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The Benjamin Franklin Symposium and the World Today
Last uploaded : Monday 11th Nov 2002 at 23:14
Contributed by : Carol Gould


This week I attended the Fourth Annual Benjamin Franklin House Symposium in London. It was a privilege to have been amongst an invited audience; my own connection to this event is a video I produced last year documenting the early stages of the renovation of the Benjamin Franklin House, a remarkable structure in Craven Street in London?s Charing Cross. The house is the only original dwelling remaining in the world in which Franklin lived. Even in Philadelphia, a totally intact house does not exist.

The event was held this year at the Royal Society of Arts, of which Franklin was a member when he lived in London from 1757 to 1775. This year?s theme was ?Spread the Word: Benjamin Franklin and the Media?s Role in Global Affairs.? Amongst the distinguished speakers were James Rubin, the former spokesman for the State Department in the Clinton Administration; Bernard Tate of Cspan London; TV personalities Sir David Frost and Loyd Grossman; several London bureau chiefs of American newspapers and Professor Bill Brands, Franklin scholar and author of ?The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.?

Dr Marcia Balisciano, the petite and energetic Director of the Franklin House project, opened the proceedings and set the tone for the day with a progress report on the opening of the London House, which will be a Learning Centre and Franklin Museum. Professor Brands, one of the most exciting and charismatic speakers I have ever had the pleasure to hear, said that in his research he had never ceased to be amazed at the enormous popularity with young women of Ben Franklin who, even in his 70s, had no shortage of companions. (His poor long-suffering wife Deborah kept the home fires burning back in Philadelphia.) Indeed, when he visited Paris at the age of seventy he provoked a near-riot that in Professor Brands? words was comparable in contemporary terms to a reception for the Beatles. He related a story about a 90-year-old who stumbled upon the womanising Franklin having an ?air bath? and the older of the two exclaimed, ?Oh, to be seventy again!?

At question time I reminded Professor Brands that ?Modern Maturity? Magazine has just published a special centrefold of a handful of ?Archeypes of Eldercool,? all high-profile American men who are seventy-plus and attracting a legion of young female admirers. The Professor said that if Franklin had been around today he would have been (one assumes a very willing!) centrefold.

Professor Brands also related an amusing anecdote about Ben Franklin?s timekeeping. He was famous for his sayings, one of the best known being ?Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.? It transpires that Franklin was, in reality, known to sleep until noon, especially if he had been ?entertaining.? This infuriated one of the Founding Fathers and early Presidents of the United States, John Adams. He was an early riser and was mortified that on an average day he would have already completed a volume of paperwork before Franklin would ?stop by? to sign documents in the afternoon. It was an amusing look into the complexity of the Franklin personality.

The keynote speech came at the end of the morning session. It was delivered by James Rubin. He used his allotted 20 minutes to express his concerns about the ?hawks? in the Bush Administration led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rubin said that the Pentagon under Rumsfeld ran the risk of becoming a dangerous and destructive force if allowed to ?rule unchecked.? He said Rumsfeld was partly to blame for damaging the USA's image abroad because of his rhetoric. The theme of the day?s Franklin Symposium was the effect of the media in Global Affairs. The powerful effect of the media had made Rumsfeld a prominent media figure, but Rubin saw this as an embarrassing PR disaster that the President must start trying to reverse.

Rubin also said that the Defence Secretary 'has no experience of foreign affairs,' which did puzzle some of us in the audience as Rumsfeld was Ambassador to NATO and Middle East Envoy under two administrations as well as having travelled extensively since 9/11 to visit American forces around the world and to ?shmooze' leaders in Asia and the Gulf to build the anti-terror coalition. Rubin added that one of the darkest days in US foreign relations came when Rumsfeld made comments about the suffering of the prisoners being held on Guantanemo Bay. Rubin said that the overseas world was horrified and that this was when President Bush should have reined him in.

Rubin said, with great passion and with what some of us perceived as just a tad of animosity, that Rumsfeld must not be allowed to
continue as a the prominent force driving administration policy nor should he continue as a public personality now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down, and that Colin Powell must 'take over' any contact the
Administration has with the public and the world.

After the speech, at the coffee break I spoke to the head of CSpan who was another speaker at the symposium, and we observed that as
Rubin lives in London he is possibly not aware of the widespread audience the Pentagon press briefings enjoy in the USA. Also, being amongst those in the multitude of people who have read ?Rumsfeld?s Rules,? the man next to me and I agreed that Franklin would have loved some of those homilies.

It was an extraordinary personal attack and made me wonder if Jamie Rubin is not slightly out of touch with the mood of the American public.

James Srodes of BBC America commented that he found it astonishing that the front page story on virtually all of Britain?s newspapers that morning was the Winona Ryder shoplifting story, when in fact so many other international stories were worthy of attention. He discussed the changing priorities of media organisations and seemed somewhat pessimistic about the maintenance of high standards of journalism in coming years.

In the afternoon session Loyd Grossman chaired a panel discussion with James Rubin, Warren Hoge of the New York Times London Bureau and Glyn Davies, a US Embassy attache, about the ?special relationship,? and it emerged from this group that all was not well between Britain and America. It was pointed out that in the immediate period after 9/11, wherever the British Ambassador went in New York he received an ovation. (How many of us in Britain will ever forget the disgraceful scene on BBC TV on 13 September 2001, when the network primetime show ?Question Time? became a forum for a screaming, enraged and abusive mob to reduce the former US Ambassador to Britain to tears?) Every American on the panel, including the deeply non-political Grossman (he is best known as a culinary guru on British television), felt that there was a disturbingly high degree of anti-American sentiment in Britain fed by the left-wing newspapers. Of all the panellists Glyn Davies was the most ?hurt;? despite his diplomatic background he seemed at a loss to fully understand the imbalance between the Anglophilia of Americans and the Ameriphobia of the British.

One of the highlights of the day was a lively talk by the dynamic Lady Reid, wife of Sir Bob Reid, both of whom have worked tirelessly to bring the Benjamin Franklin House project to fruition. Lady Reid explained the origins of the segmented serpent image seen in pre-Revolutionary War imprints, representing the colonies and usually accompanied by the slogan ?Don?t Tread on Me.? At the time its appearance on publications -- including those published by Franklin -- drew concern from religious purists. Loyd Grossman commented that in Maine, where he lives for a portion of the year, the biggest-selling flag since 9/11 is the one featuring the segmented serpent and the ?Don?t Tread on Me? slogan.

The final topic of the day was a discussion chaired by Sir David Frost of Franklin and the attitude he would take towards media practices today. The example was given of the revelation that Colin Powell?s wife was taking Prozac at the time Gen Powell was considering a White House bid for 1996. The conclusion of the panel was that some of today?s tactics did cross the scared line between privacy and lack of decency. My own feeling was that Franklin would have lamented the ?dumbing down? of all media and the celebrity culture that has arisen around pop stars and uneducated soccer players.

The day was a worthy celebration of that remarkable American, Benjamin Franklin, who, I may venture to say, with his extraordinary personal magnetism might just have worked the right magic in the Middle East and got the Palestinians and Israelis to make peace. Would that we had leaders like him in the world of post- September 11th.

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