Current political strategy is to discard the moderate center and energize the angry base. This is the approach of President Donald Trump and of an increasingly doctrinaire Democratic Party. It is a strategy of attempting to win elections by polarizing the country, and it raises the question of what Americans should expect from our leaders. We can have leaders who advance causes at the cost of driving us apart, or we can have leaders who rally us to a common purpose and hold us together. Trump is the archetype of divisive leadership. George Washington set the standard of a leader who united us.
Trump’s apologists say that they can overlook moral shortcomings, because they support his policies on taxes or regulations or his nominations to the Supreme Court. Washington’s personal qualities were more significant for his leadership than any positions he held on the issues of his day. His rectitude was central to his leadership, and his presence counted much more than his policies. He presided over the Constitutional Convention but barely participated in the debates. He became president by unanimous vote of the Electoral College without a stated platform. In office, he was a commanding personage who entrusted much of the development of policy to Alexander Hamilton.
Much taller than the average man of his time, he carried himself with great dignity. As a boy, he transcribed a long list of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” His first rule was: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect to those that are Present.” Giving the appearance of being aloof, he was reticent in the company of others, and avoided expressing personal opinions. In conversation, he was comfortable with interludes of silence. He did not like large crowds or invasions into his personal space. As president, he reluctantly attended weekly “levees” where he greeted guests with polite bows without shaking hands. It’s impossible to imagine Washington leading crowds of thousands in chants of “Lock her up!” or publicly boasting about private parts, or paying for the silence of a porn star.
Washington was a nation builder whose demeanor united Americans. In war, he transformed a weak confederation of separate states and an assortment of citizen soldiers eager to return to their homes into a victorious army. As president, he commanded the allegiance of his combative cabinet members, Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. In his farewell address, he pleaded with Americans to hold ourselves together as one people and avoid fragmenting into competing factions.
Washington’s dignified style that rallied our country to a common cause was intentional. He was well aware of his place in history and that he would create the precedent for what future presidents, indeed America, should be. As our first president, there were no models for him to follow. He became the model, and he applied himself to the task.
In a speech delivered after Washington’s death, his close observer and admirer, Gouverneur Morris, said of him, “So dignified his deportment, no man could approach him but with respect.” Then Morris provided an insight we would not imagine when we think about Washington’s lofty stature. He told us of Washington’s “tumultuous passions,” and said that “his wrath was terrible” and that there was “boiling in his bosom passion almost too mighty for a man.” Far from being blessed with innate equanimity, Washington was quite the opposite. It was his constant struggle to maintain the dignity that was his model for the presidency. In Morris’ words, “his first contest and first victory was over himself.” His biographer, Joseph J. Ellis, states that “Washington became the most notorious model of self-control in all of American history.”
By contrast, Trump shows no reticence or self-control. Without a governor, he says whatever pops into his head, on Twitter, in off-script comments, at home and abroad.
The legacy of George Washington is a presidency of civility and dignity that inspired his countrymen and held a nation together. It depended on self-control. The presidency of Trump is characterized by insults and coarseness that repel many Americans and drive a nation apart. It is the presidency of a man who does not control himself.
Our first president and our 45th offer contrasting examples of what we should expect from our leaders. It’s our responsibility to choose.
This op-ed is being co-published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Time Magazine.
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