The military choir filed out of the Entrance Hall in a precise formation, trailed with a warm wave of applause. The President had enjoyed the evening performance, and bristled that no reporter had stayed to detail the concert for the public. “This is the kind of story real Americans would like to see on the news,” he complained, as he shook hands and chatted with departing well-wishers.
The grand chamber soon emptied and the White House staff swept in, quickly stacking chairs, breaking down risers, and disconnecting sound equipment. The President turned from the racket, and headed toward the white Doric columns separating the hall and staircase. And it was there, beside an alabaster column, that the President stumbled upon a most unexpected visitor.
Lounging against the smooth white marble leaned a tall, lanky gentleman dressed in an antiquated silk dressing gown, white hose, and embroidered slippers. The man cooly assessed the stunned President.
“Are you familiar with the story of John Peter Zenger” the intruder murmured in a soft drawl.
“Why are you still here? The entertainment left that way,” the President snapped, thumbing toward the side entrance.
“Zenger, a German immigrant, edited and printed a newspaper in New York,” the visitor continued, calmly shifting his position against the pillar. “Zenger had published an unflattering editorial of New York’s Colonial Governor, and the testy royal had the journalist jailed, charged with libel.”
The President, annoyed by the imposition, wanted to hurry up the stairs to his living quarters, but his legs remained stubbornly rooted in place.
“Well, that Zenger character deserved it, he barked, unable to control his tongue. “Reporters need to watch what they write, and who they offend—like me. I’m the President, and they say terrible things about me, all lies and more lies.”
The tall figure crossed his arms and looked evenly at the President. “A jury of Zenger’s peers acquitted him, opining that if truth was stated, there is no libel,” the stranger subtly smiled. “That particular case established freedom of the press in this country, a principle I later insisted appear in the Bill of Rights.”
“Do you understand how much I could accomplish if . . .”
The apparition spoke quietly over the President. “I, too criticized a president bent on stifling free expression” the visitor thoughtfully paused. “President John Adams supported passage of the Sedition Act in 1798 to silence critical voices such as mine.”
The oddly dressed gentleman began drifting through the pillars into the Entrance Hall, as if floating on a sudden breeze. Unwillingly, the President followed. “I’m particularly fond of this room,” the visitor whispered, “it was the only finished room in my time.”
“The press wants to destroy my administration,” this time the President spoke over his visitor. “With their unlimited snooping, the constant leaks, and the treasonous things they say about me on cable tv.”
The apparition appeared indifferent to the President’s complaints. “A particular writer, James Callender, cast enough aspersions upon Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Adams, that he found himself jailed under the Sedition Act. Once I moved into this House, I pardoned Callender, and hired him to again take up his poison pen.” The spirit seemed sadly amused, “when I refused to appoint Callender to a government post, his pen turned full force upon me, exposing my deepest, most safeguarded secret.”
“The Sedition Act. I like that,” the President beamed, indifferent to the visitor’s revelation. “What’s the matter with my lawyers. They never told me we have that law.”
Instantly the apparition jutted his face directly into the startled President’s. “You must not respond,” he breathed. “You must ignore what is written and reported regarding your administration. Never, never challenge the freedom of the press, to do so diminishes the office of chief executive, exposing you as petty and small.”
“But the Sedition Act says . . .” the President squeaked, unnerved.
“Is unconstitutional,” the visitor finished the sentence. “I, too, resented what appeared in the press, besmirching my personal life, and my family. However, I resolutely remained aloof to the reports. And so must you.”
The visitor began to sound weary, worn by the conversation. “I once stated that if I had to choose among the freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment, I would preserve Freedom of the Press. With that liberty secure, all others are assured.
As the visitor finished his statement, he lifted his eyes to some mysterious point above, and vanished.
Dismayed by the experience, the President scrambled up the stairs.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both books available on Kindle, or at http://www.river-of-january.com.