RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., February 17, 2014 – While many Americans wonder where the apostrophe goes in President’s Day, the official title of the holiday is George Washington’s Birthday. What better way to celebrate the occasion than to interview George Washington?
How would he view the United States today? What advice might he offer?
[The following is an interpretation of how such an interview might go, almost exclusively using his actual words (which are italicized for clarity).]
TJ: President Washington, it is indeed a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview you.
George Washington: The pleasure is mine, and please call me George. The Presidency is neither a position to which I aspired nor a capacity in which I currently serve.
“I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe.”
TJ: I’m already beginning to detect a significant difference between you and political leaders of more recent vintage, who expect their former titles to be acknowledged for life.
George Washington: “Remember that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make(s) the officer, and that there is more expected from him, than the title.”
TJ: So, you believe that even the President is simply a civil servant of the People.
George Washington: [He smiles and nods affirmatively] “America…has ever had, and I trust she ever will have, my honest exertions to promote her interest. I cannot hope that my services have been the best, but my heart tells me they have been the best that I could render.”
“I have diligently sought the public welfare; and have endeavored to inculcate the same principles in all that are under me. These reflections will be a cordial to my mind as long as I am able to distinguish between Good & Evil.”
TJ: That’s very admirable. However, as with any elected official, your positions must have been challenged at times.
George Washington: “It is with pleasure I receive reproof, when reproof is due, because no person can be readier to accuse me, than I am to acknowledge an error, when I am guilty of one; nor more desirous of atoning for a crime, when I am sensible of having committed it.”
Then again, “I shall not be deprived … of a comfort in the worst event, if I retain a consciousness of having acted to the best of my judgment.”
TJ: That’s interesting. Today, it‘s more common to deny knowledge of duplicitous behavior than it is to take responsibility for it.
George Washington: I have always found that “Example, whether it be good or bad, has a powerful influence.” Perhaps the People will learn a valuable lesson from those who fail them.
Additionally, I led during a time that demanded responsibility. “To form a new government requires infinite care and unbounded attention; for if the foundation is badly laid, the superstructure must be bad.”
Besides, “A people contending for life and liberty are seldom disposed to look with a favorable eye upon either men or measures whose passions, interests or consequences will clash with those inestimable objects.”
TJ: Our dominant political Parties do not seem to place a premium on setting the bar high in that regard.
George Washington: “I was no Party man myself, and the first wish of my heart was, if Parties did exist, to reconcile them.”
TJ: The Parties exhibit no interest in reconciliation. In fact, they are more inclined to foster a divisive environment.
George Washington: “(While Parties) may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely…to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the People and to usurp for themselves the reins of Government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
TJ: That is precisely the challenge we face today.
George Washington: “Differences in political opinions are as unavoidable as, to a certain point, they may perhaps be necessary; but it is (regrettable) that subjects cannot be discussed with temper on the one hand, or decisions submitted to without having the motives, which led to them, improperly implicated on the other; and this regret borders on chagrin when we find that men of abilities, zealous patriots, having the same general objects in view, and the same upright intentions to prosecute them, will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions and actions of one another.”
TJ: Exactly! We would be far better served if our elected officials would agree to discuss issues in a civil manner rather than choosing to denigrate one another.
George Washington: As I have often said, “The most certain way to make a man your enemy is to tell him you esteem him such.” Is there any doubt as to why you cannot achieve bipartisan accord?
“… Party disputes are now carried to such a length, and truth is so enveloped in mist and false representation, that it is extremely difficult to know through what channel to seek it…But such…is the turbulence of human passions in Party disputes, when victory more than truth is the palm contended for.”
“I am sure the mass of citizens in these United States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters; but…where…great pains are taken to inculcate a belief that their rights are assailed and their liberties endangered, it is not easy to accomplish this; especially, as is the case invariably, when the inventors and abettors of pernicious measures use infinite more industry in disseminating the poison than the well-disposed part of the community to furnish the antidote.”
TJ: Your comment about “victory more than truth” being the goal is one of our harsh realities, and the “poison” of which you speak is driven by money in today’s political environment. As a result, the Parties strive to polarize the populace.
George Washington: “When one side only of a story is heard and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly.”
TJ: Well said, sir.
Our major Parties also have a predilection for negative campaigning. Do you have an opinion in that regard?
George Washington: “Serious misfortunes, originating in misrepresentation, frequently flow and spread before they can be dissipated by truth…To speak evil of any one, unless there is unequivocal proof of their deserving it, is an injury for which there is no adequate reparation.”
TJ: Beyond the Party paradigm that is testing our Republic, we also face some pragmatic challenges with the economy being at the top of that list. What advice can you give us in that regard?
George Washington: “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is, to use it as sparingly as possible; avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts, which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen, which we ourselves ought to bear.”
TJ: We haven’t been particularly good when it comes to avoiding the accumulation of debt. Conversely, we have been embarrassingly proficient at laying such debt at the feet of our posterity. What would you suggest to reverse these trends?
George Washington: Follow this principle, “To contract new debts is not the way to pay old ones.”
TJ: That seems simple enough.
We also seem challenged to host a functional Legislative Branch while maintaining its separation from the Executive Branch. How do you feel about that struggle?
George Washington: “The power under the Constitution will always be in the People. It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and, whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can and undoubtedly will be recalled.”
TJ: We have developed a habit of re-electing rather than recalling our representatives despite such circumstances.
George Washington: Then, the fault is your own.
TJ: I can’t argue that point, but how should we be applying the Constitution?
George Washington: “Let the reins of Government…be braced and held with a steady hand, and every violation of the Constitution be reprehended. If defective, let it be amended, but not suffered to be trampled upon whilst it has an existence.”
“If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be…wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.”
TJ: How do you feel about the use of Executive Orders to override or modify legislation?
George Washington: “Laws or ordinances unobserved, or partially attended to, had better never have been made.”
“It is important…that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres; avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create whatever the form of government, a real despotism.”
TJ: Those are interesting observations. While they may be obvious to you, we no longer teach Civics in our public schools, so such concepts may appear to be foreign to many of our citizens. What importance do you place on understanding how our Government works and what responsibilities we each bear?
George Washington: Allow me to put it this way: “In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important, and what duty more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country?”
TJ: Your point is well taken.
In the limited time we have left, are there any other thoughts you would like to share?
George Washington: Many of your current problems seem to stem from the truism that “Few men have virtue enough to withstand the highest bidder.” Identify men and women who have that virtue and elect them as your representatives
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is the best policy,” and I believe that “Truth will ultimately prevail where there (are) pains taken to bring it to light.”
With truth comes knowledge, and “Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”
Also, beware of those who use fear to solicit money and support. You will discover that “Good company will always be found much less expensive than bad.” More importantly, “Associate with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.”
And remember, “The best way to preserve the confidence of the People durably is to promote their true interests.”
TJ: You have an extraordinary grasp of leadership. We could use a leader like you. Would you ever consider serving as President again?
George Washington: No.
My friends and I left you with a Republic with the caveat Benjamin expressed: “If you can keep it.”
“I do not think we are more inspired, have more wisdom, or possess more virtue, than those who will come after us.” You must continue to earn the right to enjoy the Republic.
As another friend of mine with your initials once said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty.”
I was this great Nation’s only independent President. Perhaps you should revisit that concept.
TJ: The thought has occurred to me.
One more thing …
George Washington: What’s that?
TJ: Happy Birthday, sir.
George Washington: Thank you. Just don’t ask me to blow out all the candles on the cake.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities Digital News (CDN).