Bad Timing: Lynne Cheney on George Washington

How Lynne Cheney (wife of Vice President Dick Cheney) published a children’s book at exactly the wrong moment

When Washington Crossed the Delaware. All Ages.
By Lynne Cheney; paintings by Peter M. Fiore.
Simon and Schuster, $16.95 (Hardcover)

At a time of year when others recite “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” or sing “Oh, Holy Night,” Lynne Cheney seems something of an exception. When members of the Cheney clan gather with hot chocolate around the yule fire, Lynne Cheney tells the story of how George Washington crossed the Delaware River in darkness and surprised a garrison of Hessian soldiers. “This is the story that I tell my grandchildren at Christmas,” she writes. Perhaps that needs some explaining.

Lynne Cheney is the wife of the former American vice-president Dick Cheney and a conservative figure in her own right. In 1994, as former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she engaged in a very public battle against the National History Standards, a series of recommendations for changes in school curricula that she found too liberal and unflattering to our country. [Disclosure: I taught at the same university as Ross Dunn, one of the principals in the creation of the Standards and one of the authors of the book, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, describing the controversy.]

As head of NEH, Cheney wanted the teaching of American history to remain, more or less, as it had been in 1940’s and 1950’s: When (as Frances Fitzgerald describes it in “America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the 20th Century”) the story of our country amounted to a gradual ascent toward perfection and an eventual triumph over the forces of darkness when other nations were altruistically given the gift of democracy. That happy and self-satisfied vision of our country, however, was challenged in the decades that followed — most notably by Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States” who suggested that Americans needed to acknowledge, for example, the shame of slavery and our mistreatment of Native Americans.

Lynne Cheney’s “When Washington Crossed the Delaware,” then, needs to be understood in this context of the Culture Wars. But what really stands out is the book’s unfortunate timing.

Meant to stir patriotic feelings during the holiday season of 2004, this children’s book tells the story of how George Washington and his ragtag bunch of “insurgents” turned the tide of the war and eventually defeated “the mightiest power of the world” by adopting cunning guerrilla strategies on Christmas Day in a surprise attack upon Hessian mercenaries (occupying coalition forces employed by the British).

Here’s the rub. Published in the Fall of 2004, Cheney’s book appeared just about the same time George W. Bush proclaimed victory in Iraq and stood grinning under a banner announcing “Mission Accomplished” (looking very much like the British General Cornwallis must have looked after the easy defeat of American rebels at the start of the revolutionary war). But at this time, the world was getting inklings of the rise of Iraqi “insurgents” — a term the press constantly used — who employed guerrilla tactics against occupying forces of the mightiest power in the world. In other words, with the tables turned in Iraq, Cheney couldn’t have chosen a worst time to publish a book celebrating freedom fighters standing up to occupying forces!

To conceive of the equivalent in European terms, one would have to imagine, say, Margaret Thatcher sending shiploads of British troops to the Malvinas (the Falkland Islands) while, at the very same time, her husband was publishing a children’s book about ancient Anglo-Saxons fighting off boatloads of Viking invaders. Or François Mitterrand engaging the FLN’s guerilla forces in Algeria while his spouse publishes a work honoring World War II resistance fighters. In the publication of Cheney’s book may be found an object lesson about what can go awry when conservative politicians tout revolutionary history for consumption by the young.

The fact is George Washington and his fellow revolutionaries were not proto-Conservatives, as the Tea Party would have us believe. They were radicals and revolutionaries. Strangely, Peter Fiore’s illustrations for Cheney’s book seem to make that point.

Fiore’s pictures reminded me of those by N.C. Wyeth in the Scribners’ edition of Treasure Island. That puzzled me at first: Why did so many in Fiore’s illustrations of Washington’s ragtag army look like pirates and buccaneers? Then I recalled Frank O’Hara’s comment about Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting “George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the one with our standing hero facing forward at the front of the boat, the Stars and Stripes unfurling behind him. It’s “a pirate’s flag,” O’Hara observes.

I initially rehearsed these remarks in a review essay in Parents’ Choice (January 2005). They were also the beginning of my wider discussion of American politics and children’s books in October 2010 at Université Paris 13 and in April 2016 in Dublin and Galway.

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15. February 2016 by
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