'/> Uncommon Hours: Barack Obama could do worse than keep "The Education of Henry Adams" on his nightstand while he stays at the Hay-Adams Hotel
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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Barack Obama could do worse than keep "The Education of Henry Adams" on his nightstand while he stays at the Hay-Adams Hotel


By Bob Sommer

“He felt quite well satisfied to look on, and from time to time he thought he might risk a criticism of the players….”

So wrote historian Henry Adams in his Pulitzer Prize winning The Education of Henry Adams to describe his view of politics and politicians, both literal and figurative. Literal because he could “look on” the big White House which stood just across the lawns and gardens of Lafayette Square from his “little white house,” as he called his home at 1607 H Street. Adams and his wife Clover took up residence there in 1878. Their good friend, diplomat and writer John Hay, lived in the house next door. Both houses were later razed, but the hotel built on that site, the Hay-Adams, is named for them, and that is where President-elect Barack Obama and his family will stay until the current occupants of the White House clear out.

The grandson and great-grandson of presidents, and the son of a diplomat, Henry Adams understood the workings of power sufficiently to “risk a criticism” when he felt moved. His skepticism about government in the late 1870s resulted, at least in part, from seeing the disasters of the Grant administration. “The moral law had expired,” he wrote in the Education, “like the Constitution.” (How prescient his words now seem!)

Adams would have been delighted to know that Barack Obama had the opportunity to observe the White House from his own vantage point for a couple weeks before he occupied it. He would have disagreed with elements of the Obama agenda - for instance his sympathy for unions and labor. A Lincoln Republican – one might say a “liberal Republican” – Adams, like his great-grandfather, John Adams, still nurtured doubts about whether Jeffersonian democracy would succeed and “the great beast of the people,” in Alexander Hamilton's words, could rule itself. The fact of Obama’s race would have been greeted by Adams for the triumph it represents, but he would have parted ways with Obama on the idea of economic equality.

But mostly, Adams would have enjoyed the spectacle of the First Family-elect having to settle here temporarily, as a second choice because the Bush administration refused to make Blair House available to them. Just the sort of amusement to remind him of how petty politics can be. The spectacle mattered more than the policies to Adams; amusement came first.

That was a favorite term of his – amusement – capturing at once his sense of ironic detachment, his dry wit, and the entertainment value of watching the world unfold, especially the world of politics, with only a few hundred yards between himself and the seat of power. He would have been amused at the ideals of the Obama campaign, given the monumental tasks ahead and the thorny paths and dark forests filled with troglodytes disguised as Southern Republicans through which he’ll tread in the coming months. He’d find it amusing, too, that Obama had also flouted his own supporters by voting for the FISA bill and then selecting Rick Warren to give his administration its first blessing.

Adams might have interpreted such gestures as evidence – early signs – that even for Obama, politics would outweigh ideals. “I suppose every man who has looked on at the game,” Adams wrote to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, “has been struck by the remarkable way in which politics deteriorate the moral tone of everyone who mixes in them….There is no respectable industry in existence which will not average a higher morality.”

But what Adams might have thought of Obama matters less now than that Obama take this moment to look on the White House with a similar detachment to Adams’ – from so close yet still so far. Given Obama’s intellectual temperament, and his willingness to feast on the literature most suited to the moment – as he did reading in the history of the Lincoln and Roosevelt administrations in the weeks following the election – he could do worse than to keep The Education of Henry Adams on his nightstand for the next week or two.

Adams himself experienced a charge of idealism when he moved to 1607 H Street: he was in a new home, happily married (his wife Clover would tragically commit suicide only seven years later), and there was still hope for the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, who’d taken office only months earlier.

“I belong to the class of people,” he wrote to Charles Milnes Gaskell on first moving to Washington in 1877, “who have great faith in this country and who believe that in another century it will be saying in its turn the last word in civilization….”

It would be interesting to know what Adams thought of the results a little over a century later.

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