Monday’s commemoration of Presidents Day was a moment to pause and reflect on the legacy of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Both were living proof of the adage, “commeth the moment, commeth the man.” But the passing of centuries has indicated there was more depth to them than any recent occupant of the Oval Office.
They did not live in an instant, Twitter age. Their innermost thoughts appeared only in legislation, speeches and letters, the latter sometimes only revealed decades after their deaths. Historians have agonized over their words for clues to their character. Perhaps inevitably, their stature has risen as time has passed.
More books have been written about Lincoln than any other American. And with good reason. Preserving the Union from a north-south breakup and freeing the slaves must rate as significant as declaring independence from King George III and embarking on this remarkable experiment.
Marking the first president’s birthday was born of an era in which the memory of Washington was nurtured and venerated. His restraint in resigning his officer’s commission before becoming president then leaving the presidency after two terms was the essence of how he built our nation, historians have noted.
So there is good reason to study their lives. In perilous times, Washington and Lincoln showed us the way. In doing so, they defined America, and they set a standard by which their successors should be judged. If we lose sight of their example, we will be doomed to a succession of deeply flawed, mediocre presidents.
In the modern era, historians have dissected the lives of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Both men have come out favorably. The morality of Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb on Japanese cities — taking civilian lives to save military lives — is debated more outside the United States than within. But he was a man of his time, placed in charge by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death and acting in his best conscience.
Eisenhower’s often-quoted departing remarks were among the most memorable of speeches during the entire last century. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” he said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
And in the same 1961 farewell address, he also cautioned, “We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
These remarks addressed escalating military budgets and the burdensome national debt with striking clarity and foresight. Almost 60 years later, it is a cause for regret that we are still wrestling with both.
Since Ike’s day, our modern presidents have seemed a tad more flawed, in part because more sophisticated and broader media coverage has revealed their shortcomings.
Today, the role of president of the United States exists in a fast-changing world. The parameters of the influence of the other superpowers, Russia and China, wax and wane with every news cycle. Europe is in a state of flux with the departure of Great Britain from its political union. South America’s long-predicted rise to significant clout in world affairs still has not properly materialized.
In this context, the man or woman we elect to go to work in the Oval Office juggles weighty domestic and international issues in a fishbowl. We can see all their flaws and often know their innermost thoughts with striking, sometimes troublesome, clarity.
It is therefore timely that we should pause at least once a year to ask: What would Washington do? What would Lincoln do?
The answers to those theoretical questions should help provide a grounding. Perhaps no human in the White House will ever measure up to those two immortals. But they offer an example of service with humility that we could all embrace, and that is severely lacking in 2020’s current strategies.