Second to None

by Paul Hond
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It was at this point that the air-conditioning inside the Lyme Art Association began to fail. Tiny droplets bloomed on the speaker’s broad forehead.

“I agreed to represent the soldiers, even though I knew that I would be hated by almost everyone in Boston, including my clients. I did this because I did not want these men to receive a kind of mob justice that would remind the world that Massachusetts had not progressed much since the days when we executed Quakers and stoned Salem witches. And more important, I had to prove to myself that we lived by the rule of law.”

Adams defended the British soldiers on grounds of self-defense, with a strong belief that “it is of more importance to the community that innocence should be protected than it is that guilt should be punished.” All but two of the eight soldiers were found not guilty.

“Though I assumed that my career as a lawyer was over in Boston, I soon realized that I had earned the respect of people for taking on this unpopular case. And it didn’t hurt to have my cousin Sam Adams, the leader of the Sons of Liberty, to make sure I wasn’t tarred and feathered.”

For years, as far back as his Columbia days, when he took U.S. History with James Shenton (“Each class was like a great performance”), George Baker had dreamed of doing a one-man show. Throughout his career as a probate attorney he’d acted in community theater productions, especially musical theater (he sings and plays piano), a pursuit that harmonized nicely with his day job (“I’m never as good in court as when I’m in a play”). But when a show reached the end of its run, Baker would feel a major letdown. It was over.

He wondered how he might free himself from such arbitrary constraints.

In 2007, Baker, nearing 60, read McCullough’s John Adams. The book enlivened Adams for him as an “attractive, independent person. He’s not larger than life. You can really understand what he’s doing.” Baker then saw Hal Holbrook’s one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, which knocked his socks off. “Then my wife said, ‘You know, you kind of resemble John Adams.’” Baker’s wife, Susan, hails from Braintree, and so would seem exceptionally qualified to make this statement. Baker concurred. For the next nine months, he read everything on Adams he could find — biographies, essays, letters. He visited the nativity site in Quincy. Then he got to work on a monologue, which, on Susan’s advice, he leavened with dashes of comedy, such as one might hear at the Gridiron Club. Humor, for Baker, is the yeast that gives rise to persuasion, as he later explained. “If you’re a trial lawyer, you try to lift the mood, lighten things up. If you can get people laughing,” he said, laughing, “they believe they agree with you!” His one cavil with the HBO series was that Paul Giamatti’s Adams was too downcast. “During the Boston Massacre trial scene, there was not one joke,” Baker lamented. “A good trial lawyer would know how to use humor, and Adams was an excellent trial lawyer.”

As the audience in Old Lyme fanned itself with paper plates, John Adams, sustained by a staunch New England constitution, turned the discussion to presidential campaigns. He noted that slash-and-burn tactics, seen today as a sign of a debased politics, were no less common during the election season of 1800, when, as an incumbent, he faced his adversary Thomas Jefferson.

“One of my critics in that campaign stated that John Adams was mentally deranged, subject to uncontrollable emotional fits, and at times absolutely mad. This critic was Alexander Hamilton. You’ve heard of him? The first treasury secretary and a member of my own Federalist Party. Four years after he wrote this about me, Hamilton was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, who I understand was not the last vice president to shoot someone.”

The crowd whooped with laughter, almost guiltily. Presidential cheek, especially from a man in a jabot, can feel pleasingly indecent.

“And there was a huge funeral for him in New York City,” Adams went on. “When asked if I attended Hamilton’s funeral, I said, ‘No, but I approved of it.’” He paused for more laughs. Then he said, with some acerbity, “And there’s a university in New York City that regards Hamilton as one of its most distinguished alumni.” This caused some tut-tutting among the ladies, but not everyone got the reference.

When the performance ended, Baker, glistening, jacket and jabot still firmly in place, shook hands with his smiling compatriots. Outside, the evening sun was melting over the Lieutenant River, forging such apricots and corals in the sky as must have inspired the landscapes of the local American impressionist Childe Hassam a century ago.
Baker slung his jacket over his arm and walked to his Volvo, with no pain in his heart for any final curtain. He had portrayed Adams at libraries, historical societies, schools, Rotary clubs, and senior centers all over New England, and as far away as Rancho Mirage, California. In a few weeks he’d do it at a reunion in Boston for the 95th Infantry Division. It’s a show that never ends, and doesn’t have to, anytime soon. Adams lived to be 90 years old, and that affords Baker, who is 62,
some luxuries.

“The fatter and balder I get, the more in character,” he said merrily as he got into the car. “I can’t lose in this role.”

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