On this his birthday, George Washington may remain the most admired but remote of American presidents, more portrait than person. He intended it that way.
Because like the other founding fathers, he was set on independence. Independence first for himself as a young man, and then for his young country as general, statesman, and, to this day, guide and mentor.
To him, independence never meant indulgence. Quite the opposite. It meant certain qualities a struggling new republic in an age of monarchies would need in its leader: dignity, decorum, and, yes, a proper distance.
The father of his country was very much aware of both its promise and the dangers all republics faced, and most succumbed to. This republic was to usher in a New Order of the Ages, just as it still says on the dollar bill.
Washington did not propose to fulfill so audacious an agenda by appearing audacious. He would be neither courtier nor demagogue. Rather, he proposed to conduct himself as a citizen of a republic. He would be the first citizen of the first republic to endure. No small ambition, for himself or his country.
No one ever described George Washington as folksy. He dared not forget what he represented. He represented America, and the American Idea -- that liberty and authority, freedom and order, could dwell together.
At the end of the 18th century, such a notion was sufficient to inspire snickers from the tories of every nationality: Even if this colonial rabble managed to win a brief independence, they told one another, just imagine it trying to govern itself!
There was reason, even necessity, for Washington's reserve -- for his insistence on the formalities and courtesies, on the powdered wig and dress sword, on the proper ceremonies and correct form of address. He had his and the republic's dignity to think of, and at the time they were pretty much the same thing.
Washington set out to prove that a republic could do more than prevail in war -- that it could prosper in peace. How did he manage it? How did he carry off this bold experiment as if it were a formal ritual?
The clearest and most eloquent explanation may lie, not in scholarly analyses, or in Washington's own weighty prose, but in the music of his time:
Listen to Haydn and hear the contest between theme and countertheme, the folk melodies that are given free play but not enough to overpower the final triumph of decorum.