I imagine that most of you are as offended by the Trump campaign as I am. It is hyped and garish, nasty and brutish, and it is embarrassing to anyone who yearns for a measure of dignity in presidential politics. The demands of the 24 hour news cycle have created a structured narcissism. Even if Trump wasn’t so narcissistic to begin with, the demands of the news cycle might impose it upon him. The need to talk constantly about yourself, to keep your face in front of a camera, the virtual requests to attack your opponent—what we have brought upon ourselves is a Hollywood parody of democratic politics.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Barack Obama—and his family—have set a high standard for dignified behavior in the presidency. They have exercised an ironic restraint, while the President shies away from attacking others and even seems to resist the temptation to return insults in kind. I yearn for more restrained, reasonable, and respectful presidential politics. Whether you agree with President Obama’s policy or not is not relevant to the point I’m making. I simply want to shine a focus on the dignified way he conducts the business of his office.
I know that because President Obama is a sitting president, enacting policies that some dispute, it might be hard to separate the substance of his governing from his conduct. So let me present a model that even the most patriotic of Americans will have trouble dismissing. What follows is a brief sketch of our first President, George Washington. True, he didn’t live in the world of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but he did live in a very small political community, where rumors spread easily and where even our great founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, spread false and damning rumors. Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for Washington to take the high ground.
Washington’s character. Over the years, I have read many books about Washington and his times. Among them are David McCullough’s 1776, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. But for now I’m going to lean most heavily on the brilliant portraits of Gordon Wood. As you read this portrait, keep in mind for comparison the Republican candidate.
Woods tells us that Washington didn’t seem to have much to say. He was a quiet man. Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, he was not an intellectual. There was nothing abstract about him. Instead, he was “a man of affairs,” a successful businessman.
Most of all, Washington was a man of great moral character, who put great stock in controlling his passions and conducted himself calmly during the most turbulent of times, as both a wartime general and as our founding President. Here’s how Woods summarizes it: Washington, “(a)n enlightened, civilized man, was disinterested and impartial, not swayed by self-interest and self-profit. He was cosmopolitan; he stood above all local and parochial considerations and was willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the greater good of his community or his country. He was a man of reason who resisted the passions most likely to afflict great men, that is, ambition and avarice. Such a liberal, enlightened gentleman avoided enthusiasms and fanaticisms of all sorts…Tolerance and liberality were his watchwords. Politeness and compassion toward his fellow man were his manners.” In summary, Washington “was obsessed that he not seem base, mean, avaricious, or unduly ambitious.”
Actions that exemplify character. There’s an irony in Washington’s life: His two great acts were resignations, each representing a pillar of our democratic government. At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces. This was unprecedented. Throughout human history, the commanders of victorious armies all sought political and material rewards for their achievements. In resigning, Washington made a symbolic statement about the nature of democracy – how it is different than autocracy. Leadership must pass from one person to another; and leaders must not cling to power. Power must reside in the citizenry.
If Washington was highly respected beforehand, he was revered after his resignation. The new democratic citizens appreciated how he stood by his word. He meant to leave his career in order to cement the democratic ideal of peaceful leadership succession. He was later persuaded that his prestige was essential to the construction of the new republic, and he returned to public life for the Constitutional Convention, where he was immediately elected President. He accepted the reality that the ratification of the Constitution depended, in good measure, on his support. As James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “Be assured, his influence carried this government.” But Washington lent more than his prestige; he worked extremely hard for ratification. In other words, he was all in.
Many contemporaries believed that “Washington was the only part of the new government that captured the minds of the people.” He believed that, too. He knew that during that tumultuous time, when his country was still fragile, a steady and trusted hand at the helm was of critical importance. He was self-consciously setting an example for future generations or what he called “the millions of unborn.” By using his immense cache, he built a strong and somewhat independent executive branch, an idea at odds with the French-leaning Jeffersonians, but one that would forever shape the American Presidency.
Then he did it again. After two terms, Washington left office. More than any other presidential act, this resignation established the precedent for a peaceful transition of power, possibly the single most important quality of democratic governments. Symbolically, it ushered in the rule of ordinary people and ushered out the rule of kings and queens, held in place by divine right. Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy. In addition, “he established the standard by which all subsequent Presidents might be ultimately measured—not by the size of their electoral victories, not by their legislative programs, and not by the number of their vetoes, but by their moral character.”
Hillary Clinton has not always maintained Washington’s moral standards in her public life, though it appears that at least she aspires to those standards. But her conduct during the 2016 campaign, in the face of many disgusting, provocative, misogynistic, and even dangerous attacks, Clinton has remained calm. She has been strategic in her responses but never has she stooped to a the kind of childish tit for tat exchange that her rival has tried to generate. Indeed, amidst all the patriotic slogans and iconography surrounding the Trump campaign, Donald Trump is an almost perfect anti-(George) Washington: immodest, greedy, ambitious, untruthful, and mean-spirited. We, the citizenry, need to hew more closely to Washington’s model in selecting our candidates.