- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

We need to be reminded more than we need to be instructed.
Samuel Johnson

It is anything but calm before the approaching storm this Washington's Birthday. Distinguished statesmen gather at New York the way their predecessors did at Munich, squirming this way and that to avoid war in defense of mere principle, hoping to contain the threat until it becomes a worldwide conflagration. The world's will is divided, its purposes inconstant, allies waver, and the hour grows late.
And at such a time we are bidden to celebrate Washington, whose image seems as crisp, as fresh, as spendable as a brand-new dollar bill. So do we make symbols of uninterrupted success out of those who had to struggle mightily through dark hours. As if the Washington Monument had already towered over the Capitol in 1776, and George Washington's story was just one long triumphal march. As if success were not the residue of design. And endurance. And sacrifice. No, the gleaming portraits of the Father of Our Country don't tell the whole story. Washington's is not a story of successive victories, but of successive trials.
Washington's greatest test, and perhaps the nation's, would come only after peace had been made and the country's fragile wartime unity began to fray. These United States were suddenly anything but united as they passed tariffs against one another, reduced the currency to worthlessness, defaulted on their debts, and veered toward the fate that European royalists had predicted all along for this republic or any other.
The time of revolutionary change was past, a familiar inertia had set in, and the center could not hold. It looked as if America's brief shining hour had come and gone, the promise of greatness lost. The focus of history had shifted to France, where a new kind of revolution was in wild process. The future was to be made in the Old World after all, not the New.
But of course. What could these mere Colonials, these ill-mannered rustics, know of diplomacy, of finesse, of je ne sais quoi? (Insert any contemporary quote from les insufferables Jacques Chirac or Dominique de Villepin at this point.)
The Spirit of '76 had already begun to flicker out amid confusion and dissension. The republic was adrift, lost in the shallows, about to break up. Washington was needed again. And again he would respond to the crisis.
Patiently, by friendly persuasion, through a series of meetings, Washington gathered around himself personalities that were far more brilliant, clever and better educated than himself. But none were so steady or admired or trusted. Perhaps because his was a disinterested devotion to his country. (It says something about our parlous times that the very word, disinterested, comes to mean only uninterested.)
At low ebb for the American republic, the old general would return to perform what may have been his greatest service, leading without holding office, directing without commanding, and once again focusing the talents of others on a common, all-important goal. He would preside over the birth of what a future British prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone, would call the greatest work of man ever struck off at a given moment in time: The Constitution of the United States.
Washington was not one of the brilliant intellects who framed that document, only the master of timing and judgment who brought those great minds together. And once that Constitution was written and, after another great struggle, ratified, he would put it into effect as the first president of these newly United States. Once again Washington had led us to independence to liberty and order. And greatness would be given its chance.
Once again America is engaged in a worldwide struggle, and once again we must piece together shifting alliances of convenience, seeking common ground against a threat that should unite all. Long before Benjamin Disraeli and Charles de Gaulle, Washington understood that nations have permanent interests, not permanent friends. The leader of this fledgling republic well understood that the French were not supporting the American Revolution for altruistic reasons, but because of their rivalry with the British for dominance. He was grateful, but not naive.
It will take not only force and diplomacy now but judgment and determination Washington's great strengths to achieve independence from terror. Most of all, it will take a rare degree of unity and perseverance on the part of this democratic, not to say fractious, people. Washington would understand the challenge. Indeed, he still leads the way.



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