He preferred to be known as a public man, concerned with the public weal, but his public performance and verbal taciturnity do not easily translate into a hero today. Ron Chernow, his most recent biographer, observes in The Wall Street Journal that our first president is even slighted by conservatives, who ought to appreciate his disciplined dignity and love of the Constitution, whose creation he presided over in Philadelphia. In counting up presidential references used in the 19 Republican debates of the current season, he cites 124 for Ronald Reagan, nine for Abraham Lincoln, five for Thomas Jefferson -- and only one for Washington.
Hendrik Hertzberg, a reliably liberal essayist for the New Yorker, says tea party enthusiasts who praise the Founding Fathers and recite the Constitution can find little support from the likes of Washington. He overlooks the first president's Farewell Address, in which he insisted that "the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres." Washington further emphasized the importance of religious faith and morality in promoting private happiness and public responsibility.
Of all the Founding Fathers his temperament and his aloofness are at odds with our own culture. His strength resided in his reflective clarity and his vision. He mostly kept silent at the Constitutional Convention because he knew no one would want to oppose anything he said. His mere presence was eloquent. He despised the vitriol that swirled about him in his second term, and even though he and his fellow Federalists contributed to such divisions to achieve a system of debate to get bloodless change in leadership, he warned against establishing permanent political parties. That was revolutionary.
Washington was not a good public speaker and was not much for pressing the flesh. He didn't have to munch blintzes or barbecue or kiss strangers' babies because he didn't have to campaign.
"Now," observes Ron Chernow, "it's reached the point where campaign and governance have really become indistinguishable." That's something for everyone weary of this endless campaign to think about on this three-day holiday.