Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2005 / 12 Adar I 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Washington: The unfinished portrait | For years, the first president of the United States has been almost lost in the murky combo we've dubbed Presidents' Day, which seems to celebrate no president in particular. It was a very '90s thing — to celebrate everything and therefore nothing. Widening the lens of history, we lost definition and hailed the result as . . . Diversity! Washington, Lincoln, Millard Fillmore, Bill Clinton, why discriminate?

To point out the singular in history, it was understood without actually being said, would be impolite. It would be insufficiently respectful of the great, collective blur. ("I am pleased to join all Americans in observing Presidents' Day. Today we salute the leadership and achievements of all those who have held America's highest elected office . . . . ." — Presidential Proclamation, Feb. 18, 2000.)

Washington's actual birthday, always a cloudy matter because of a change in the calendar the year he was born, began to fade from memory — and interest. But soon enough, sharply enough, after a September 11th, or a December 7th, or whenever what Lincoln called the mystic bonds of unity are strained, we feel the need again for the distinctive, the singular, the indispensable. The individual.

History does not allow itself to be ignored for long. It comes roaring back. And when it does, we want to hear FDR's voice again as he tells us we have nothing to fear but fear itself, or study Lincoln's visage in the old daguerreotypes, and, yes, search for Washington somewhere in the mists of time and legend.

And so the dusty figure on the pedestal, the semi-forgotten porcelain piece in back of the china cabinet, is brought forward again, complete with ornamental sword at his side, enigmatic expression in place. The face on the dollar bill, dulled by familiarity, is held up to a new light.

The study of Washington has undergone one of periodic revivals in recent years, at least in the political journals and semi-popular prints. All of which may tell us more about the present than the past in which he lived, and shaped. Whether he was starting the French and Indian War, leading a revolution or imposing order afterward. We may not be sure which Washington we have most need of, but once again we seek the leader above the fray. One whose only interest was America's.

Washington's very distance from the tumult, his own carefully constructed remoteness, his place always above the fray, makes him a more attractive figure now. Now that the mystique has been stripped away from the presidency, and the West Wing reduced to a soap opera, we reach into the past in search of a lost dignity.

The trivial has begun to pale — a good sign. We long for a little distance, and General Washington's specialty was distance. He knew its uses for a new republic that, he was determined, would become an old one — not just a passing phase. Everything we know about him tells us he was deeply conscious how he bore himself as the republic's first president. Because how he conducted himself as the first president would determine whether there would be a second, a third, a fourth . . . or a forty-third.

We tend to forget now what a fragile craft this untested republic was, what an unruly crew it had, and how deeply divided in temperament and judgment were its leaders. Brilliant as Hamilton and Jefferson were in their diametrically opposed ways, both recognized what they and the country most needed, and what neither could provide: a balance wheel, a well of judgment to contain their rippling ideas. No wonder both turned unerringly to Washington.

The portrait of Washington that used to hang in every American classroom was unfinished. Like the Republic itself, this remains a work in progress. The constitution we now revere as the political equivalent of Scripture was only a sketchy outline in Washington's time; he would have to fill in the picture by his actions. Every move he made would be a first, a precedent, an instant tradition.

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Washington's sense of decorum became not just legend but a private joke among his admirers. Hamilton was Washington's aide-de-camp, his protégé, his adviser and wizard and party hack and wild young man and visionary statesman . . . but never his intimate.

Of course not. Washington had no intimates — not because it would have been beneath him but because it would have been beneath the general, the president, the founding father. It would have been beneath the dignity he intended to bequeath this raw young republic with all its classical airs. Out of those airs he would have to weave something solid, continuing, singular — a United States of America.

The very name was new then, and what this United States of America would become, what it would represent in the world, was yet to be determined.

Washington would have to invent the traditions of this republic, first in war, then in peace, and, hardest of all, in that uncertain time between the two.

Now, once again, it will take not only force and diplomacy, strength and flexibility, but judgment and discipline — Washington's great strengths — to win independence again, this time from a shadowy but very real terror.

Most of all, victory will require a rare degree of unity and perseverance on the part of a free, not to say rambunctious people. This is no longer a classical republic but a mass democracy. Can freedom be expanded yet dignity maintained? Washington would have known the challenge well. Both in war and peace, and most of all in this uncertain time that doesn't feel quite like either, his example still leads the way.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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