- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

For years, the first president of the United States has been almost lost in the murky combo we have 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?

Pointing out the singular in history, it was understood without 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.” So said the Presidential Proclamation of Feb. 18, 2000.)

Washington’s actual birthday, always a bit cloudy because of a change in the calendar the year he was born, began fading from memory — and interest.

But soon enough, sharply enough, after a September 11, or a December 7, or whenever strain in what Lincoln called the mystic bonds of unity, we feel the need again for the distinctive, the singular, the indispensable. The individual.

History does not allow itself to be long ignored. It comes roaring back. And when it does, we want to hear Franklin D. Roosevelt’s voice again saying we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Or study Lincoln’s old daguerreotype image, and, yes, search for Washington 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 seen one of periodic revivals in recent years, at least in the political journals and semipopular prints. This may tell us more about the present than the past in which he lived, whether he was waging the French and Indian War, leading a revolution or imposing order after.

We may not be sure which Washington we need most, but 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, make him more attractive 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 for a lost dignity.

The trivial has begun to pale — a good sign. We long for a little distance, and Gen. 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 of him tells us he was deeply conscious how he bore himself as the republic’s first president. Because his conduct as the first president would determine if there would be a second, a third, a fourth… or a 43rd.

We tend to forget now what a fragile craft this untested republic was, how unruly its crew, and how deeply divided in temperament and judgment its leaders.

Brilliant as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were in their diametrically opposed ways, both recognized what they and the country most needed and 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 once hanged in every American classroom was unfinished, like the Republic itself — 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 it in by his acts. His every move would be a first, a precedent, an instant tradition.

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

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, this time from a shadowy but very real terror.

Most of all, victory will require a rare 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.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist. This was adapted from earlier Washington’s Birthday columns.

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