The sound of distant music

Posted: Feb 23, 2006 12:01 AM

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.

Listen to Mozart and hear the stately minuet transformed into a free, lively rondo, then brought back again to balance and moderation after some of the most unlikely yet, once heard, most predictable of steps. Mystery is turned into symmetry. So with Washington's leadership.

George Washington would lead a revolution and, once in authority, put down a mutiny.

He would prosecute a war for independence, and later declare neutrality for the same purpose.

He would preside over the creation of a new, highly complex and most uncertain constitutional scheme full of verbal artifice -- without saying a word.

He would put down a full-scale rebellion with force, declining to make a single conciliatory gesture to the rebels, and then pardon all involved.

As president he would listen to equal but opposite counsel, each presented forcefully and articulately, and make his decision. Then he would sincerely implore the adviser whose advice he regularly rejected, Mr. Jefferson, to remain in his Cabinet.

Washington's now distant music is really a familiar 18th century medley, a working out of old and new into a blend that is balanced, stable, moderate, yet ever new. Washington's policies may have changed from time to time, but never his grand and civil vision.

If this is a young country, it is the oldest of living republics. The French are now on their fifth republic, but who counts? Meanwhile, the first and only American republic marches along toward its tricentennial.

What is the key to the remarkable longevity of this American experiment?

The answer to that question may lie in its spirit, which is the well-calculated spirit of Washington. His is still a standard to which, in his phrase, the wise and honest may repair.

In this mass democracy that the republic has become, dignity and decorum may now have only an antique appeal. They are scarcely recognized as what they are: guarantees of freedom's permanence.

In a perceptive essay, the historian Edmund S. Morgan pointed out two guiding themes in Washington's politics: interest and honor. The old general understood that republics must appeal to both if they are to endure.

It is clear enough that politicians still know how to appeal to our interests; there are times when they appeal to nothing else. But on this Washington's Birthday, let us encourage leaders to appeal to our honor, too.