The pillars of the American Presidency, the largest historical icons, are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington is known as the father of our country and Lincoln as the great emancipator who got us through the Civil War and saved the Union. These are the men that our national celebration of Presidents’ Day really focus on and they were conveniently both born in February, making it a bit more tidy.
Lincoln has been shown in a great new movie bearing his name, which I have written of recently in this post. Following my viewing of that movie a few months ago, I downloaded the book The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon by John Ferling to my Kindle.
The movie showed Lincoln as a real man, not an image carved from stone, but an warm man who invited you in. George Washington, on the other hand, is seen in this book as far as I’ve read, as a master of persuasion and manipulation, an acceptor of credit and denier of blame. He was incredibly capable at creating an image of himself as above politics while at the same time harboring burning personal ambition. He was not a man who invited you in, he was a man aloof and cold, hardworking and meticulous, daring in battle and majestic in presence, who was precisely the individual needed for our country in his time just as Lincoln was in his own.
Gore Vidal once said that history creates roles to be filled and if the person we look back upon filling them had not, someone else would have. In the case of these two men, with the particular roles they filled when they did, it is hard for me to imagine there was another who would have done so. As great a collection as the Founding Fathers were and as great as many of the generals of the time were, none other seemed to possess Washington’s unique combination that made him an outsized leader. Many were smarter intellectually in the Congress and many were better generals in terms of strategic understanding. None projected the image that Washington did, an image necessary for an overmatched army and a fledgling nation.
Looking at the men behind the image only can go so far when they are centuries dead, but these glimpses are both definitely worth the viewing. It’s always good to look behind the image, to see how history is constructed in context, to see the human frailty beneath the projected majesty. Usually, you find that the Great and Mighty Oz is not really that hard to relate to once the curtain is pulled aside.