thought that a miniseries that dramatizes any important period in history would be more meticulous than this one was, but it still won 13 Emmy Awards. And I guess it deserved them. The costumes seemed authentic, and the acting was good.

But, along with the factual inaccuracies, I found the music annoying — kind of a cross between the scores of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (which wasn't well received when it was released but has become more highly regarded as the years have passed) and "Into the West," the TV miniseries from a few years back. Perhaps that was the inevitable result of having two composers work on the score independently and separately from each other, one in London and the other in Los Angeles.

I can't conclude this without saying a few words about Linney's performance as Abigail Adams.

The Adamses, of course, lived a couple of centuries before I was born so I can't say how well Giamatti and Linney replicated their vocal patterns.

But, based on the paintings I have seen of John and Abigail Adams, I'm inclined to think that the physical casting was pretty good, especially in Linney's case.

I have seen fewer paintings of Abigail than of John, but the ones I have seen show what I think is a striking resemblance between the actress and the historical figure she played. That may well be the result of good makeup and hair styling, but most of it was Linney herself.

They were truly a remarkable couple in early American history, and it is altogether fitting that Linney, as Abigail, should have been given almost equal treatment in this series as her husband. In reality, Abigail seems to have been, in every sense, her husband's co–partner — albeit a silent one on many occasions.

I say that, you see, because Abigail's character didn't have much to say in this seven–part series. She was often on screen, which justified Linney's co–billing with Giamatti, I guess, but she was there mostly to listen to what John had to say — when she wasn't nursing sick children or tending to household chores.

She had far fewer lines than he did, and, other than Linney's narration of excerpts from Abigail's letters or her face–to–face conversations with her husband (which were few because of their frequent forced separations), her dialogues were with her children. When Giamatti was present, Linney was mostly required to sit and look concerned while he spoke (and she did that quite well, too).

The series hinted at Abigail's feminist and abolitionist views — both of which were rather radical positions in the late 18th century.

I guess that's an honest reflection of the societal norms of that time. It's also a pretty clear indication why Abigail urged her husband in a letter she wrote, when the Declaration of Independence was being shaped in 1776, to "[r]emember the [l]adies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the [h]usbands."

It has long been acknowledged that Abigail often advised her husband, but I gather that much of Abigail's influence may have been confined to the printed page. That may or may not be true, may or may not be fair, but that is the impression I get.

That is hardly a challenge for an actress who is as accomplished as Linney, but her portrayal of Abigail was quietly powerful, and it earned her awards from the Screen Actors Guild, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

The same groups also honored Giamatti's performance.

That's equality.