Lessons From George Washington

Posted: Feb 17, 2012 12:01 AM

Only Americans of a certain age remember what the holiday on the third Monday in February is all about. I asked a few high-school students the other day what it is, exactly, we celebrate with "Presidents Day." One young man suggested that it was about selling used cars, since there are so many newspaper advertisements and television commercials announcing "birthday sales."

So much for the original inspiration for the long winter weekend, and a holiday first meant to honor the father of our country on Feb. 22. It wasn't always so.

George Washington deserves better than the mixture of fact and fancy that wraps his memory in gossamer. A lot of what we remember about Washington "ain't necessarily so" -- stories about his chopping down his father's favorite cheery tree and throwing a Spanish dollar across the Rappahannock River. The dollar-throwing story was once so well known that Walter Johnson, the famous baseball pitcher, copied the feat with a silver dollar in 1936 to prove that it could have been done if the frugal Washington had been foolish enough to throw away a dollar.

Such fanciful stories were mostly the work of Mason Locke Weems, an itinerant author, book agent and sometime Episcopal rector best known as Parson Weems, who wanted to humanize a leader who had been all but deified after his death. Too bad. Made-up stories weren't necessary because the true facts make Washington seem almost magical. Four bullets in his coat and hat were not enough to kill him in the French and Indian Wars, when two horses were shot out from under him, leading one Indian chief to conclude that "some great spirit would guide him to momentous things in the future."

Of all the Founding Fathers, Washington is the most monumental, literally, reflected in the iconic obelisk commemorating his memory. The cold portraits and sculptural images that have come to symbolize the man were partly of his own making. He cultivated opacity, believing that the less people saw of the flesh and blood of a man, the more he could accomplish. This earned him "a frosty respect." It's impossible to imagine anyone asking Washington whether he wears boxers or briefs, although Nathaniel Hawthorne mockingly suggested that he "was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world."

He was a man of his times. He loved the republic and was determined that a president never be confused with a monarch, though he enjoyed the stagecraft of magnificent white parade horses.

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.