Columns, Opinion

SELIBER: Washington’s integrity

Have I got time for one more Founding Fathers story? Yes?

OK, good.

Over this last semester, I have periodically pushed the not-especially controversial idea that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were two of the finest Americans who ever lived ‘-‘- men who led by example during the most tumultuous times in the history of the republic, and who could teach contemporary leaders something.

Regarding Washington, two acts of his stand out above all others, canonizing the first president as the almost God-like figure he is thought to be, the rightfully proclaimed ‘father of the country.’

Act No. 1 took place when Washington was nominated by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to command what would become the Continental Army to jump-start the American Revolution. In one of the great mixed messages in history, Washington rode to Philadelphia, presented himself to Congress in his full military uniform ‘-‘- he had served in the French and Indian War, but never as a commander ‘-‘- and told them point blank, ‘I am not qualified for this job.’ However, he added, if Congress could not find a better man in short order, he would do his duty to the best of his ability.’ They could not, and thus, he did.

The twin virtues we can draw from this anecdote are humility and a sense of duty and patriotism. America prides itself on the idea that life is not a matter of winning and losing as much as simply trying your best to succeed using the tools and genetic advantages at your disposal. We are less often tested on the matter of humility, which requires a knowledge of one’s own limits. Indeed, the two put together would seem contradictory: How can you try your best if you’re hopelessly in over your head? Washington succeeded because he was an extraordinary man and a strong leader, but few other people are.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is certainly an example of someone who is neither. This fall, John McCain’s running mate demonstrated the consequences of not knowing your limitations, hers being not knowing how the world works and not being able to speak in complete sentences. In spite of this, Palin had enough confidence to think she could be the vice president of the United States when asked to join the McCain ticket ‘-‘- an offer she had the choice of turning down, and plainly should have.

I know what you’re thinking: Who would ever turn down the second most powerful office in the world? It turns out such a person exists. As reported by Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a 37-year-old rising star in the Republican Party, was also asked to be vetted by the McCain campaign as a possible running mate. Jindal rejected the offer.

‘There was real trepidation within his political inner circle that Jindal might wind up as the pick,’ Cillizza writes, ‘and be caught up in what they believed to be a less-than-stellar campaign that could pin a loss on Jindal without much ability to change or control the direction of the contest.’ In other words, Jindal might have had the ambition for high office, but he also had the wisdom to know that his time had not yet come.

However, there is an even nobler quality espoused by Washington, in a more well-known act later on, that I fear goes beyond the capacity of today’s leaders. I refer to Washington’s decision to relinquish the presidency in 1796 after two terms in office. It was not an easy thing to do: The term-limiting 22nd Amendment had not yet been written, Washington was as popular as can be ‘-‘- by that time, he was truly the most qualified man for the job ‘-‘- and he could have been made king or emperor had he so desired. But he needed to show the world that America would be a humble nation with a humble leader.

We can appreciate what an unprecedented moment of integrity Washington’s resignation was, because we were briefly offered a similar prospect this year, when it was suggested that John McCain pledge to serve only one term if elected president, partly to alleviate fears of his advanced age. No candidate for this office has ever made such a pledge, and McCain ultimately balked at the prospect himself.

No one can blame McCain for wanting eight years of power any more than we can blame Palin or Barack Obama or anybody else for wanting the same thing. Bruce Springsteen put it best: ‘Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.’ It may only be once in every 200 years that a person comes along to disprove the idea that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. In 1796, when King George III was told Washington might step down, the king reportedly said, ‘If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.’

He still is.

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