Washington and the qualities of leadership

February 22, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- He was born 264 years ago today in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and died 67 years and 10 months later at Mt. Vernon.

For years his birthday was observed as a solemn national holiday, but because it doesn't always fall on a Monday, it has been widely replaced in our time by something called President's Day, which does.

American children still learn his name in school, or in some schools. Even the ones who aren't quite sure in what century the Civil War was fought know in some detail who he was and what he did. His face appears on the dollar bill, which some in the government now think should be replaced with a coin in order to help the vending-machine industry. It also appears on Mt. Rushmore, and in uncountable tasteless advertisements. It is the face of an American icon.

As such, he has been for generations the subject of many myths and legends, durable even when known to be untrue, and of many exhaustive biographies which hardly anyone reads. Yet despite the easy familiarity we have with the face and the fables, he remains a mystery.

To his contemporaries, whether they viewed him with envy (John Adams) or a cool respect (Jefferson) or awe and adoration (Lafayette), he was distant and aloof. And to those of us who look back at him now across two centuries, wanting to understand him better both as a human being and as a founder of a nation and a system of government, he is still an enigma, a statue of a man on a statue of a horse. He might as well be Hannibal.

Now comes Richard Brookhiser, a conservative journalist, with a slim, perceptive book about the achievements and the legacy of the man of stone. The book -- ''Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington'' -- raises a number of points about that elusive quality, leadership, which seem especially appropriate in the midst of our current, and unusually tawdry, election campaign.

What enabled an under-educated rural colonial, handicapped by violent temper, to prevail on the battlefield against a great imperial power, and then help mold a disparate collection of bickering regional fiefdoms into a lasting democratic union? Mr. Brookhiser has some suggestions.

Stature helped. First of all, although not a truly handsome man, Washington was physically imposing. He stood six foot three inches. He was rawhide-lean in his youth and weighed just over 200 pounds in middle age. Though his chest was too narrow and his hips too wide, he had the broad shoulders and narrow waist of an athlete, and carried himself with a striking grace.

These features made him especially imposing on horseback, and even Jefferson acknowledged him as ''the best horseman of his age.'' Today, of course, the horse is a different symbol. We are taught to beware the dangerous appeal of a leader on horseback, and to equate horses, like yachts and cattle futures, with the privileged classes. But in Washington's day horsemanship was as much a democratic grace as was the ability to handle a rifle.

He also had a terrible temper, which he worked all his life to control. Its occasional eruptions were widely recorded in the diaries of his associates, and it contributed to the awe he inspired. But in the wake of these outbursts he never appeared to hold a grudge. That would not have been in keeping with his great emphasis on civility and courtesy toward equals and subordinates alike.

Bravery in war

Neither his physique, his horsemanship, nor his manners, of course, were what made him the most respected man of his time. He earned that respect above all for his physical bravery in war, for his absolutely impeccable reputation for personal honesty, and for the unswerving faith he shared with many of his countrymen in a few powerful principles.

He had less formal education than any other president except Lincoln, and unlike Lincoln he lacked the gift of eloquence, as well as the intellectual's inquiring mind. But he didn't need these. Instead he had a calm, steadfast belief in the new American union, in the concept that human rights are inherent and even divine, and in the idea that freedom cannot survive without strength. This was enough.

Another president

We now have another president with, it is said, an imposing physique, great personal charm and a famously explosive temper. This is a man exquisitely educated at two of the most admired universities in the world. Unfortunately, he is not known for physical bravery, personal incorruptibility or adherence to many of the principles by which his countrymen try to live their lives. And perhaps more unfortunately, neither are many of those currently seeking his job.

On the other hand, it was characteristic of the stony-faced Virginian whose birthday we note today to set high standards. Perhaps it's healthy to be reminded from time to time just how high they were.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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