Thoughts On This Presidents Day Celebration and What’s At Stake

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George Washington Was A Man Of Complexity; Ron Chernow’s Biography Paints a Portrait Of A Nuanced & Complicated Man Which Offers A History Lesson To A Nation At Risk

By Tina Traster

I am plodding through Ron Chernow’s animated tome “Washington A Life,” which feels especially relevant as we gear up to mark Presidents Day this Monday, and while witnessing a grueling and deeply divisive contest for the next leader of this nation.

Like many, I had a basic knowledge of the lore and cliched tales that encapsulate the man who led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary War, who presided at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and who first held the title of the president of the United States. Every American is weaned on images of the wan, stoic man wearing a powdered wig, sitting astride a white steed, or standing stiffly in his blue coat over yellow regimentals, leaning ever so subtly upon a sword. Behind that carefully crafted persona was the man who came to embody American grit and determination.

But in Chernow’s pages we meet an under-educated man who knew his shortcomings, a man who enjoyed privileges and exploitations of the landed gentry, a man who held conflicting views of what freedom meant and who should have it, a man who married a widow but never fathered his own children, a man who led a ragtag army that failed miserably for a long, long and bloody time before it found its way, a man who appeared to be happiest at his beloved Mount Vernon in Virginia. This is the man I’ve been getting to know – as limned by Chernow’s portrait.

I like him, George Washington. Not so much because of his well-known heroism but because of his vulnerability, human foibles, doubts, humility, quiet sense of humor, even tenderness. Details that stand out are the way he grappled with the challenges and cycles of running a farm, raising Martha’s sick daughter and her entitled teen son, negotiating and navigating his ambivalent feelings between the Crown and an emerging nation wanting autonomy, wrestling over his role and duties as the leader of the Continental Army while pining bitterly for civilian life. Many times, while on the battlefront, Washington communicates to those tending the farm back home. He has a photographic memory of where every tree is planted and what needs doing.

What emerges from this animated portrait is a man with a steady and measured temperament who at times battles long illnesses, a man who today might be considered a “dandy” for his great attention to clothing and style.

Long before television, and subsequently every other form of media turned presidents and notable people into daily fodder, a man like Washington was largely able to get on with his day, with the task at hand, make mistakes, huddle with advisors, and focus on what was important and urgent without daily updates on gaffes or missteps. He was not preoccupied with press conferences and image making and the next election cycle.

Yes, it’s simplistic to idealize a time that to us seemed so unadulterated and uncomplicated though of course there’s nothing romantic about a threadbare army and fighting smallpox by taking pus from ripe pustules from a sick person and injecting that pus into a skin incision or directly into a vein to inoculate someone against illness. But a man like Washington was less constrained by the trappings of public opinion, a 24-hour news cycle, and a global communications device that turns every moment of modern-day life into a meme, commentary, metaphorical gunpower to keep us at war with one another all day every day.

Washington had to win over loyalists before our great nation took shape. Consensus is not an easy task but nearly 250 years later (America will celebrate its Semiquincentennial, in 2026) we are, at least now, still a nation founded on freedom and democracy – ideals we hold to be sacred, though we disagree over what those terms mean. His Revolutionary War comrade Henry Lee eulogized him as “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

The question is how much dissention and vilifying can we bear before we cannibalize one another, and our history and ethos with it? Every nation must grow and morph and conform to new challenges, but we are facing choices: Do we find a way to overcome difficulty together or do we end up impaling ourselves with intolerance and dysfunction?

It feels to me like we’re at a pivotal moment in our history. Choices made will carry great weight.

Today, let’s think about Washington, who was born on Feb. 22, 1732, amid the pleasures we take during a three-day weekend. On this federal government holiday, let’s also honor all those who served as presidents of the United States. Over decades, for better or worse, presidents have led us through dark periods, but we’ve always held onto the belief that no matter who occupied the White House, the country was built on solid fundamentals that would preserve who we set out to be.

Last summer, I visited Mount Vernon. I was struck by its beauty and its simplicity, sitting on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. On the guided tour through the house, one of the last stops was the room where Washington slept (of course he slept in a lot of places!). As the story goes, on December 12, 1799, Washington inspected his farms on horseback. He returned home late and had guests for dinner, sitting down for the meal without changing his damp clothes from the inclement weather of the day. He had a sore throat the next day but was well enough to mark trees for cutting. That evening, Washington complained of chest congestion. His condition worsened. Four doctors attended to him, but he died two days later, with Martha seated at the foot of his bed. His last words were “Tis well.” He was 67.

He left us with a raw piece of clay, a country on the dawn of formation. He was an example of leadership, a model. What we do with our template is up to us, but history holds its lessons. The one trait that stands out above all others in Chernow’s expansive biography on Washington was the man’s decency. It went a long way.