Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2004 / 1 Adar 5764
Unfinished portrait: Washington and the republic
For years, the first president of the United States has been almost lost in the murky abomination we've dubbed Presidents' Day, which seems to celebrate no president in particular. It was a very Nineties thing - to celebrate everything and therefore nothing. Widening the lens of history, we lost definition and hailed the result as . . . Diversity!
To point out the singular in history, it was understood without actually being said, would be impolite, incorrect, 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, February 18, 2000.)
Washington's actual birthday, always a cloudy matter because of a change in the calendar the year he was born, faded from memory - and interest.
But soon enough, sharply enough, after a September 11th, or in another era a December 7th, we feel the need for the heroic, the individual, the indispensable man. 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, study Lincoln's visage in the old daguerreotypes and, yes, search for Washington.
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 something of a revival in recent years, at least in the political journals and semi-popular prints. All of which tells us more about the present than the past in which the Founding Fathers lived. Once again we seek a leader above the fray.
Washington's very distance from the tumult, his own carefully constructed remoteness, 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 hopes of restoring a sense of dignity to the office.
The trivial has finally begun to offend us - a good sign. We long for a little distance, thank you, 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. He had to be deeply conscious that how he bore himself as this republic's 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. And what an unruly crew it had, and how deeply divided in temperament and judgment were its officers. 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 - a Washington.
The portrait of Washington that used to hang in every American classroom was unfinished. Like the Republic itself, which remains a work in progress. His were uncertain times, and the new constitution only an outline. Washington would have to complete the picture by his actions.
Washington's sense of decorum became not just legend but a private joke among his admirers. Hamilton was Washington's aide-de-camp, his protege, his adviser and wizard and party hack and wild young man and visionary statesman . . . but never his intimate.
Washington had no intimates, not because it would have been beneath him but because it would have been beneath the dignity he intended to bequeath this raw young republic with its classical airs. Out of those airy hopes and principles he would have to materialize a real 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 its traditions, 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, it will take a rare degree of unity and perseverance on the part of a democratic, not to say fractious, people. Washington would have known the challenge well. 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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