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Book Report: Founding Fathers resisted almighty presidency

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Mr. President by Ray Raphael2 / 2

"The superb a rich regalia. We found all the farmers busily employed in gathering, grinding, and expressing the juice of their apples; the crop of which they say is rather above mediocrity.

"The average wheat crop they add, is about 15 bushels to the acre from their fallow land -- often 20 & from that to 25. The principal export from Norwalk & Fairfield is horses and cattle -- salted beef & pork, lumber & Indian corn, to the West Indies -- and in small degree wheat and flour."

Doesn't the above sort of sound like the report from a rural county agent?

Not so. It was written in 1789 by President George Washington soon after his election during an investigative trip through the state of Connecticut.

It's historian Ray Raphael's way of explaining how different the presidency was soon after its founding than it is today in a fascinating book, "Mr. President" (Knopf, $27.95). His book explains how the United States ended up having a president and how the executive role has changed since the late 18th century.

Initially our founding fathers were lukewarm to the idea of one person atop the pyramid of congress and justice.

After all they remembered George III lording it over the colonies and wanted none of that, even though many were royalists to the core.

And it was a peg-legged Pennsylvanian named Governor Morris, the son of the Lord of Morrisania (now the Bronx, N.Y.) who pushed it through, using chicanery, cunning, oratorical skills and an iron will to convince doubters like Franklin, Adams and Jefferson.

Raphael's is an intensively researched book that will prove fascinating reading to an electorate about to elect a president this year.

Raphael painstakingly charts how the broad outlines of the Constitution made it possible for the office to easily be added to but rarely diminished, resulting in today's presidency, more powerful than in the days when Washington was itemizing the apple culture of Connecticut.

If you've ever been frustrated waiting in line to pay for your gas behind hordes of folks buying lottery tickets, take out your frustrations with a very witty and nicely realized detective story about a convenience store in Hibbing and $750 million jackpot, detectives, robbers and international criminals.

It's "Blizzard Ball," by Dennis Kelley (North Star Press, $14.95 paper).

The dust jacket tells me Kelley is a marketing executive with years of experience in developing and administering sweepstakes and lottery games and probability theory.

He knows Minnesota and the novel is lush with references to everything from the new Guthrie Theatre and its endlessly long escalator to Stillwater State Prison.

He's also witty. Here's a sketch of a character named Earl Swanson, a laid off Iron Ranger who's on his way in to buy a lottery ticket on Christmas Day:

"...he ran a quick mental inventory of his most critical possessions: the dated bungalow fast becoming the neighborhood eyesore, the sixty-five-horsepower Johnson Motor with a broken prop shaft hanging from the transom of a dented eighteen-foot Lund fishing boat, the rusted Arctic Cat snowmobile missing the right front ski...."

Earl buys his ticket and returns home, after which Kelly creates a family dinner scene worthy of comparison to Jon Hassler's hilarious take on Thanksgiving at Agatha McGee's in his novel "Dear John."

Brothers and sister-in-law sit down with Earl and his wife Maureen. Earl wants to talk about hunting, his sister-in-law wants to talk about gambling and Maureen wants them all to finish eating so they can go to Mass.

Of course it doesn't happen and Maureen's "gray eyes squinted to laser focus, ready to scorch anyone who had the nerve to look at her. Even the reindeer on her cable-knit sweater seemed to be looking for a way out."

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.