"Father of our country."
"First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his country men."
"I cannot tell a lie."
The legends and lore of George Washington are so ingrained in our national psyche that we don't even stop to analyze them, any more than we scrutinize the tight-lipped, powder-haired patrician who stares at us from our one-dollar bills.
But during this bicentennial year of his death, the folks who run the Washington family home at Mount Vernon are urging Americans to contemplate the man who in reality held the nation together in the crucial first years after it was founded.
In fact, Washington was a far more complicated figure. He may have been self-effacing, but he cared deeply about public opinion, traveling the countryside so that the people could see and admire their leader. He usually rode most of the way in his carriage, but mounted his horse on the outskirts of town, nurturing the popular profile of the vital hero riding tall in the saddle.
Despite his saintly image, Washington was good at manipulating people, especially his deeply divided cabinet. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton waged non-stop policy wars against each other. But Washington was able to keep both of these formidable talents on board, by letting each think that he was the one with whom the president agreed.
Washington had a volatile temper, and struggled mightily to overcome it. His mother was something of a battle ax, and he seemed to prefer keeping her at a distance. He was thin-skinned about criticism. He owned slaves, and though there are historical indications that he was uncomfortable about it, he didn't set them free until after his own death and that of this wife.
But if our first president was not the paragon we have come to believe in, he remains, as historian Richard Norton Smith writes, "that rarest of historical figures, of whom it can be said that in conceding his humanity, we only confirm his greatness."
At least part of the Washington mythology is factual: He put devotion to country above personal desire. He was a person of high moral character. A military aide called him "the honestest man that I believe ever adorned human nature."
That image, of course, stands in direct contrast to what we have been hearing about our current president. With public opinion polls showing that people dislike President Clinton's conduct and doubt his veracity but still think he's doing a great job, the question naturally arises as to whether our time is so different than Washington's that character is no onger an issue for public servants. Let's hope that's not the case. Americans may have forgiven Bill Clinton, in part because they believe that the case against him was tainted by political nastiness. But our nation will be diminished if we no longer care if our president is a person of exemplary conduct and character.
One of the roles our leaders can serve is to act as a moral beacon for the rest of us, to inspire us to act in a noble and upright way.
The people at Mount Vernon are right. George Washington is still a symbol of what Americans can be at our very best.
By Rita Braver
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