The Plank

Why'd Obama Talk About George Washington?

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I
was totally fascinated that Obama chose George Washington as the
touchstone American-history figure in his inaugural. This was not
an obvious choice. Lincoln, FDR, or even MLK would have been. But ol'
sterile, ancient, powder-wigged, pink-cheeked George -- who's ever
thought of him past fifth-grade history class, or perhaps fleetingly, when you look at a quarter?

A
conservative friend notes, too, that, in the last half of the last
century or so, George Washington was appropriated by right-wingers as
"their" founder, thereby somewhat diminishing our collective access to
him as an inspirational figure. (A conservative foundation
set itself up at Valley Forge; the Daughters of the American Revolution
have an obsession with him; etc.) Maybe this was a bit of a sly move,
part of Obama's project to reach across party lines. Another
conservative friend (okay, my staunchly Republican mom) told
me after watching Obama's speech that "one of the things that has
always nagged at me about Obama, as a conservative, is, 'Does this man
care about the founding? Does he even think about it?'  So I was
astonished to hear it invoked ... the evocation of Washington was
great." And the story Obama told about George worked perfectly in the
moment: Its images of "shores of an icy river" and men huddled against
the bitter cold feathered in with today's weather.

But the most interesting thing about Obama's use
of George Washington in his speech is how differently these two
political figures -- the Washington of history, that is, and the Obama
of the campaign -- are perceived. Obama ran as a transformer, a
"change agent," and liked to drop the phrase "new birth" in reference
to his political project. I got the sense this idea then
galloped away from him, and he became irritated with the ensuing
assumption that a Prez BHO would radically overhaul the country.
But he was always seen, nevertheless, as a politician in the mold of
Reagan or Lincoln (from whom, of course, the idea of a "new birth" for the country originates), and not of Washington, who made himself out as the opposite of transformative.

Washington resisted (if feebly) the early impulse to turn him into a Mosaic figure. His own First Inaugural
begins in a sort of frantic lather of humility: "The magnitude and
difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my
country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most
experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his
qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration)
ought to be peculiarly conscious of his
own deficiencies ..." It was Washington who established the model of
the president as a humble caretaker of the Republic, not its reshaper. He was widely seen in his day not as the most brilliantly
clever man around, but as the one with the most unquestionable integrity,
the kind of doorman (to use a crude analogy) you can leave your most precious jewelry with when
you go away on vacation.

I
thought Obama ended his speech with Washington today in order to tweak
his image. He's not here to change everything about America, or even
to change everything that his progressive supporters don't like, the end of the
speech said. He's here to safeguard it like the unflappable Washington,
to "carr[y] forth that great gift of freedom and deliver ... it safely
to future generations."

--Eve Fairbanks

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