This Thanksgiving, Looking Back at George Washington


GW1782.jpgThis Thanksgiving essay was originally written for the Huffington Post.
I know it sounds really corny, but this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful that George Washington was our first President — and that Barack Obama who like GW can be austere and seemingly distant from common folks but yet is smart and chameleon-like in his ability to forge compromises can still get a great deal right in his presidency.
Reading Ron Chernow’s excellent Washington: A Life, I realize how different our world would have been had someone like Tom DeLay or Aaron Burr been America’s first president. We might have ended up with someone who never wanted to leave the position as Washington did.
Or among the early founding fathers, if John Adams had come first, or Jefferson – the consolidation of a single political faction’s control over the machinery of government at such a fragile stage might have meant civil war far earlier than the one America eventually got.

Washington Chernow.jpgChernow brings the austere Washington to life in what must be the seminal work on the first President – highlighting Washington’s desperate need for social affirmation, his insecurity about education and intellectual matters, his vanity and concern for appearances, his tormented relations with a stand-offish mother, his focus on material and financial advancement, the role of fortune and luck in elevating Washington socially, economically, and politically.
Some of this tracks with Obama and much of it not. But what becomes clear in reading about Washington and knowing a lot about Obama is that their lives and presidencies were constant struggles to achieve outcomes that moved the common good forward — even though they had to engage in deal-making and take actions that seemed contradictory to what they believed. In the case of Washington, hanging deserters (when he was a commanding colonel at 23) or in Obama’s case, not yet shuttering GITMO come to mind.
Chernow explains that whatever George Washington did became co-mingled with who Washington was and what his personal interests were. He owned the outcomes he got and personalized the results good and bad — whether at 21 years of age it was convincing the royal governor of Virginia he should lead the state militia against the French or whether it was taking over the sprawling operation of Mt. Vernon that he originally rented from his half-brother’s widow. Whatever Washington did became a personal enterprise. He couldn’t separate the task at hand from his own interests. Obama can’t comingle his real estate and personal finance interests with those of a nation in which he has been trusted to be the chief steward — but he can do more to feel political ownership of the process and results of his policy efforts.
To some degree, Washington made America his own enterprise, but one that he could walk away from politically. Obama needs to find a way to do the same — to do a better job owning the outcomes of his administration and learning that he has the power and capacity as President to create penalties and opportunities for Members of Congress (as well as Cabinet Secretaries and political advisers in his own administration) in delivering on the public policy that Obama pledged to during his campaign.
Power and policy were negotiated around Washington – and today, we still negotiate power and the national narrative between interest groups and political factions.
With both the rise two years ago of President Obama and now the rise of the Tea Party, we are seeing the country’s future negotiated. Institutions that Washington’s administration established and the essential balance of power in government that Washington forged under his calm, often austere leadership can act as a stabilizer against wild political swings.
But as so often happens when one reads the life story of someone who played a vital, irreplaceable role in securing America’s greatness, one pines for that person to be around dealing with matters today. Despite George Washington’s ubiquitous presence on the dollar bill and as the symbolic father of the nation, few Americans have a sense of him as a person, his internal torment, the tough calls he had to make as he forged a new nation.
Presidents often compare themselves with each other and become taken with legacy. The first thing a new U.S. president often does is to stock up on histories of their predecessors — and this new book on George Washington is one that Obama should delve into.
There is no George Washington on the scene today – at least none that I can see at the moment. And American institutions need someone as balanced, as driven by both a desire for power and a desire to not seem to want power, to make the American enterprise his or her own – long enough to re-secure the anchors of democracy in the US. Barack Obama could become the George Washington of a next era for the country — but he’s going to have to learn how to be less acquiescent to the political weather created by others and become the one, like George Washington, whose presence and preferences set the terms of debate for others. Obama is not there yet but could be.
So, for my Thanksgiving, I’m glad we had George Washington – and I hope that Barack Obama takes time to study what a great leader who can make decisions and have the courage of his convictions looks like.
— Steve Clemons


9 comments on “This Thanksgiving, Looking Back at George Washington

  1. sanitychecker says:

    Never in my lifetime has the duty to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable been more pressing. There is a season for compromise and a season for anger. Today is a season for anger. Not violence, but anger, and a duty to make the lives of the plutocracy uncomfortable. It’s time to view the banksters and their pimps in DC as pedophiles, very powerful pedophiles, and treat them with the respect that goes with the function.
    In fact, when you read about the food price speculation that Goldman has engaged in — causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Yes, death — I am being unfair to pedophiles. Right now, thanks to QE2, the 6 big banks are buying treasuries at 4% with money borrowed from the Fed at zero interest. This is a monster rip off engineered by Obama’s clique. The distinction between Dems and Repubs is completely obsolete. On the two issues that are killing this country (incessant wars) and plutocracy), the two parties are mirror images.
    Should we give thanks for the giant bonuses on Wall St (highest ever) and Obama’s plea to make banking the most profitable industry in this country? Should we give thanks to him for telling us we’ll begin to pull out of Afghanistan and July 2011, er, 2014, er… sometime in the next 100 years.
    Why aren’t people more angry?


  2. DonS says:

    Re some comments above, I think some of Steve’s musings and reflection on the death of Chalmers Johnson indicate an awareness of the insider-outsider balancing act of the Washington scene.
    Steve says “I took a course trying to use blogs, new media, and a DC based think tank called the New America Foundation to challenge conventional foreign policy trends in other ways [than Johnson] . . . I think Chalmers was content with what I was doing but probably knew that in the end, I’d catch up with him in his profound frustration with what America was doing in the world.”
    We on the outside, I venture, find it easier to translate our perception of moral clarity into assumed practice. Steve has the problem of struggling with the apparent dichotomy on a daily basis — probably moreso when a shock, such as Johnson’s untimely death, make it hard to turn away.
    Then again, it may be far easier for us outsiders to assume a leverage and power that is more theoretical than actual for anyone in Steve’s place. And like others, I wish him well in his struggles, and the serious implications that arise, often/usually to one personally, from opening doors to the unknown; it usually means other doors closing, or at least changing.
    As to the run of the mill pols who are elected to do the people’s business but in large majority sell out to the corporate business, little respect is owed them. The ship of state has evolved into a plutocracy, and the elected reps [and the president?] are the deckhands. Doubtful George Washington would respect those who have sold out in the short term so thoroughly that any longer term vision is just lies and platitudes.


  3. DakotabornKansan says:
  4. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Well, if you want modern day George Washingtons, than those framing the narrative must seek to frame the truth, so that Americans can recognize the Washingtons as they make their all too rare appearances on the political scene.
    Washington DC is just a supermarket now, with slick marketing campaigns selling con-men and misrepresented policies, with no “Consumer Reports” kind of media involvement.
    Thats where people like YOU should come in, Steve, the insiders that can shift the narrative, nudge the media in the right direction by countering their propagandistic swill with the real information that insiders such as yourself are privy to.
    But I don’t see that happening. You and those like you are far too close to the problem, and acting in the masquerade is far too profitable, far too full of temptation and the vicarious thrill of rubbing elbows with those wielding unspeakable power.
    When you remove the prattle, Steve, its little more than complicity that you are engaged in. And its no longer simple political malfeasance that you abet with your complicity, but it is the destruction of the very essence, the very soul of what the founding fathers envisioned and dreamed of.
    Oh, don’t take me wrong, I don’t think you’re bad or evil. On the contrary, I think you’re a good man, blinded by temptation and tittilation. But make no mistake, many here outside the beltway reading your essays, opinions, and observations cannot help but note the glaring ommissions that place gaping holes in the substance of your narrative. Like the Fourth Estate that has so completely abandoned its duty to the citizens, the insiders and think tanks have abandoned all moral purpose, abandoning the people in their drive for enrichment and self-empowering agendas.
    I wish you a heartfelt warm and secure Thanksgiving, Steve, in a year where many of your fellows, in unprecedented numbers in modern history, are enjoying no such comfort, DIRECTLY because of the actions of those you so worship, defend, and befriend. I hope you find the time, soon, and reflect on the inner self that chose to resurrect the visions of our founding fathers on this Thanksgiving day. Before its too late, and that person disappears forever.
    God bless America. Or, I should say; whats left of her.


  5. Linda says:

    A friend liked my Thanksgiving ethical lament yesterday about cooking for diverse friends in the 21st century:
    I had to go to the store for last minute ingredients–to make two versions of soup for tomorrow–got a call from my daughter that 4 additional guests for our Thanksgiving dinner are one vegetarian, one vegan, and two sorta-keep-Kosher—so I had to get vegetable broth instead of chicken broth and imitation sour cream made with tofu instead of the real thing–and do a vegan version.
    I was sorely tempted to lie as I don’t think anyone could taste the difference–but got an ethical lecture from my daughter. Actually it might make a fun question to ask the NYT Sunday magazine ethicist.
    These people are not allergic to chicken or dairy or lactose-intolerant–and not much of even one chicken is in a can of chicken broth–and the chicken would have died anyhow……….The great ethical dilemma of Thanksgiving dinner…..
    Happy Thanksgiving to all!


  6. Don Bacon says:

    Edward Winslow’s letter of December 11, 1621 is the principle surviving written record specifically describing the events of the


  7. Don Bacon says:

    But is it possible to nation-build and president-build simultaneously?


  8. DakotabornKansan says:

    The Year We Had Two Thanksgivings
    On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt carved the turkey at the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at Warm Springs, Georgia, and wished all Americans across the country a Happy Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, his greeting went unanswered in some states; many Americans were not observing Thanksgiving on the same day as the President. Instead, they were waiting to carve their turkeys on the following Thursday because November 30th in many states was the official Thanksgiving Day. Two Thanksgivings? Why were Americans celebrating a national holiday on two different days?
    At the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, Thanksgiving was not a fixed holiday; it was up to the President to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation to announce what date the holiday would fall on. However, Thanksgiving was always the last Thursday in November because that was the day President Abraham Lincoln observed the holiday when he declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Franklin Roosevelt continued that tradition, but he soon found that tradition was difficult to keep in extreme circumstances such as the Great Depression. His first Thanksgiving in office, 1933, fell on November 30th, the last day of the month, because November had five Thursdays that year. Since statistics showed that most people did not do their Christmas shopping until after Thanksgiving, business leaders feared they would lose money, especially during the Depression, because there were only 24 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. They asked Franklin Roosevelt to make Thanksgiving one week earlier. President Roosevelt ignored those concerns in 1933, but when Thanksgiving once again threatened to fall on the last day of November in 1939, FDR reconsidered the request and moved the date of Thanksgiving up one week. Thanksgiving 1939 would be held, President Roosevelt proclaimed, on November 23rd and not November 30th.
    Changing the date of Thanksgiving seemed harmless enough, but in actuality proved quite controversial. It was so upsetting that thousands of letters poured into the White House once President Roosevelt announced the date change. Some retailers were pleased because they hoped the extra week of Christmas shopping would increase profits, but smaller businesses complained they would lose business to larger stores. Other companies that depended on Thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November lost money; calendar makers were the worst hit because they printed calendars years in advance and FDR made their calendars out of date for the next two years. Schools were also disrupted by Roosevelt’s decision; most schools had already scheduled vacations and annual Thanksgiving Day football games by the time they learned of Thanksgiving’s new date and had to decide whether or not to reschedule everything. Moreover, many Americans were angry that Roosevelt tried to alter such a long-standing tradition and American values just to help businesses make more money.*
    As opposition grew, some states took matters into their own hands and defied the Presidential Proclamation. Some governors declared November 30th as Thanksgiving. And so, depending upon where one lived, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the 23rd and the 30th. This was worse than changing the date in the first place because families that lived in states such as New York did not have the same day off as family members in states such as Connecticut! Family and friends were unable to celebrate the holiday together.
    *Many Americans at the time believed that the Pilgrims chose the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving, but that is not the case. Although Americans had celebrated days of thanksgiving before, it was not until 1863 when President Lincoln began the observance of Thanksgiving in November.
    The following letter is just one of a few of the thousands of letters President Roosevelt received regarding his decision to move Thanksgiving up one week:
    Letter from Robert Benson and Clarabelle Voight:
    Groton, South Dakota
    August 17, 1939
    Mr. F.D. Roosevelt
    Washington, D.C.
    Dear Sir:
    Referring to your proposal as to changing the date of Thanksgiving to November 23, we think we have just the place for you out here in South, Dakota. Yankton.**
    After all this country is not entirely money-minded, we need a certain amount of idealism and sentiment to keep up the morale of our people, and you, would even take that from us. After all we want to make this country better for our posterity, and you must remember we are not running a Russia or communistic government.
    Between your ideas of running for a third term, and your changing dates of century old holidays, we believe you have practically lost your popularity and the good will of the people of the Northwest.
    Robert S. Benson
    Clarabelle Voight
    As representatives of the northwest
    – Source:


  9. questions says:

    Nice essay!
    Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!
    Get cookin’!
    And don’t forget about people who can’t cook, not for lack of talent, but for lack of food.
    Political compromise is necessary to get things done, and the power structures in this nation are certainly intractable, and I’m a huge Obamabot.
    BUT, I would very much like to see more done for people whose lives have been compromised by the current power structure.
    From babies who will never be given much of a chance through children whose entire schooling consists of a series of high stakes tests that test only test-taking skills, through teens who are disparaged by public policy, short changed by schools, never given a chance to explore, dumped on mean streets with no chance of meaningful participation in the larger world, through adults whose ability to take care of their kids and parents has been limited by the economic crash, to the elderly who watch their “kids” do worse than they did — we should be getting more recognition from the power structures.
    With all of this, it might be nice to hear policy makers speak with awareness, sympathy, and programmatic creativity.
    We’re still in for slow reckoning on the foreclosure mess, on the various wars we keep getting into, on the way we treat prisoners and our poor and our disfranchised, and those who seek refuge here hoping for a better life.
    We have many tradeoffs to make between the young and the old, between the haves and have-not-so-much-es, between those with positive wealth and those with negative wealth, among regions and races, between home owners and renters, between the educated and those not. If the same people lose out on all these tradeoffs over and over throughout our lives, we will have reached a state of complete injustice. It should never be anyone’s role to be the one to lose out at every stage of life. Indeed, we should be trading off loserdom from group to group, age to age, over time.
    We can do better only if we collectively think less about ourselves and more about one another.
    If the carnivorous president can pardon a turkey every year, maybe our timid patriots can find in their frightened hearts a moment to forgive a border crosser, a teenager with ear buds and low-slung pants, a person whose sex life is a subject of intense curiosity and approach/avoidance, a person who’s in over his or her head on a mortgage….
    If we all pardon one person today, maybe we’ll all have been pardoned for one of our many seeming-sins that are really just part of being human.
    Geeze, if the Pope can come around on condoms, maybe someone can forgive an overextended, underemployed, trying hard even if not succeeding, fellow dweller on this plot of land.


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