Contrary to recent reports, Franklin Roosevelt was not the first president to record Oval Office conversations. This honor belongs to George Washington. Documents discovered in Philadelphia indicate that the father of our country employed a very short stenographer who spent hundreds of hours concealed in the bottom drawer of Washington's desk jotting down executive discourse. These newly unearthed transcripts provide an intimate glimpse of Washington in his unguarded moments, revealing the first president to have had much in common with the 40th.
A conversation with Alexander Hamilton on the behavior of the first lady:
AH: We've got an incredible debt from the war; the several states are sorely distressed, and Martha's just bought six new frocks--it makes us appear awful tom-fools!
GW: My pacific temper of mind is unsettled by these injurious slanders, Al. What does the press expect of this good woman? She's already involved in the foster-indentured-servants program. Martha's not doing this just for herself, you know, but to encourage the industry of the American seamstress. Besides, she doesn't even own the frocks; they're on loan.
AH: The people are vexed. They are enduring great deprivations. It's killing our image.
AH: OK, here's the game-plan. I want you to get out a circular letter on this thing. We shall establish a great national museum. Get that fellow Smithson involved; he collects all kinds of junk. When she tires of her old frocks, Martha will donate them to this institution, a gift to the American people and their posterity. Put in something about "great historical interest." You know the routine.
George Washington and John Adams discuss ways to assist needy citizens:
GW: It will promote the common good of our soldiery if, in calculating their dietary needs, we reckon their salt ration as if it were a vegetable.
JA: I fear such a measure would invite a plague of base canards from our foes.
GW: How about this one: it is recommended by cogent reasons that we distribute our stores of surplus pemmican, measuring some thirty millions of tons, to those most impoverished, and by so doing, provide a net of safety for all.
Washington on leisure:
I know it to be costly, my journeying about in Carriage One, but I esteem it profitable to depart the capital each fortnight. Perhaps I can be free of Philadelphia for an entire month at Christmas time. I shall return to Mount Vernon where I may be restored to tranquility through the cutting of brush and the chopping of wood.
Washington, on charges of wrong- doing by an aide:
I am well content with his account of the matter. He deposited those tokens in his strong box--a pocket watch of paltry value, a niggling sum of money, a cask or two of brandy, several bales of tabacco, some small supply of paper, paint, tea, lead and glass--and, his mind sorely taxed by the demands of his office, he gave no further thought to these trifles. I shall stand by him through this storm.
Washington was esteemed as a great communicator and celebrated for his fondness for jesting. During his second term, when Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin was the talk of all the Virginia planters, Washington entertained his staff with a scandalous joke, the punchline of which was "Thomas Jefferson's slaves." This innocent jape may have been the source of charges by Jefferson that the president was "indifferent to the suffering of freed-men, women and anybody who doesn't own land . . . lots of it."
Apparently, Washington was so pleased with these records of his conversation that he planned to expand the practice in the new national capital on the Potomac River, already being planned in 1791. Crude architectural renderings in the president's own hand show designs for a "scriverner's cabinet obscuro," a hidden compartment large enough to accommodate a team of stenographers. It was to have been built beneath the floor of what we now know as the Oval Office and connected to that room through speaking tubes hidden in the spittoons. However, attempts to reach White House staffers to confirm the existence of this chamber have proved futile.