It was not long after my disappointing trip to the crossing that I saw an advertisement proclaiming that George Washington was going to appear at a nearby library.
Why not meet the man himself? I arrived at the library early and observed Washington – a man whose actual name is Carl Closs – getting out of his brown station wagon. I knew this was Washington because he was decked out in a colonial outfit. Mr. Closs neither looked particularly like Washington nor looked particularly not like Washington. He was almost tall enough, and if he had more of a pouch than one imagines on our first president, it was not pronounced. He looked to be about seventy – when I asked him for his birth date he told me the month and the day but not the year, and I was too polite to press the point. He had black and grey hair curled into an untidy ponytail in back.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” said one of those voices on the loudspeaker talking in a childish, sing-songy voice that is annoying for anyone at any age. “We have a special event today! General George Washington is going to talk to us about books!” I introduced myself and told him about my project. Upon discovering that I was a criminal defense attorney, he asked me if I shook hands with my clients. “Of course,” I said. He then told me that this is something Washington would never do. “We shake hands with everyone, of course,” he said, “but to Washington, it was a personal statement. You were actually vouching for another’s honor when you did that, and in that way, your own as well. So, of course, he would never shake hands with a criminal or such.” The defense lawyer in me wanted to point out that Washington himself was a criminal as far as the British government to which he gave an oath was concerned, but I stifled the urge.
It was obvious that Closs took his subject seriously, and that he studied it with a scholar’s intensity. Instead of giving a generic discussion, he talked specifically about the books that Washington read and was interested in. There were ten of us present, and no children.
Washington, he informed us, thought that democracy was “the worst form of government ever devised by man. “ He paused as some of the audience chuckle politely. “ Yet today that’s all we talk about. But that just means those people clearly don’t know the meaning of democracy. Many of the founding fathers referred to it as mob rule. You can fool most of the people some of the time, and in democracy that’s all it takes where there is a direct vote rather than a representative government. And incidentally, I don’t know if you’ve read the Constitution lately, but originally we did not have the senate directly elected by the people. And we had good reason for that. We changed that some years later. The senate was elected by the state legislators, the educated and connected members of society. And you’ll notice they have six years because we give the representatives of the mob just two years so they’ll keep changing them.” A long sigh. “But we keep re-electing them. “ My growing suspicion that Closs was a man who dons the garb of one who lived two hundred years ago because his views are more consistent with that time then his own was not assuaged when I listened to him chatting with some of the audience members after the speech. He had given a couple hints that he – Closs or Washington? – was less than pleased with President Obama, saying things like, “Our President ought to read this!” Spurred on by others of a similar bent he railed that Obama was an “idiot” who had no idea about American history. “I have to doubt that he was ever actually properly taught about the Founding Fathers,” he said to a group of eagerly nodding and smiling leftovers. Closs left little doubt as to what he was alluding to. He was alluding to this strange, black man with his obscure origins, this man stinking of otherness who had never even presented his birth certificate. Suddenly I felt like I had stumbled onto a Tea Party convention. When the question was asked, as I assume it almost always is, of how Washington dealt with his “failure” to properly handle the “slave question” at the Constitutional Convention, Closs answered with well practiced assurance. “He didn’t see it as a failure. What would have been a failure would have been if they had insisted in the Constitution that all slaves be free, because we wouldn’t have had a Constitution. At the very best we would have had two nations, at the very worst thirteen.”
Again the question reared itself inside my mind – is history nothing but a matter of perspective? I assumed that any slave, and perhaps any descendent of a slave, thought that the question of taxation with or without representation pales in comparison to the question of half a million individuals torn from their homeland and forced to live in servitude. But to Closs, there was no question of what took precedence. Create the country; deal with the slavery issue later. This is, in fairness, how virtually all of the “founding fathers” felt, whether they were slaveholders, such as Washington and Jefferson, or opponents, such as Franklin and Adams.
I asked, once the others left, how it was that he became George Washington. The idea came to him, he told me, during the Clinton Administration, when he was watching a television talk show. “I remember watching one of those talk shows and that weasilly little snake James Carville was talking,” he said, getting somewhat animated, his face distorting at the memory. “ I couldn’t stand him. But I remember someone brought up Clinton’s peccadilloes and his involvements, and maybe with this girl named Monica something and this other woman named Linda or whatever the heck her name was, and Carville said ‘That was just trailer trash.’ And somebody else said, ‘What’s that say about the person’s character?’ And I remember Carville saying, ‘Well, hell, character doesn’t count, it’s how good a president he is.’ And I remember throwing my cup at the television. ‘What do you mean character doesn’t count? It’s everything!’ “
Carl Closs grew up nearby in Chester. Lacking the money to go to college full-time, he worked during the day as a civil engineer, and at night he went to Saint Joes Academy. One day he was working alongside his boss, and the boss turned to him. “You know what’s wrong with you kid?” he asked. “No, Mr. Taylor, what?” Closs asked. “You don’t love bridges.” It was true. He was far more interested in the measurements of the women who walked by than in those of the bridges they were constructing. “How can you love a bridge? It’s poured concrete, for crissakes.”
He was drafted in 1964 and it was in Vietnam that he got his first experience teaching. “ I taught at a Vietnamese orphanage school. I taught English. I’d learned some Vietnamese and I knew some French, so it was kind of a cobbling together French/Vietnamese and English, trying to communicate.” He laughed uproariously at the memory. “ It was fun. It was funny as hell. I don’t know that they learned anything. But I sure as hell did. I enjoyed it, I loved the kids, and I found I loved teaching.”
Upon his return to America he studied history at West Chester University, and eventually taught, as did his wife. However, he found that he could make more money as a salesman, and worked for various corporations through the years. He and his wife were both successful at this, his wife having a job that supplied the two of them with a flat in London where they could go whenever they pleased. They raised two children – one works as a social worker in Philadelphia, the other is a law student interning for the Public Defender’s Office in Delaware – and were living in relative splendor when Carville’s comment about character uprooted his life.
Closs had no idea whether or not there would be any interest in his performing as Washington, but his background in sales came in useful. He started calling local schools. “It’s a numbers game. You can only get one of two answers, yes or no. And having been in sales so many years, rejection was not a problem for me, it was water off a duck’s back. The better you are at presenting yourself, of course, you increase your possibilities. The better you are at prospecting, talking to people who are potential buyers, it’s all part of being a sales person. So I just narrowed my focus on who the prospects are. “ He found going to the schools difficult though, and now avoids it. “At one school this girl said to me, full of attitude, ‘What give you the right to just up and start your own country?’ “ He asked her if she had read the Declaration of Independence and she replied, again full of hostility, “No!” “Well, if you had,” he answered, “you wouldn’t have had to ask that question.” When he asked the full group of students, there were six hundred or so, how many had read the Declaration of Independence, three of them raised their hands.
This disturbing level of ignorance is not left to the children, though. On his website he features a television interview in with a news anchor – and former contestant to The Bachelar – who had thought that Washington had fought in the Civil War. She then demonstrated that her understanding of the Revolutionary War was that it comprised of one battle. When he told her the French pronunciation for his sword, epee, she purred, “Well I always like to be educated.”
The bulk of Closs’ appearances now are at testimonials or business functions where he can discuss Washington’s views on leadership. “Relatively few Americans know that George Washington was a brilliant and hugely successful businessperson,” chirps his web site. “Carl Closs artfully blends experiences from his own 25+ year business career and in-depth knowledge of Washington into powerful sales, team building and leadership seminars that will help your business.” And, “When ‘the Father of Our Country’ delivers an inspiring address, any gripes about ‘rubber chicken’ or early wake-up calls fade away. Your guests will be treated to a highly entertaining presentation and Q & A session that captures the true essence of Washington’s leadership. But the real inspiration will come when Carl draws clear connections between how George Washington met the daunting task of building a new nation and how your own group can meet today’s most difficult challenges.”
I asked him about his view on the President’s House controversy in Philadelphia, and he paused in a way that made me wish one of the tea partiers had asked him the question earlier. “I think the emphasis is on the wrong thing. I think you can point out, like I was just talking about, that he never fully understood why anybody would want to be free. It doesn’t bother me one way or the other. I think it’s legitimate. I don’t think making it a big issue, like that’s the focus, I don’t think that should be the focus of the whole thing. Many great people throughout history have owned slaves. We all recognize slavery’s not right but that was then, this is now. It does not diminish what any of them did. I mean, even Franklin owned slaves for a while. He owned like one slave here, one slave there. But that was a costly thing to do, to free a slave. In Washington’s case, it was a fortune, when he freed his slaves they were worth a hell of a lot of money. In today’s terms, millions of dollars.” He went on to give a defense of Washington’s treatment of his slaves, saying that he never separated his slave families (“unlike Jefferson”) and that he gave them the best clothes (debatable) and never mistreated them (not quite true.) “He didn’t need all the labor, the field hands, ‘cause he wasn’t growing crops that required a lot of labor. But he felt a moral obligation to take care of them. And morally he’d decided that he wasn’t going to sell them. Because that was suggested to them, it was an obvious suggestion. They need them in Mississippi. They need them farther south where they’re growing cotton. It’s easier than importing them and cheaper. And that’s what people would do, they would sell their problem slaves farther south where they weren’t treated as well. But he believed that was just as he had pointed out in one letter, that didn’t solve his moral dilemma. Selling them, true, got rid of the problem, he made a profit off it, or at least he’s not going to lose. But he had philosophically decided slavery was immoral. Now the thing is, what do I do?” What some say was Washington’s concern over the morality of the issue, others would argue was simply his prescient understanding that history would not look kindly upon the institution of slavery, and that his reputation to posterity would suffer from his connection to it. In any event, what he did decide to do, eventually, was to free his slaves and give them a dowery to live on. If he failed to act as a profile of courage in this regard, he also failed to act with the same villainy as his southern compatriots.
It would be easy to deride those like Closs who appear to defend Washington, but he would tell you that he is merely stating the facts and encouraging people to look at these issues not only from our current vantage point, but from Washington’s as well. What appears today to be a clear-cut issue of right versus wrong was not so obvious in Washington’s time. And it was a heck of a lot easier for a northern abolitionist to demand immediate emancipation then it was to a person in Washington’s position who not only had a property interest in these people but who also felt some level of responsibility about releasing them without properly preparing them to survive in America.
As I walked him to his car he talked to me about his daughter, a social worker who deals with crackheads in Philadelphia and works in an office that has bars over her windows. This is not a life he particularly understands, but one can see that he is proud of her for doing what she believes in instead of going for the biggest bucks. Some people love bridges, some people love social work. For himself, he intends to continue his work as George Washington, educating children, but more often businessmen and dinner companions, about the first president of the United States. “When I die,” he tells me before getting into his car, “I hope I have a book in my hand.” He waved at me and said, before starting his car, “Not a kindle, a real book!”