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David Bouchier: Who’s in charge here?

Clark Art Institute
Wikimedia Commons

There is no national holiday for Chester Alan Arthur, or Grover Cleveland. But the banks close and the sales open for Washington and Lincoln.

What do we know about these two extraordinary men? We don’t remember them, at least not the way we remember the last president, who is always in our thoughts. If we know them at all it is through a haze of patriotic myths and heroic stories, repeated so often that they almost seem true.

George Washington was commander-in-chief of the continental army during the Revolutionary War, and the first president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president, who really made the mythical journey from log cabin to White House and was elected president at just about the worst moment in the history of the United States. But both presidents remain fundamentally mysterious for the same reason that all presidents are mysterious. Why would anyone want such an impossible job, and who could possibly do it?

George Washington himself had doubts. When he was first elected in 1789, he compared his feelings to those of “A culprit going to his place of execution.” Yet there were fewer than 4 million Americans in 1789, and now there are more than 300 million.

A nation so vast and complicated seems beyond the possibility of government. Think what huge insoluble problems are on the president’s desk right now: Ukraine, inflation, immigration, COVID — and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Any attempt to exert presidential authority is met with the cry “this is a free country,” and the problem remains unsolved.

Nobody, in short, can possibly govern the United States. Even a simple, commonsensical public health program is beyond the president’s power. Yet Washington and Lincoln seemed to govern, and so have 43 other ordinary human mortals, some of them very ordinary indeed. How did they do it? They didn’t, of course. The grand illusion of power, which hasn’t changed since the days of the Roman Empire, is just that, an illusion. It works only as long as enough people believe in it.

That’s why we admire and believe in the heroes of the distant past. Nothing is more anxious than the present, and nothing is more uncertain than the future. But nothing is more reassuring than the past. There’s no uncertainty. We know the plot and can rerun it again and again, like an old movie. George Washington will always win the battle of Yorktown. Abraham Lincoln will always save the Union in the last reel. In retrospect, they got things done, or so it seems.

But even Washington was only human, and in some ways strangely modern. In 1776 he suffered a series of defeats in the war with the British around Boston and New York. But he didn’t call them “defeats,” he called them “misadventures.” Nor did Washington have a plan. He hoped, and I quote, that “some lucky chance may turn things in our favor.” That was his strategy. In other words, he had no intention of admitting defeat, and no idea what to do next. In this, as in so many ways, Washington was truly the Father of His Country.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.