Looking for an antidote to spin doctors and political pundits who confuse you with fractured facts and doomsday predictions? George Stuart gives a fresh perspective on the American presidency.
Whether he's presenting a monologue at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art or holding court at his Ojai Gallery, there's no confusing what Stuart thinks.
At the museum, where his trademark, one-quarter scale Historical Figures--serve as a dramatic backdrop, Stuart is the consummate performer. Tall and silver-haired, dressed in black, he sits on a high stool and mesmerizes the audience for nearly two hours using only his voice. He doesn't lean on props like Will Roger's lariat or Mark Russell's piano.
It's just the monologuist (when he says the word, it rhymes with ecologist) and history.
On a recent Friday evening, Stuart--a self-described "student of history"--gets the Elderhostel crowd worked up over presidential debates, castigating "the two bozos in the two parties" for excluding Ross Perot.
To scattered applause, he thunders, "Write your congressman!" With that, he launches into the evening's topic: the American presidency from 1789 to 1865.
Informative as well as lively, Stuart provides telling glimpses of our past presidents, some of them less than flattering. George Washington, for instance, was a paternalist who believed that he and his cabinet should rule the country. They considered declaring him king.
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson didn't think the vote should be trusted to the common man; better to let the moneyed few decide what was best for the masses. And thumbs down to Andrew Jackson for introducing the spoils system.
"This is why we have such an inefficient government. Everybody brings in their pals," Stuart says in a momentary nod to the present. Then he resubmerges into past presidential facts, little-known or forgotten.
James Monroe was the most popular elected president, after George Washington. Andrew Jackson hated American Indians. Jefferson was an isolationist. Madison declared war with Great Britain. The Continental Congress was powerless to resolve disputes between the states, and its first delegates were white middle-age males with wealth.
While a dim view of humanity characterizes most of Stuart's observations, his sardonic wit softens the edge. But woe to those hapless souls who think their vote doesn't matter.
"I really feel very strongly that anybody who doesn't exercise their right to franchise should be stripped naked and flogged on a Saturday afternoon," Stuart says emphatically. Then, with a sly smile, he adds, "Unfortunately, a good number of the same people who are ignorant and don't know how to vote might cancel my wonderfully enlightened one."
Stuart's refreshingly candid and sometimes outrageous views are offered with a cup of tea in the living room of his Ojai Gallery on a tranquil Saturday afternoon. His figures are housed inside the gallery at the far end of a long, screened porch. Open to the public from 1-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, no visitors wander in this day. It's easy to miss the turn-off to the gallery if you're not paying attention to the signs.
Capturing the essence of George Stuart can be equally disorienting. Describe him as an artist, historian or scholar, and he debates the terms. He's been described as a renaissance man, autocratic, iconoclastic, brilliant, formal and intimidating. Add charming to that list--at least if you avoid asking him inane questions.
A conversation with Stuart, while focusing on the presidency, meanders down other roads, but his asides are worth the trip. Example: military leaders.
"Most of our generals today are political. Look at Colin Powell. He's the personification of a white black man and has all of the attitudes that make white America comfortable," Stuart says. Powell, like Eisenhower in the 1950s, was courted by both parties, but Stuart shrugs that off as inconsequential. "In essence, both parties are so identical today, you can't tell one from the other."
There is no true opposition in Washington today, not between the parties and certainly not between the president and Congress. But the posturing of politicos is of little interest to a working-class family in America, says Stuart. If a candidate promises them upward mobility, he'll get their vote.
The outcome of the November election seems to be a foregone conclusion. He sees Clinton reelected.
"President Clinton is a far more attractive and entertaining candidate than Robert Dole, even with his presumed sins. Dole's sins are not that entertaining," Stuart says.
"I'd be much happier if Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Dole were running, rather than the men they're married to. One is a tired old man who's gone with every cretinous lobbyist imaginable, and the other one is a climber, very brilliant and terribly attractive, but obviously willing to do anything to get up the ladder."