Of cutting trees and the truths we cannot handle

George Washington and the cherry tree

George Washington and the cherry tree

The story goes that George Washington received a hatchet for his sixth birthday. With it, he damaged a cherry tree. When his father confronted him, young George said, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut it with my hatchet.” His father embraced him and said, “Your honesty is worth a thousand trees.” 

Ironically, this paean to honesty was the fabrication of Mason Weems, an itinerant preacher and one of Washington’s first biographers (the cherry tree myth). Politically expedient falsehood has been with us from the dawn of our Republic.

Readers of theFirstGates and movie buffs will recognize the other part of this post’s title as a partial paraphrase of the Jack Nicholson line, “You can’t handle the truth,”  in A Few Good Men, 1992, which I referenced through a link on August 8.

It came to mind last night as I watched Nixon, the third PBS documentary on American presidents I’ve seen this week. It’s a fascinating series for those interested in history, and especially during this disheartening election year. The truth I find hardest to handle is that even the pretense of truth has become optional during elections.

After his discharge from the navy after WWII, Richard Nixon ran for congress against five-term Democratic representative, Jerry Voorhis. Nixon won 60% of the vote, after, among other things, spreading the word, via anonymous telephone calls, that Voorhis was a communist.

“Of course I knew Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a communist,” Nixon later confided to a Voorhis aide.  “But I had to win. The important thing is to win.”  I was actually happy to learn that the lies that permeate this campaign are not a new aberration, but more a case of deja vu all over again. The only difference is that in earlier times, people caught in blatant lies were certain to lose – the appearance of honesty was a matter of style and decorum.

Political lies cross party lines, of course. Feeling compelled to be as “tough on communism” as Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” – a supposed torpedo attack on a US destroyer by North Vietnamese ships.  We now know the event never happened, but the lie won Johnson almost unlimited power to escalate the war in Vietnam, with tragic consequences for millions of people. It also set the precedent for fighting undeclared wars that remains a national disaster 50 years later.


I remember a hatchet incident when I was a kid in upstate New York. A boy who lived nearby chopped down a neighbor’s dogwood sapling with a hatchet. This was an especially serious act of vandalism, since dogwood trees were protected by law.

Not the brightest kid on the block, he did so while the lady of the house was home; she heard the chopping, looked out the window, and recognized him.  When confronted, however, the boy’s mother said, “It couldn’t have been my son. He told me he didn’t do it, and he doesn’t lie.” 

I’ve often wondered if that kid is in politics now.  He’d be a natural…

5 thoughts on “Of cutting trees and the truths we cannot handle

  1. I think the last president who attempted to tell us truths we could not handle was Carter. I was too young to remember much of his presidency, but obviously Americans were only too happy to vote in someone else who was willing to tell them what they wanted to hear, that it’s always “Morning in America.”

    But I think the last president in this country who wielded any real power to change anything much was JFK. Have a look at his last speech before the UN, given just a couple months before he was assassinated.


    His stance on rapprochement with the Soviets (he actually wanted to cooperate with them on a moonshot, which would have meant sharing knowledge about ICBM technology) and de-escalating the war in Vietnam, were an existential threat to the survival of the military-industrial complex that his predecessor Eisenhower warned of. .

    Perhaps the best analysis of the way government really works these days that I’ve read recently is Mike Lofstrom’s “Anatomy of the Deep State,” on Bill Moyers’ site.



    • I couldn’t agree with you more on Carter. And it was on Moyer’s site that I discovered the writings of Andrew Bacevich, who gives this quote by Carter in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

      I think in many ways, Johnson held more power than Kennedy. I say this, having watched the PBS presentation on his presidency this week. Johnson got civil rights legislation passed, medicare, educational initiatives, and he really wanted to wage a war on poverty. Vietnam, sank all that, doomed his presidency, and the New Deal ethos he tried to embody.

      Thanks for the Loftstrom link. I’ve heard of that book and will look it up.


  2. I agree about Johnson. He was certainly the last New Deal Democrat to occupy The White House, and he knew how to use the bully pulpit to get things done in congress. It really makes you wonder though, why he put so much into Vietnam. The domino theory and all the nonsense about containing communism in Southeast Asia don’t begin to explain it.

    I’ll be sure to check out Bacevich’s writings. His name sounds very familiar. I think I might have heard him on a podcast or interview somewhere.


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