What you said about the growing and overgrown power of the presidency is completely credible. I can never forget that the executive is the second branch in the Constitution: second in priority, second in prestige, second in power. How the presidency acquired priority over Congress — and whether it should have done so — are matters I most certainly want to discuss. And you’re right. The problem goes back as far as His Unserene Highness, King John Curmudgeon. Can you imagine Adams being a protégé of Washington! And Adams writes so cussedly poor. Fortunately he didn’t replace Jay on The Federalist team. Better a two-horse troika than a sullen stud in leather beside you!
But for now let’s postpone discussing America’s overpowered presidency and its cowardly Congress. That’s because I’ve found something even more provocative in your remarks: your praiseworthy summation of George Washington as being humble.
Well, humble certainly sounds hearth-snug and homestead-safe, and even love-huggable. But I doubt that Washington was humble. And if he was humble, I would fault him for that on the highest of moral grounds. As to whether Washington was huggable, that was a private matter for Martha.
In public Washington was most assuredly a great man. By that I mean a man of great deeds he enduringly wrought with unconquerable character. Such masterly men earn the right of pride for the victories their incessant efforts insistently win.
You might say, “But I thought pride was a vice!” Yes, in the Dark Ages it was. Pride was a vice then, a deadly vice, the deadliest vice of all. That’s because there wasn’t much to be proud of back then. But we’re living in altogether more enlightened times now. They’re better lit. And they’re so much brighter, too. As Aristotle would say with illuminated clarity, pride is the virtue a person merits for his or her estimable and even consummate accomplishments, and the pleasure they forthwith enjoy thereby. For example, Washington caused a country to be founded, and its capital was named after him as a thank you! Of course, to be arrogant is the vice of an excessive pride. But to practice false humility is no less a vice. Unjustified humility viciously denies the virtue of human success. Such humility is a moral cosmology of world hate. Furthermore, feigned smallness is both incredible and unbecoming in those who strive for the excellence of humanity and happily succeed, not least with the telling. Washington certainly did this through the most arduous of historical trials which continue to this day.
One of the greatest achievements Washington accomplished as president was to separate the presidency from his person. As everyone knows, Washington refused to run for a third term though he’d certainly have won it. Instead, he wanted to set an example for all time hence: no presidents for life! And everyone after him took the hint. Everyone, that is, except FDR. Perhaps Roosevelt recognized the fumbling futility of his labor state policies. And, from a sense of duty, he sought to make amends with a wartime command instead. On the other hand, maybe he was just another contemporary socialist warlord! Or perhaps he was an emergency dictator like the Roman republic once had. In any case, Roosevelt admirably succeeded at being a great wartime commander-in-chief. Though some Americans still think Roosevelt was a great despot as well. Regardless, after Roosevelt died as “president for life,” Congress put him on the dime as a consolation prize. And we the people passed an amendment that read “The Riot Act of the Republic” loud and clear to all future FDR clones who lack the quality of Washington.
That was wise.
At least twice in 2016 I heard Obama say, ‘I’d like to run for a third term. And I’d win!’ For men of such public disposition, comic or despotic, Nero or Napoleon, the 22nd Amendment was passed — and indelibly recorded in the people’s public memory.
Perhaps more importantly, when Washington left office he began to sign his correspondence, ‘George Washington, Farmer.’ Considering he was largest landowner in America — he mostly acquired his holdings through marriage with Martha — his gesture might seem an affectation: the precious example of a false humility. But Washington, great statesman that he was, had another policy in mind. He wanted everyone to recognize — as did he — that the presidency is always an office and never a person. The president is not a king. A throne is both a position and a person. “L’état, c’est moi.” A president is only a citizen of the Republic — a great “only” that! — enjoying a temporary occupation of office. When he leaves, he doesn’t take the presidency with him. That remains in the White House. And then he obviously becomes again what he always was: a citizen. And that, as Washington could say, is the most enduring office of any republican. And like the presidency, he might guardedly add, citizenship has its onerous obligations, too.
You might be thinking, “Yes, but ex-presidents are called Mr. President!” I fully appreciate the courtesy use of the title. But words matter. Words become habits. And psychology becomes reality. At best, calling a Bush or a Carter “Mr. President” is a bad habit. At worst, it’s an aristocratic conflation of a person and his position. Ex-presidents should be addressed as Mr. Ex-President. And if that seems a clumsy locution, then they can be addressed in proper English as “Sir” or “Hey, you over there.” “Sir” at least won’t violate of any republican sensibilities. Nor will we citizens suddenly fear an American office holder has been royally knighted along with some rock stars. And even then, didn’t Paul get a “K” only after writing some “dignified” classical music? The Queen probably remembered the Beatles’ pert — and impertinently short — song about her. Meanwhile, I doubt we’ll ever see a Sir Ringo. Or hear a concerto for stoned snare drum and double orchestra in Albert Hall, whether filled with holes or not.
And let me observe this about Washington. It’s long been said of him that he was “First in war, first in peace, first in Americans’ hearts.” I’ve always loved the brevity and the aptness of those first two phrases, a pair of phrases forever pre-empted from all other Americans. But the third phrase always bothers me. And now I know why. Politicians have no business being in people’s hearts. And that includes even founding fathers who achieve the gilded and marble status of immortal statesmen. Furthermore, if you don’t want a politician in your heart, why ever would you want a general romping around in there? Love is warlike enough without armored divisions blasting their way through the blossoms of your innermost meadows! When humans let power into their hearts, they naturally fall in love with ruthlessness. And then they get despotized with monstrosity. Save your heart for love and the arts. And keep your reason — the guard dog of your desire — out front ready to bark at any president who approaches your happiness. Washington would have advised you to do no less. And I’m sure Martha would have agreed.
And then there’s the occasional General MacArthur — destiny on a high horse or top hotel floor — who parades around the Republic and struts before his trained reporters. General MacArthur had a hankering to be President Caesar. Fortunately he found a job as shogun in Japan instead.
As to why Washington restrained himself as a model of presidential restraint, we can only surmise his innermost motives. As Hamilton said of himself with republican passion in the first and greatest Federalist paper, “My motives must remain within the depository of my own breast.” For the future first treasurer of America, that indeed was a golden metaphor!
My Washington surmise is this. In America’s new civilization — the civilization of a large civil society, its dynamic market economy, and its multiple republican governments — there are bigger and better things to do than to engross yourself with political power. As Franklin caused to be struck on the first American coinage, you can “mind your business” in America — in all senses of the word. Soon after the founding, America’s unprecedented wealth of human opportunity began supplanting all previous cultures, cultures in which political power had been the sole or dominant pinnacle of human reach. With the possible brief exception of classical Athens, America’s multi-peak society is unique in history. But then, of course, a republican government dominated by an abundant commerce and a popular culture is historically a recent creation of America — and England. It consists of private citizenry in civil society empowered through capitalism to marginalize government so that individuals might mind their business and be unbothered by policy dictators and orthodoxy despots.
As to whether Trump will accomplish a re-invigoration of this astonishing new world view, I wouldn’t suggest we wait until he’s out of office to find out. Were we to do this for every office holder in succession, we citizens would collectively go through life perpetually posthumous to history. And that would be such a dead way to live!