Second to None

by Paul Hond
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Illustration by Mark SteeleOn a hot afternoon in July, John Adams, the second president of the United States, stepped out of a white Volvo sedan S60 and walked toward a cedar-shingled building set back on a lush green lawn in Old Lyme, Connecticut. On Lyme Street, a passing car slowed, and the driver waved and called, “Mr. President!”

Adams waved back and continued along a stone path. Dressed in a black velvet jacket with gold trim, a black vest with gold embroidery, an ornamental white bib called a jabot, black knickers, white stockings, and black shoes with gold buckles, Adams — or rather, George Baker ’69CC, ’73LAW, a stout, rosy lawyer from New Canaan — strode into the building with the beaming importance of a patriot fresh off his horse.

Baker had entered not a tavern or meetinghouse, but the Lyme Art Association, a gallery that opened in 1921 in support of American impressionism. The airy rooms bristled with men and women in country club casuals, older Connecticut Yankees (and some younger ones) who chitchatted and jiggled ice cubes amid an exhibition of seascapes of blues and yellows and pinks and greens that reflected the shifting beauty of the Lower Connecticut River Valley. Baker’s appearance was part of a fundraiser for the association, which had been hit with a flood in March, and the enthusiasm that greeted him suggested a thirst in the public gullet for the reassuring Adams virtues: wisdom, courage, faith, honesty, forbearance, insight. Baker, a lively raconteur, Sunday pewster (Episcopal), and long-standing member of the Rotary Club of New Canaan, emitted a hale sociability from which his Adams promised to flow like the Madeira with which the founders toasted independence. Baker’s first rule of being Adams is to be himself.

At 6:30 p.m., President Adams was introduced to the assembly. The applause was fit for a man with a monument in the Capitol and a granite brow on Mount Rushmore, though Adams had neither of these. But in recent years, thanks to David McCullough’s 2001 biography and an HBO miniseries based on it, Adams, a single-term northern president wedged haplessly between the popular Virginians Washington and Jefferson, has finally been getting his due. Many in Baker’s audiences are fans of the McCullough book. Indeed, without McCullough, George Baker might well have spent this evening as George Baker — might, at that golden hour, have been standing outside his weekend house in nearby Essex, on the bank of a quiet cove off the Connecticut River, his trusty field glasses trained on a bald eagle as it dived out of a big, rolling, watercolor sky, fell past the green bands of the wooded hills beyond, splashed into the tea-colored waters, and came up with a flapping shad.

Instead, Baker was being John Adams, a man who, though absent from electoral politics for over 200 years, hadn’t forgotten his supporters. “My wife Abigail predicted I would get the warm welcome I have just received,” he told the citizens that had gathered round, “because Old Lyme, she said, has always been a stronghold for the Federalist Party. And indeed, Abigail was right, as usual.”

He spoke of his humble beginnings in Braintree, Massachusetts, of the pride he took in his English heritage, and of his sorrow over the inexorable rift between the colonies and the crown. Then came a defining moment: On March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired on a mob of stone-throwing colonists, killing five. The soldiers were arrested for murder in what became known as the Boston Massacre.

“The next day,” Adams said, “I was asked to represent them as a defense counsel.”

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