From The Writer’s Almanac Tuesday, February 22, 2020: “Today is the birthday of George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1732). His favorite foods were mashed sweet potatoes with coconut, string beans with mushrooms, cream of peanut soup, salt cod, and pineapples. He lost all of his teeth except for one by — according to second president John Adams — cracking Brazilian nuts between his jaws. He got dentures made out of a hippopotamus tusk, designed especially to fit over his one remaining real tooth. But the hippo dentures were constantly rubbing against that real tooth so that he was constantly in pain. He used opium, a common and oft-used pain reliever at the time, to alleviate the pain.”
Imagine our Founding Father’s discomfort. Those grim dentures had to be the reason the painters Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale couldn’t get much traction when they said to their portrait subject, “Smile, Mr. President.” The hippo hardware had to be one of the reasons George Washington was sparing in conversation. Next to feisty John Adams, who measured 5’ 7” and was not silent, George Washington’s silence, coupled with an imposing 6′ 2″ height and manly bearing, kept him in good stead. But there was a more important reason he was loath to speak. As a fourteen-year-old, he carefully wrote out 110 “Rules of Civility.” Touching on silence, George’s Rule No. 5: Speak not when you Should hold your Peace. Then there is Rule No. 4: In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet. As compared to the 613 commandments in the Torah, George’s 110 Rules are not much, though their number exceeds the Quran’s 75 rules of good manners.
Gazing out over the rubble of our elected officialdom, I reflect we have come on hard times manners-wise and civility-wise. What do you think Reps Lauren Boboert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, giving Old Joe the raspberry at his State of Union Speech, would make of Rule No. 1: Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present. On the other side of the aisle, we find Reps Ryan, Talib and Pascrell of the donkey party hoofing it out of The Donald’s SOTU speech in 2020. All these elected folks, right and left, might reflect on Rule No. 6: Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop. It is shooting fish in the barrel to pair The Donald’s body-shaming disabled journalist, Serge Kovaleski with Rule No. 21: Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature, nor Delight to Put them that have in mind thereof.
I am struck by the desire of our young folk to bare themselves as I stroll along tony Beach Drive in downtown St Pete,. Lissome lassies’ private parts are covered by fabric the size of cocktail napkins, their remaining skin devoted to ink. Male companions look like they piled out of bed in their sleep wear – rumpled boxer shorts and a T shirt celebrating Bike Week in Daytona Beach. I assume they checked themselves out in the mirror before leaving home and said, “I’m looking really good.” I blame it on Dr. Spock: too many ribbons have been awarded for just showing up. What would George have made of today’s body public? Rule No. 7: Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest. And Rule No. 32: In your Apparel be Modest and endeavour to accomodate Nature, rather than to procure Admiration keep to the Fashio[n] of your equals Such as are Civil and orderly with respect to Times and Places.”
Then there is my personal favorite for polite public behavior, Rule No. 12, appropriate particularly for close talkers: Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by appr[oaching too nea]r him [when] you Speak. If our First President were alive today, he would have added a few rules regarding a particular curse on modern life:
Rule No. 111: Leave not your cell phone out upon the table when dining, implying to fellow diners you are expecting a call from the White House, nor take a call, confirming you have better things to do than chat with them.
Rule No. 112: Leave not your speaker phone mode on when conversing in public lest your fellows become wroth with you because you clearly think it is all about you and give you a well-deserved punch in the nose.
Rule No. 113: Walk not upon the sidewalk talking on your cell phone lest you bonk into a blameless citizen or walk off the curb into oncoming traffic, reducing by one the world’s complement of idiots.
Had he been able to forsee the culture he was going to help create, George Washington might have lit out for Canada and told the Continental Congress to stuff the Presidency.