First in the Hearts of his Countrymen

Over the years, I've made an interesting observation about the practice of government in the U.S. Our elected officials call themselves public servants but their actions and demeanor tell me they see themselves less as servants and more as masters to whom we must pay our respects. Their behavior stands in stark contrast to that of the man we honor today.I first noticed this in 1993 when I single-handedly and successfully lobbied the Melbourne, Florida City Council to amend its zoning ordinances to allow home-based businesses. Despite my success, I felt throughout the process that I was treated like a peasant. I was allowed to present my argument but afterward couldn't interject while they were discussing the merits of my proposal among themselves, even though I was right in the room and had amplifying information that would answer their questions. They were self-important and not particularly respectful of me. I certainly wasn't made to feel like someone who was responsible for granting them their positions of authority through my vote and who paid their salaries through my taxes.

Last year, the Maryland General Assembly was debating the passage of a law patterned after Jessica's Law in Florida that would establish tougher mandatory minimum sentences for child sex offenders. Many victims of child sex abuse came to Annapolis that day to testify but the legislators who controlled the agenda forced them to wait for several hours, and their testimony was allowed only after the television crews had left for the day. This was a deeply disrespectful act which only added to the victimization of these witnesses who came at great personal and emotional expense to address their representatives.

Fast forward to Upper Marlboro, Maryland in 2009 and the Prince George's County Council. The council met to vote on a proposal from the county executive to bypass tax limits placed on county government by the citizens at the ballot box. Several people showed up in opposition to this end-run around the will of the people, but the council delayed the discussion of the proposal for several hours until most of the opponents had left and only a few remained. They remarked that there didn't appear to be significant public opposition to the proposal and it passed and is being forward to the Maryland General Assembly for debate and a vote.

Scenes like this play out at every level of government, from the U.S. Congress to any local meeting of county commissioners, city council members or other elected officials. They 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.

Contrast their behavior with that of a man who understood what it meant to be a public servant and acted it out. Despite his immense popularity and influence, George Washington, our first president, chose to willingly limit his service to two terms, prompting even King George III of England to call Washington "the greatest man of his age, or perhaps any age." In the world of that time, it was unprecedented for a person to relinquish power once they had achieved it. Washington came to the Presidency reluctantly and refused a third term because he believed it was important for this fledgling nation to witness a peaceful transfer of power and see him as a citizen, not a king. Until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third and fourth term, all the Presidents who followed Washington voluntarily adhered to the two-term tradition. While he was President, he refused the trappings and titles of royalty, choosing to wear that day's equivalent of a business suit and answering to the simple designation of "Mr. President." Although he could have exploited the deep affection the people had for him to retain power indefinitely, Washington longed to be a private citizen and returned happily to his farm at Mount Vernon to live out the remainder of his days.

Washington's servant leadership and humility make today's lifetime politicians seem small in comparison. My congressman, Steny Hoyer, has been in Washington for 28 years. My state senator, Mike Miller, has been in Annapolis for 34 years. We apparently can’t count on them to regulate themselves, which is why we honor George Washington who loved his country too much to place himself above his office or the people he served. Happy Birthday, Mr. President.