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Published: Sunday, 2/22/2009

Obama could learn valuable lessons from Washington

THERE was a time, not even a generation ago, when everyone knew the meaning of today's date. There was no President's Day then, and there was no school on Feb. 22. Government agencies and post offices were closed.

In a year in which the nation recognized the importance of Feb. 12, which was Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, it seems right to pause and reflect on George Washington, who was born 277 years ago today.

It is true that Lincoln saved the country. It is true that Lincoln redeemed the country's promise of liberty and equality. It is true that Lincoln gave concrete shape to the values the founders propounded.

It is true too that America doesn't really need the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln's memory lives in the nation's splendid diversity, in its ennobling spirit, and in its resilient hopes even in the face of economic adversity and foreign threats.

But if Lincoln saved the country, Washington created the country. As a citizen, he won the war that set it free. As a general, he established the tradition of civilian rule. As a ruler, he assured that the United States would be a democracy, not a monarchy. Born an English subject, he died an American patriot.

The two men had one important thing in common. Lincoln and Washington looked at the great suffering of war and knew that to redeem it, they had to make their wars - the American Revolution, the Civil War - mean more at the end than they had at the beginning. In both cases, that cause was freedom and democracy.

So we err this month if we focus on Lincoln to the exclusion of Washington.

The historian Gordon S. Wood, perhaps the most complex mind ever to examine the colonial and Revolutionary period, expressed Washington's impact in perhaps the simplest sentence ever written in a classic book of historiography: "Washington was truly a great man and the greatest president we ever had."

Washington remains the model of presidential greatness. In his new biography of Andrew Jackson, Jon Meacham says of the Tennessean: "[I]f he chose to, he would make himself a factor in deciding any question in American life."

So was this true with Washington, but the difference is that Jackson played this role only in life, while Washington has played it in life and in death. Jackson's reign was eight years. Washington's is more than 220 - and counting.

In his 2004 biography of Washington, His Excellency, historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote that Benjamin Franklin was wiser, Alexander Hamilton smarter, John Adams better read, Thomas Jefferson more sophisticated, James Madison more astute. "Yet," he argued, "each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior." Mr. Ellis described Washington as "the most ambitious, determined, and potent personality of an age not lacking for worthy rivals."

Earlier this month I set forth four lessons that Barack Obama, with his obvious attraction to Lincoln, might learn from the 16th president. On the birthday of Lincoln's distinguished predecessor, here are four lessons the new President might learn from the first president:

•Remember that the value of power is not in its possession but in its use. "The pleasing emotions which are excited in ordinary men on their acquisition of power," David Ramsay wrote in his early 19th century biography of Washington, "were inferior to those which Washington felt on the resignation of it."

American history is full of examples of the relief presidents felt on relinquishing power. But American presidents, with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, felt obligated to relinquish power after eight years because Washington made it unseemly not to do so.

By 1951, Washington's custom had been transformed into law. But that isn't the lesson. The lesson is that power is a tool to be used - to shore up a nation's economy, to cite an example relevant both to 1789 and 2009 - and not a prerogative to be guarded.

•Liberate yourself from the consensus of today and seek broader truths beyond. Washington has been criticized, along with other members of the founding generation, for his ownership of slaves. At one point, Washington expressed the sincere desire to see "a plan adopted for the abolition" of slavery, but he backed away from pressing the matter in Congress and kept his slaves in bondage during his lifetime.

Still, Washington understood justice more profoundly than did many of his contemporaries, including the great exponent of liberty, Thomas Jefferson. "I can foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union," Washington said. His slaves were freed after his death.

•Understand that greatness is intertwined with humility. In his speech disbanding the Revolutionary army in 1783, Washington asked God "to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation."

Washington was the greatest man of his generation, yet he never boasted. He walked humbly. He commanded by whisper, and he led by example.

•Promote civility in politics and throughout American life. It is no more difficult to foster comity in civic life than it was for Washington to promote good manners among soldiers, a notoriously unruly lot. Hardly anyone who has walked across the hectic, sometimes coarse, American civic square has failed to hear an American leader express what Washington admonished to his soldiers in his order against profanity:

"The general is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army, is growing into fashion. He hopes that the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it and that both they and the men will reflect that we can little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our army if we insult it by our impiety and folly."

A little politeness - a little sense of gentle charity - in the capital, and maybe in every American hometown, might do more to change the country than the stimulus bill. It would change the way Washington, D.C., does business and it would change the way Americans live. It would be change we could believe in, and truly celebrate.



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