David Bouchier: Only Human
There is no national holiday for Calvin Coolidge, or Grover Cleveland. But the banks close and the sales open for Washington and Lincoln. They seem almost unreal at this distance of time, and perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the early Presidents were not just from another age but practically from another political species. We know of course that 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 at just about the worst moment in the history of the United States. But what more can be said about these two extraordinary men on a Monday morning?
We don’t remember them the way we remember Bill Clinton or Barak Obama. We know them only through a haze of patriotic myths and heroic stories, repeated so often that they have become almost true. All the founding Presidents remain fundamentally mysterious, indeed all Presidents are mysterious. Why would anyone want such a job? Is it the lifetime salary, the cavalcade of limousines, the free health care? And who could possibly imagine that they themselves could do that job? George Washington certainly didn’t think so. When he was first elected in 1789, he was overwhelmed, comparing his feelings to those of: “A culprit going to his place of execution.”
But we need a President of some kind. We have to believe that somebody is at least pretending to be in control. Without that the world becomes a very scary place. That’s why we admire 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. The past is settled. 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. These great men reassure us with their almost godlike powers, but only in the past. What the child in all of us wants is a heroic President, like those in history, a Superman or woman without the funny outfit, who will fight the forces of evil (whatever we imagine them to be) on our behalf, attend to our childish fears, and soothe all our hurts and frustrations. In other words we want a duly elected savior.
Yet even George 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 modestly called them “misadventures.” Napoleon, on the other side of the Atlantic, went one better. He called his defeats victories. Napoleon had a great strategic plan. Washington did not. He hoped, and I quote, that “Some lucky chance may turn things in our favor.” In other words he was no fanatic. He was often uncertain about what to do next, and said so. What he dreaded most of all was mindless partisanship, what he called “the spirit of faction,” which he feared, could tear the country apart, and did. In this, as in so many ways, Washington was truly the Father of His Country.
Copyright: David Bouchier