George Washington and Today's Ruling Class

I had an interesting observation about the Congressional hearings last week featuring famed Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens and the accusations in Major League Baseball’s Mitchell Report of his alleged use of steroids and human growth hormone. As I read about Rep. Henry Waxman attacking Mr. Clemens’ integrity and Rep. Dan Burton, the ranking Republican on the committee, questioning the veracity of Brian McNamee, Clemens’ accuser, I couldn’t shake the image of two elected officials who owe their status and influence to the people who elected them, sitting on a high dais looking down on their “subjects” as if they were royalty and the people before them mere serfs. Both Waxman and Burton were engaged in behavior we typically associate with people who consider themselves members of the ruling class. This image is not confined to Capitol Hill, either. Attend any local meeting of county commissioners, city council members or other elected officials and the scene is practically the same. The elected officials sit behind an ornate wooden dais and gesture for the serfs – er, citizens – to come forward and speak. Sometimes the elected officials can be dismissive or even brusque with the individuals before them as if they have been accorded an honor of immeasurable proportions to be allowed to approach the dais and they’d better show them the proper respect. I first felt this way in 1993 when I went before the city council in Melbourne, Florida to petition for a change to the city’s zoning ordinances so home-based businesses could apply for business licenses. The council members allowed me to speak for a very limited period of time, discussed the topic among themselves as if I wasn’t there and didn’t allow me to rebut any of the negative claims they made in their “private” discussion. The good news is that I persevered and single-handedly persuaded them to change their ordinance to allow home-based businesses. The bad news is that I left fuming about how I was treated and often exclaimed to my family and friends, “Who’s working for whom here?” After all, they owe their very livelihood to me and thousands of others like me who saw fit to drape upon their shoulders the mantle of leadership. It appeared to me that they had forgotten the second word in the phrase “public servant.”

That said, it’s very appropriate on this Presidents Day to look back at the life of George Washington, our first President and the one whose birthday we in fact commemorate on Presidents Day. Did you know that “Presidents Day” is not the official name of today’s holiday? Advertisers coined the phrase so we can recognize both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in February, on the same day – it’s better for sales, I guess. Some states extend the commemoration to include more or all the Presidents of the United States, but the official name of the federal holiday is “Washington’s Birthday.” There’s some Presidents Day trivia for you (grin)!

George Washington believed throughout his life that the law existed to serve the people. Because of this, he was a reluctant commander-in-chief and an even more reluctant President of the United States, even though he was twice elected unanimously to the office, the only President in our history to be so honored. At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, he was the most popular person in America and could have easily become our king if he wished. Instead, he not only stepped down from his commander-in-chief position, he vowed never to seek public office again. His willing surrender of power made him an international hero. Even King George III of England declared Washington “the greatest man of his age, or perhaps any age."

When he was unanimously chosen by the first Electoral College as the nation’s first President under its new Constitution, although he had sworn not to seek public office, he deeply loved this new country he had helped create and considered his election a calling to serve his people.

He was clearly averse to assuming the Presidency. In a private letter to a friend he declared “my movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to his place of execution.” Still, he governed with great integrity, establishing peace with England and solidifying the ability of the new federal government to hold the republic together. He rejected the majestic titles and trappings associated with European royalty, refusing crowns or robes in favor of the simple dress of a well-respected gentleman. He rejected titles like “His Excellency” or “His Highness” and adopted the simple designation of “Mr. President.” He was an able and effective administrator and encouraged debate and discussion among his cabinet before arriving at a decision. He was not a member of any political party but valued input from both Thomas Jefferson, the head of the Jeffersonian Republicans, and Alexander Hamilton, the founder of the Federalist Party, both of whom served in his cabinet. Finally, he refused to serve a third term as President because he knew the young nation equated him with the Presidency and it was important for the country to experience a transfer of power that indicated the office was more important than the man. All the Presidents that followed him adhered to the custom of serving for no more than two terms until President Franklin Roosevelt sought and was elected to four terms, leading to the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. Perhaps more importantly, he longed to return to life as a private citizen and did so happily.

His last great act came after his death only three years later when, in his will, he commanded that upon his wife Martha’s death all their slaves were to be freed. He also left instructions for their continued care and education and provided a stipend upon which they could live. He was the only prominent Founding Father to free his slaves, and his explicit instructions to educate and provide for them so they could live a free men and women were unique for his day.

The humility and integrity of George Washington pales in comparison to so many of the politicians that litter our landscape today. While Washington regarded power in a federal republic as something to be held lightly and released easily, today’s politicians make a living out of clinging to power. I was seven years old when Steny Hoyer was first elected to the Maryland Senate, beginning a political career that has spanned 42 years. When Mike Miller first walked the halls of power in Annapolis as a delegate from Prince George’s County, I was twelve and, other than crossing the aisle to the state Senate, he hasn’t left his perch for 37 years. It’s no wonder our elected officials forget that they hold their positions solely through the consent of the governed. Of course, we the governed have a responsibility to study the issues, monitor our elected officials and hold them accountable for their actions. If we don’t, a small but influential group of their friends and sycophants will continue to return them to power time and time again. We apparently can’t count on them to regulate themselves, which is why the man an American-based German language newspaper first named “Der Landis Vater” – The Father of His Country – is honored for his deep and abiding respect for the nation he helped to create. Happy Birthday, Mr. President.