Commentary Magazine


Posts For: June 7, 2007

This Old (Presidential) House

Generations of schoolchildren once learned that George Washington was the Father of the Country—a platitude, of course, but one that encapsulated an essential truth. Now an exhibition on the site in Philadelphia where he lived during his presidency will concentrate on his role as a slave-owner. This too is a truth, a tragic one that requires telling. But is this the central truth about our first President—that he hypocritically spoke of liberty while enslaving others?

This question has become urgent with the rediscovery of the first President’s house, where Washington (and later John Adams) lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital. The house was demolished in the early 19th century, leaving behind only a few print images, and its precise form and location became a matter of historical controversy. This was recently settled, and in spectacular fashion, by Edward Lawler, Jr.—not a professional historian but a singer. (Full disclosure: I knew Lawler in graduate school in the early 1980’s.)

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Generations of schoolchildren once learned that George Washington was the Father of the Country—a platitude, of course, but one that encapsulated an essential truth. Now an exhibition on the site in Philadelphia where he lived during his presidency will concentrate on his role as a slave-owner. This too is a truth, a tragic one that requires telling. But is this the central truth about our first President—that he hypocritically spoke of liberty while enslaving others?

This question has become urgent with the rediscovery of the first President’s house, where Washington (and later John Adams) lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital. The house was demolished in the early 19th century, leaving behind only a few print images, and its precise form and location became a matter of historical controversy. This was recently settled, and in spectacular fashion, by Edward Lawler, Jr.—not a professional historian but a singer. (Full disclosure: I knew Lawler in graduate school in the early 1980’s.)

Working systematically through original documents, Lawler disentangled two centuries of pious historiography to pinpoint the site of the house with forensic exactitude. His work made possible this year’s excavation, which has brought to light a surprising amount of the original house; it is easily the most important archaeological find for American history in a generation.

Finding the house was easy, however, compared to figuring out how to present it to the public. Designed by the Philadelphia firm Kelly/Maiello, the new museum that will rise over the foundations of the original house is an unfortunate object, both didactically and architecturally. The original executive mansion consisted of a front house on Market Street, a back building with servants’ quarters and a kitchen, and a stable to the rear. In a tiny wing connecting this stable to the back building lived Washington’s slaves. It is the physical remains of these slave quarters that dominate the museum’s educational program, whose six “substantive themes” are:

The House and the People Who Lived There; The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government; The System and Methods of Slavery; African-American Philadelphia, especially Free African-American; The Move to Freedom; and History Lost and Found.

One notes that Washington himself will not be a “substantive” presence in his house, other than as one of the “people who lived there.” The result will be, in effect, a museum of American slavery.

The issue of architectural merit may, perhaps, pale beside the larger questions this new museum raises. Still, it should be noted that the proposed design of the new visitors’ center is comically inept. Several generations ago, Americans celebrated their historical buildings by contriving plausible facsimiles (as at Colonial Williamsburg). Recently, Robert Venturi suggested a more imaginative approach when he reconstructed the lost Benjamin Franklin House—of which no contemporary images survived—as an abstract and ghostly lattice. The Kelly/Maiello design is an unhappy conflation of the two, a plaintively literal array of classical pediments hanging in the air that manages to starve both the eye and the imagination at the same time—no mean feat.

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Stem-Cell Politics, Then and Now

Embryonic stem-cell research first became possible with human cells in 1998, and became a political issue immediately thereafter. To derive the cells, researchers had to destroy human embryos, which drew strong opposition from people (like me) who believe that nascent human lives should not be treated as raw materials for research.

Just a few months after the first human stem-cell experiments, President Clinton assigned his board of bioethics advisors, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), to consider the issues involved. Their report, published in 1999, has helped ever since to define the Democrats’ approach to the issue. In light of the headlines today about a new way to produce stem cells without destroying embryos, that report is worth another look.

The commission made a point of taking into account the ethical issues raised by embryo-destructive research. “In our judgment,” the report concluded, “the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.”

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Embryonic stem-cell research first became possible with human cells in 1998, and became a political issue immediately thereafter. To derive the cells, researchers had to destroy human embryos, which drew strong opposition from people (like me) who believe that nascent human lives should not be treated as raw materials for research.

Just a few months after the first human stem-cell experiments, President Clinton assigned his board of bioethics advisors, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), to consider the issues involved. Their report, published in 1999, has helped ever since to define the Democrats’ approach to the issue. In light of the headlines today about a new way to produce stem cells without destroying embryos, that report is worth another look.

The commission made a point of taking into account the ethical issues raised by embryo-destructive research. “In our judgment,” the report concluded, “the derivation of stem cells from embryos remaining following infertility treatments is justifiable only if no less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the research.”

At the time, there were no such alternatives. The NBAC’s conclusion was taken (and certainly intended) as an endorsement of embryo-destructive stem-cell research, which quickly became the view of the Clinton administration and of American liberals more generally. But the big stem-cell story of the past two years has been the emergence of precisely those “less morally problematic alternatives” imagined by the commission.

The news this morning deals with the most promising and significant advance yet on that front. Scientists at MIT and in Japan have managed to coax regular skin cells (in mice) to become cells that seem to have the abilities and characteristics of embryonic stem cells. If this pans out in human cells, it would mean that the benefits of embryonic stem cells could be attainable without the ethical (and political) drawbacks of embryo-destructive research.

This is just the latest in a series of such developments over the past two years. But the advocates of such research have not yet decided how to handle this new trend. Congressional Democrats, persuaded that stem cells are a powerful political winner for them, talked down the alternatives at first, insisting they were scientifically unworkable or unnecessary. But as more scientific publications have emerged enlarging on these alternatives, they have changed their strategy, attempting to co-opt the new alternatives into their effort to fund embryo-destructive research. A bill being considered in the House today (and which has already passed the Senate) would use taxpayer dollars to encourage the on-going destruction of embryos from IVF clinics for their stem cells, but at the same time would also fund the emerging alternatives.

The internal contradiction is stark: the bill stokes the controversy over stem cells even as it funds new techniques that might quiet it. President Bush has pledged to veto the bill because it violates the principles behind his stem-cell funding policy, and the Congress seems unlikely to muster the votes to override his veto. So the political status quo won’t change, but the state of the science is clearly pulling in the opposite direction from the Democrats’ political strategy.

Developments like the one making news today could (in time) mean the end of the stem-cell debate, and an end that lets everyone win: the research would advance without human embryos being harmed. In light of the news this morning, it’s time for the Democrats to rediscover the long-forgotten last clause of the Clinton commission’s stem-cell recommendation.

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Michael Scheuer Watch #1: The Jewish Conspiracy

Are Jews running U.S. foreign policy from behind the scenes? This is a question lately on many lips, from those of Jimmy Carter to professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, respectively of the University of Chicago and Harvard, on down to David Duke, Ph.D., of the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the pioneers in resurrecting this idea, first put into wide circulation in this country in the early part of the 20th century by the industrialist Henry Ford in his tract The International Jew, is Michael Scheuer. Formerly of the CIA, where he ran the unit responsible for tracking down Osama bin Laden, Scheuer has not only kept himself occupied writing books—see my discussion of one of them in What Became of the CIA—he has also been busy on the lecture circuit.

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Are Jews running U.S. foreign policy from behind the scenes? This is a question lately on many lips, from those of Jimmy Carter to professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, respectively of the University of Chicago and Harvard, on down to David Duke, Ph.D., of the Ku Klux Klan.

One of the pioneers in resurrecting this idea, first put into wide circulation in this country in the early part of the 20th century by the industrialist Henry Ford in his tract The International Jew, is Michael Scheuer. Formerly of the CIA, where he ran the unit responsible for tracking down Osama bin Laden, Scheuer has not only kept himself occupied writing books—see my discussion of one of them in What Became of the CIA—he has also been busy on the lecture circuit.

Two years ago, speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations, Scheuer explained that Israel is engaged in what is “probably the most successful covert-action program in the history of man,” the object of which is to control not just policy but political debate in the United States. When pressed to identify some of these “covert” activities, Scheuer came up with only one example: the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

More recently, as we learn from today’s New York Sun, Scheuer addressed the taxpayer-funded Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia, where he explained that “U.S. citizen Israel-firsters . . . dominate the American governing elite” where they act to ensure that those like himself “who question the nature and benefit of current U.S.- Israel ties are slandered as pro-Nazi, anti-Semites.”

Up until now, I have never seen a shred of evidence, or even heard the allegation—except from Scheuer himself—that he is in any way “pro-Nazi.” But is Scheuer anti-Semitic, or do Jews just call him that as part of a covert operation to silence him? I am not sure what the proper answer is; I need to resume my clandestine communications with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and get further instructions.

A complete guide to other items in this Michael Scheuer Watch series can be found here.

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Bookshelf

• In a perfect world, we would all read nothing but great books and never become exhausted or bloated. Alas, I spend a fair amount of time in hotel rooms and on planes and trains, and I find myself frequently in need of intelligent but undemanding literary entertainment that stretches my mental muscles without causing me to break a sweat. If you can read Proust on a plane, more power to you: the feat is beyond me. Twenty years ago I read The Bonfire of the Vanities from cover to cover in the course of a holiday plane trip that was made considerably longer by a blizzard. More often than not, though, I resort instead to crime novels, a portmanteau phrase that takes in everything from Ronald Knox to John Grisham.

Neither of those authors, as it happens, is a favorite of mine. On the other hand, I’ve never been a mystery addict, and most of the sanguinary literature leaves me as cold as a week-old stiff. I never could figure out what Evelyn Waugh saw in Erle Stanley Gardner, nor am I capable of reading a single page of Agatha Christie without nodding off. For me, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout were the quintessential purveyors of mystery-type diversion, and I find their best books to be infinitely rereadable. Most of Chandler’s work can be found in a pair of Library of America volumes that are compact enough to slip into the smallest of bags, as are Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930′s and 40′s (990 pp., $35) and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950′s (892 pp., $35), which between them contain a representative sample of the best non-Chandler hard-boiled mysteries and thrillers of the Golden Age of pulp fiction. As for Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, they’ve all been published in paperback at one time or another, and if you aren’t familiar with the adventures of the orchid-growing savant of West 35th Street and Archie Goodwin, his dapper, wisecracking assistant-amanuensis, you’re missing a treat. I recommend Before Midnight, Plot It Yourself, and Too Many Clients for starters.

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• In a perfect world, we would all read nothing but great books and never become exhausted or bloated. Alas, I spend a fair amount of time in hotel rooms and on planes and trains, and I find myself frequently in need of intelligent but undemanding literary entertainment that stretches my mental muscles without causing me to break a sweat. If you can read Proust on a plane, more power to you: the feat is beyond me. Twenty years ago I read The Bonfire of the Vanities from cover to cover in the course of a holiday plane trip that was made considerably longer by a blizzard. More often than not, though, I resort instead to crime novels, a portmanteau phrase that takes in everything from Ronald Knox to John Grisham.

Neither of those authors, as it happens, is a favorite of mine. On the other hand, I’ve never been a mystery addict, and most of the sanguinary literature leaves me as cold as a week-old stiff. I never could figure out what Evelyn Waugh saw in Erle Stanley Gardner, nor am I capable of reading a single page of Agatha Christie without nodding off. For me, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout were the quintessential purveyors of mystery-type diversion, and I find their best books to be infinitely rereadable. Most of Chandler’s work can be found in a pair of Library of America volumes that are compact enough to slip into the smallest of bags, as are Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930′s and 40′s (990 pp., $35) and Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950′s (892 pp., $35), which between them contain a representative sample of the best non-Chandler hard-boiled mysteries and thrillers of the Golden Age of pulp fiction. As for Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, they’ve all been published in paperback at one time or another, and if you aren’t familiar with the adventures of the orchid-growing savant of West 35th Street and Archie Goodwin, his dapper, wisecracking assistant-amanuensis, you’re missing a treat. I recommend Before Midnight, Plot It Yourself, and Too Many Clients for starters.

What’s new? I’ve previously sung the praises of Donald E. Westlake (and Richard Stark, his sociopathic alter ego) in this space, and I get similar pleasure out of Elmore Leonard, though his work is an altogether different bag of bones. Indeed, Leonard is something of a bait-and-switch artist, for while most people think of him as a chronicler of the low life of Detroit and Miami, his real subject matter is what George Meredith called “modern love.” Virtually all of his crime novels hinge on a romantic relationship of a very particular kind, one in which a no-longer-youngster who’s been around the track a few times has a cute meeting with a smart, no-nonsense woman who teaches him that there’s more to life than his ex-wife. To be sure, this relationship takes place within the context of a crime-driven plot, but usually it’s the relationship, not the crime, to which you pay the most attention.

No writer as prolific as Leonard can avoid repetition. Some of his books (and fictional relationships) are more formulaic than others. But even when he’s not quite on form, his spare, cracker-crisp style sweeps you over the rough spots, and I’ve never started a Leonard novel that I didn’t finish. My favorites are LaBrava, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, Rum Punch, and Out of Sight, each of which is readily available in paperback and any of which will give you a clear idea of what Leonard is up to. If you like one, you’ll like them all.

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