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Jewish World Review /Feb. 22, 1999 / 5 Adar, 5759

Tony Snow

Tony Snow Children of optimism

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) RICHARD BROOKHISER, A SENIOR EDITOR AT NATIONAL REVIEW and an author of considerable insight and breadth, performed a wonderful public service a couple of years ago. He assembled the 110 "rules of civility" that served as the template for George Washington's character -- and by extension, ours.

Early Americans were children of optimism, determined to transform a raw wilderness into a shining city on a hill. Yet they also believed that in bettering themselves, they had an obligation to become better people. It was never just "the economy, stupid." Virtue, trust, liberty and plenty came as a matched and unbreakable set.

Washington got his early instruction from a British primer titled, "Youths Behavior, or Decency in Conversation amongst Men." (The book was a translation of a manual drafted in the 16th century by French Jesuits eager to instruct upcoming generations of royalty.) He was so enchanted by the slim volume that he copied the injunctions -- the 110 rules -- and carried them for the rest of his life.

Some commandments seem quaint: Don't spit in a fire. Don't crush ticks in the presence of others. Don't pick your teeth with your knife.

But as a whole, they construct an impressive moral edifice. They inculcate an appreciation of politeness. They demand consideration of others and warn against behavior that "savors of arrogancy." They teach the judicious use of power, the importance of good humor, the necessity of benevolence and the inescapability of our limitations. They also teach that diligence in small affairs equips one to perform virtuously in times of challenge.

The rules no doubt contributed to Washington's insistence on suppressing wayward impulses through the exercise of well-trained will. He admired the Stoics, especially Seneca, for their commitment to self-mastery and resolved to follow their example.

As it turns out, this was a very good thing for all of us. Although we now think of him as a homely giant, mediocre in comparison to Jefferson and Madison, his coevals appreciated his greatness.

He was a successful revolutionary, warrior and statesman -- an unheard-of combination. He was physically imposing -- far larger for his age than Jesse The Whatever is for ours. He was a plain but forceful writer. And most important, he was a man of Vesuvial passions and ambitions, which he harnessed thanks to The Rules. (No great man is a wallflower.)

Abigail Adams once wrote to a friend that she viewed Washington's personal virtue as a great consolation and relief, for "if he was really not one of the best-intentioned men in the world, he might be a very dangerous one." So ponder the self-discipline that enables a would-be tyrant to become a democrat -- and then fast-forward to the present.

Cupidity and cynicism race unchecked and unchallenged through our political culture. In the Age of Clinton, modesty is a seven-letter synonym for "clothed." We see little of the diffidence George Washington championed, and none of the grace.

For a reminder of how simple it is to achieve grace under pressure and escape the idiocy of the epoch, consider a few apt excerpts from Washington's rules:

No. 1: "Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present."

No. 7: "Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half-drest."

No. 22: "Shew not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy."

No. 48: "Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precepts."

No. 56: "Associate yourself with men of good quality ... for 'tis better to be alone than in bad company."

No. 59: "Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules moral before your inferiors."

No. 82: "Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise."

No. 88: "Be not tedious in discourse. ..."

Washington learned through such rules how to carry himself with dignity. An observer once remarked of Washington's bearing that "there is not a king in who would not look like a valet de chambre by his side." Now imagine how today's honorables would measure up to our first president, considering the final three instructions in George Washington's little book:

-- "When you speak of God and His Attributes, let it be seriously and with reverence ..."

"Let your recreations be manful not sinful."

-- "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."


02/18/99: Wake up, Republicans!
02/16/99: Why we feel so good
02/11/99: What exactly does George W. stand for?
02/08/99: Run, GOPers, run?
02/04/99: The languid sigh of waves lapping ashore
02/01/99: Verbal vortex
01/28/99: To be a ‘sell-out’ or an unelectable pol --- that is the question
01/25/99: The apogee of a trend
01/21/99:What my 3-year-old taught me
01/17/99:Don't be fooled, folks
01/14/99: Must a pol be ‘baaaad’ in order to get elected?
01/12/99: Jumpin’ Jack (Kemp)
01/08/99 : Hot air in the Windy City

©1999, Creators Syndicate