My Presidential Security Blanket

Even adults need security blankets. Of course, depending on them exclusively to cope with the pressures of everyday life will compromise personal autonomy and empowerment. In moderation, however, our “blankets” can be a great source of comfort as we navigate life’s mazes.

Note that I said security blankets (plural). We often need different ones for different situations. For instance, when my “government and politics” world goes haywire, which seems to be the norm lately, I like to turn to George Washington for security. Yeh, the big guy, President #1.

I was born in Washington, DC in 1944 and lived there for the first 12 years of my life. As a kid I walked the stairway to the top of the Washington Monument…twice. My friends and I could walk into the National Archives (no security checkpoints in those days) and marvel at the Declaration and Constitution on display. We were especially fascinated at the model showing how the documents descended into a vault far below ground at the end of each day. We could join tour lines for the White House and Capitol. At the Smithsonian, seeing Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis dangling from a roof triggered boyhood dreams of ascending to the sky like a bird.

I often heard my parents and grandparents talk about local politics, but “local” in DC meant The President, Senators, and House members. Very early I learned the President was someone special and important, and I was thrilled when, as a boy of eight, I shook Truman’s hand. Oh, sure, I heard adults criticize and even make jokes about the President, but there was always an undercurrent of respect for his office. I also learned he was subject to the whims of fate and voters every four years. DC residents could not vote, but my grandfather owned a farm in Virginia and was registered to vote there. My first exposure to voting took place in November 1952 when he took me with him on the drive into Virginia to vote.

“Are you voting for General Ike like everyone else, granddaddy?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, “I’m voting for Stevenson.”

“But isn’t Ike going to win? All my friends say he will.”

“Maybe so, son, but it’s important to be a good citizen and vote for your choice. That’s why we fought Hitler.” (I knew who Hitler was. On the playground we would often chant a little ditty: “Whistle while you work/Hitler is a jerk/Mussolini bit his weeny/Now it doesn’t work!” That was cool stuff for an 8-year old boy, although I was never quite sure whose weeny he bit, Hitler’s or his own!)

I never forgot that conversation with grandad, and it’s pretty much all I remember about the trip. But I guess it’s the only part that was important to remember. Maybe it’s why since 1968, when I was finally old enough to vote (21 in those days), I have voted in every election, whether presidential, midterm, primary, or special-local. I think deep down I feel if I didn’t vote I would be letting granddad down.

Lately I’ve been wrapping myself in my George Washington security blanket. Reflecting on him gives me some reassurance and comfort in these chaotic political times. He helps me cope with the anxiety the current president piles on me. I mean, Washington was far from a perfect man, but he had tremendous character, honor, and dignity. Once the war for independence was won in 1783, he went before Congress (the Articles of Confederation Congress) and resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Historian Harlow Unger says, “For the first time since ancient Rome, a commanding general with absolute power in his grasp, in future president Monroe’s words, left ‘sovereignty vested in the people.’ It was unprecedented in modern civilization.” Think about that for a minute: “The people must rule, not me. I’m going home.” Are you kidding me?

Here was this guy who was so revered and glorified by the people he probably could have proclaimed himself King and nary a word of protest would have been uttered. No wonder that George III of England, upon hearing that Washington was planning not to take over the country but to retire to his plantation and resume his life as a farmer, is reputed to have said that if Washington followed through with that plan, “He will be the greatest man in the world.” Indeed.

Washington’s retirement lasted four years. In 1987 men like James Madison pleaded with him to join the constitutional convention to help construct a new government that would correct the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation. After a lot of arm twisting, Washington reluctantly agreed to join. Not surprisingly, he was elected President of the convention.

Amazingly, however, during the convention deliberations he did not join in the debates. He probably understood that if he did so, debate on that issue would end and the convention would choose whatever side he was on. Such influence would be inappropriate because he no doubt knew most members of the convention were more learned than he was, and they, not he, should determine the final product. He also was no fool, and knew that he would be chosen to hold the executive office in the new government, and he didn’t want to engage in a conflict of interest. Put that in today’s context and think about it: He had a chance to design the government he would be running precisely to his liking, but he said, “No, that wouldn’t be right.” Damn, that’s integrity!

In confirmation of the safest sure bet in history, once the new constitution was confirmed by state legislatures, Washington was elected our first president and took office in 1789. After four years he longed for his Mount Vernon home but succumbed to the pleadings of others to serve another term so the new government could stabilize further. It’s no exaggeration to say that Washington was the glue holding the fragile house of cards together, and many founders felt that should he leave after one term, their experiment would crumble.

At the end of his second term in 1796 he put his foot down and said, “No,” repeatedly, as others once again asked him to continue in office. His firm decision established an informal precedent that presidents not serve beyond eight years, a tradition that was observed for 150 years! (After Roosevelt broke the ice in 1940 and 1944, the 22nd amendment to The Constitution was approved in 1951, limiting Presidents to two full terms.)

Imagine if Washington had surrendered to the lure of presidential power, and had chosen to continue until he died in office. Imagine if he had designated a specific person to be his successor. Imagine if he had treated the office like a throne. Would our executive branch have evolved into a monarchy? Would the constitutional experiment have even survived? Would the states and other territories on the continent have been gobbled up by Britain, France, and Spain, all waiting for this insane experiment giving sovereignty to the people to fail? Scary thoughts.

Even scarier – imagine if Washington had a completely different personality profile than he did. Imagine if he had been an insecure, antisocial, immature, domineering narcissist. Who knows what mischief he might have produced!

Given those scary possibilities, why does thinking about Washington give me comfort in 2018? Certainly because he rose above those possibilities; but also because I believe his monumental spirit, his lifeforce essence, like a majestic indestructible mountain, lives on in the Oval Office. I have faith that the civility, respect, honor, and dignity he bequeathed to the Executive Office under the Constitution are stronger than any individual who would undermine those qualities. As that young boy who roamed Washington nearly 70 years ago, I have to believe it. Failure to do so would destroy that young boy and rip me of my patriotism, not to mention my sense of self.

In the final analysis, I desperately hold on to the hope that Washington’s “gift” to us will carry the day. For me, he embodies the character and soul of the presidency and the nation. In 1796, at last free to go home, his departing message to his fellow Americans transcends time and still resonates 222 years later: “Think of yourselves as a single nation; subordinate your regional and political differences to your common identity as Americans.” As historian Gordon Wood said, “If any single person was responsible for establishing the young Republic on a firm footing, it was Washington…There has been no president quite like him, and we can be sure that we shall not see his like again.”

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