Op-Ed

Washington was human but he played his role perfectly

George Washington portrait, featured on the one-dollar bill.
George Washington portrait, featured on the one-dollar bill. AP

Every culture has a creation myth, and on this day we in the United States celebrate ours.

We laud the disinterested, brave, brilliant men who fought a revolution and developed a carefully calibrated system of checks and balances to assure their own new government would not fall prey to the ruthless ambitions of one person or sect.

I admit to loving these themes, enjoying the warmth of American exceptionalism along with watermelon and fireworks during long-ago hot Fourths in rural Arkansas.

As I got older it became a little more nuanced. Rampant racism in my home state gave lie to the myth that we truly believe all people were created equal; the Vietnam war, which took such a huge toll on young people in my generation — those who fought and those who didn’t — did away with the illusion that a greater wisdom somehow adhered to our form of government.

But I’ve never given up on being proud to be an American, no matter how hackneyed and even questionable that sentiment might be.

So, I’m really glad that leading up to this Fourth I read Ron Chernow’s wonderful, illuminating biography of George Washington.

It reminded me of words my former colleague Don Edwards used to describe his experience volunteering with kids: “I wanted everything to be perfect. Well, it wasn’t. But in a way, it was better than perfect.”

Washington, the Revolutionary War commander, president of the convention that wrote our Constitution and, finally, the first president of the United States, has long been taught as a profoundly upright patriot, stiff, lifeless and, frankly, kind of boring.

In Washington, A Life, Chernow (who also wrote the biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the hip-hop musical that brilliantly reinterprets the founding myth ) brings this truest patriot to full life.

Washington was not perfect, he was human: He worried about money, had a bad temper, never got along with his difficult mother, owned slaves, kept a close eye on how history would regard him, was at least a little vain of his appearance and really liked women.

But what makes him so interesting, so inspiring is that his humanity was better than perfection. He dutifully supported his mother, he never even attempted to use any of his powerful positions or public acclaim to enrich himself or to engage in inappropriate encounters with women, he disciplined himself to control his temper. He understood better than any other slave-holding Founder that to own a slave was to be a slave, and was the only one of them to free his slaves upon his death.

Washington also knew the creation and enduring success of the young nation required him to play a role, act a part that was often burdensome. Crowds mobbed him everywhere. Even at home in Mount Vernon, hundreds of gawkers came to visit, eating his food and keeping him up too late.

John Adams, his vice president and successor, put it well. If Washington, “was not the greatest president, he was the best actor of the presidency we have ever had.”

Why is this important, or even admirable?

Washington knew he embodied the new country, the experiment in self-governance. He knew what he did and how he did it would reverberate around the globe and through history. He wanted to get it right, to be that country, to validate the experiment.

It was not a foregone conclusion that this rocky union would succeed, quite the contrary. The Founders were hardly a cohesive group philosophically, immune from political backbiting or human jealousies. Despite this, it was Washington’s job to fill in the blanks left by the Constitution, to literally create a federal government, figure out how to make it work.

He knew that the country was doomed if its first president flew off the handle, spoke recklessly, battered his enemies, bent the rules he had helped write, hungered for the adoring crowds that greeted him everywhere.

Washington, like great leaders always, understood it wasn’t about him, it was about the institution he’d signed on to serve.

On this Fourth, we can all be glad that this imperfect human played the role of first president so perfectly.

Editorial writer Jacalyn Carfagno can also be reached at 231-1652.

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