Music Cue: Remembering George Washington

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On this Presidents Day weekend, Scott Simon reflects on George Washington and how we take him for granted.


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It's hard to say that a man whose face is on the dollar and the quarter is overlooked, but ever since the observance of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were combined for Presidents Day, Washington usually seems to come up just a little short in tributes. Lincoln was so eloquent, steeped in sadness, enlivened by wit and poignant in memory. His words still measure up to the marble in which they're etched. His story seems to confirm the promise of America, that a man or a woman from humble circumstances can move history.

Even among the nation's founders, the man on our dollar bill is often undervalued. Washington wasn't a great thinker like Jefferson, a tinkerer like Franklin or a legal scholar like Adams. He was a surveyor, a planter and a soldier. He understood practical things: work, land, blood. But the democracy that Lincoln redeemed in the Civil War was not only won but secured by George Washington.

As a general he inspired beaten men to endure for a country that existed only in the imagination. He lost the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, the British took Philadelphia, and Washington retreated with his army of 10,000 men to Valley Forge. Congress clamored for him to be replaced. Over the winter, a quarter of his army, 2,500 men, died from disease and exposure, but Washington wouldn't send them home.

Imagine if there were around-the-clock news services then to chronicle such suffering and talk-show generals to ask: Why does this guy still have a job? Send him back to Virginia.

Some of the founders tried to persuade Washington to make himself a king, not president, to have a leader to stand along the monarchs of the most powerful nations. Washington refused, not just out of modesty but with the great and innate understanding of someone who would ask men to live and die for a principle, that what would make the United States great was that it had no monarch.

People then tried to persuade him to stay in office perpetually. He stepped down after two terms, knowing that a real democracy couldn't be embodied by just one man. Imagine what post-war history might have been like if some of the revolutionary leaders who came to power on the promise of freedom - Castro, Marcos, Mugabe - had been bold enough to step down after just a few years, leaving the people they profess to love and trust to actually choose their leadership.

Washington was rarely called brilliant or eloquent, but he had what political analysts today like to call authenticity. His convictions led him to actions, not just phrases. George Washington won a revolution, and at the height of his power, he stepped back and let a democracy grow in its place.

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