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WASHINGTON’S BIG DECISION

February 16, 2019

On most Saturday mornings, I listen to National Public Radio. I enjoy the programming, beginning with “Only a Game.” For several years, Clare and I both took great delight in “Car Talk.”  “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is another of our favorites.

Scott Simon closes his “Saturday Morning Edition” with a regular feature, “Simon Says.” This week I recalled one of Simon’s commentaries from 2011. The date was the Saturday before, or maybe after, Presidents’ Day. He entitled his comments, “George Washington: Strong Man, But No Strongman.” I want to share again with you his reflections on one of the most important decisions made by our first president.

Scott Simon said, “The business of building a democracy will probably be less sensational, tweeted, and televised. …This time of year especially, Americans might remember some of the ways in which we made a democracy.

“The American Revolution triumphed with General George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781. Throughout history, a lot of conquering heroes — Caesar, Bonaparte, Castro, and Mugabe — have used great victories to seize power.

“But George Washington went home to Mount Vernon and farmed.

“He was drafted to return to preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Founders had sharp differences over how to balance the rights of states in a strong federal government that could stand against British, French, and Spanish imperial ambitions. But they all trusted Washington as the most balanced of men.

“As historian Joseph Ellis wrote, ‘Franklin was wiser than Washington, Hamilton was more brilliant, Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated, Adams was more engaging … Madison was more politically astute, but Washington was still the greatest. And they would all agree to that.’

“The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington the first president of the United States. He ran for a second term, reluctantly, in 1792. And then, in 1796, Washington did something astonishing and unprecedented for a powerful, popular leader: he stepped down. He declined to run for a third term and returned to farming. [The Constitution did not limit the number of terms a President could serve until after the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt which ended with his death in 1945.]

“There were people who believed that only a strong, longtime authoritarian ruler could keep a country stable in a risky world governed by emperors, kings, and czars. They felt the United States deserved no less.

“But Washington remembered that he had asked his men to fight for a republic. And when he stepped down, he put his young country’s future into the hands of every man with a vote. [Women were given the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment on 26 August 1920.]

“We’ve seen many countries rise up and hold free elections, only long enough for a charismatic, autocratic ruler to win them and hold on to power.

“We all know that democracy can be messy, corrupt, and disappointing. But every few years an event like a revolution or a civil war reminds us why people are willing to struggle and die for the freedoms afforded by a democratic republic.

“George Washington could have been a king. He decided to be a citizen. No crowds massed. No bands played. There is no statue or plaque to mark the spot. But it was as momentous a decision as any president — any ruler — has ever made.”

In 2019 there are poignant examples of leaders who seize power, sometimes even under the guise of democracy. Two especially come to mind for me. Both Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria are well-known world leaders, and both have been in power for many years.

Putin is the current President of the Russian Federation. He was Prime Minister from 1999-2000. He was first elected President in 2000 and served until 2008. Because of term limits, he became Prime Minister again from 2008 to 2012. Then Mr. Putin was elected President again in 2012. He is also Chairman of the United Russia Party, the ruling party.

Bashar al-Assad is the current President of Syria, holding the office since 2000. He is also commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces, General Secretary of the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and Regional Secretary of the party’s branch in Syria. He is a son of Hafez al-Assad, who was President of Syria from 1971 to 2000.

These two men have not done what George Washington did. Once in power, they kept it, even over the objections of many of the people they were elected to represent.

In our American democracy, we expect our outgoing president to step down just as the new president takes office. Even following contentious elections, Americans have witnessed a relatively smooth transition of governmental power. Yes, there have been large protests, much as there were when both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were inaugurated. But all in all, the orderly, peaceful transfer of power has been the rule rather than the exception.

There have been times in our country when presidential transitions did not go quite so well. In 1800, John Adams left Washington in a snit before Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office.

Following the Watergate scandal and facing conviction on Articles of Impeachment by the Congress, Richard Nixon decided to resign as President of the United States at noon, August 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford would become president. The formal Nixon-Ford transition began when Nixon informed Ford of his decision to resign at 11 A.M. on August 8, only a few hours before he told the nation. Ford had just 25 hours to prepare to assume office, making the Nixon-Ford transition the shortest of any that did not involve the death of the President.

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States. Herbert Hoover was quoted as saying of the President-elect that he was “very badly informed and of comparatively little vision.” The two were photographed together in spite of the fact that Hoover had vowed to never have his picture made with his successor.

Professor Edward Ayers writes, “No transition from one living president to another was as dangerous as that between James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln in 1861.” After Lincoln’s election and before his inauguration, seven Southern states seceded from the United States and formed a new government, the Confederate States of America. As Lincoln prepared to take office, eight other slave states debated whether they would join the Confederacy. Ayers concludes, “The greatest crisis in the nation’s history grew out of a distended transition between a lame duck President who refused to act and an inexperienced President facing unprecedented challenges.”

According to H. W. Brands, the presidential transition that took place in 1829 was like no other in American history. Andrew Jackson’s inauguration was a hostile takeover of the government. Jackson had been denied victory in 1824 in what Jackson called a corrupt bargain between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The 1828 election was bitter and dirty. Jackson verbally attacked Adams as a fraud and an aristocrat. The Adams side called Jackson an emperor and his wife, Rachel, a slut. Rachel died under the strain, magnifying Jackson’s anger at his opponents.

Jackson won handily, and his supporters surged to Washington. To the residents of the capital, these ruffians were little more than a horde of barbarians. At Jackson’s inauguration, they swarmed the White House with muddy boots, spoiling the carpets, breaking the furniture, and smashing the china. Jackson fled the celebration to avoid personal injury.

So, these transitions have not always gone smoothly. Still, our first president, George Washington, set an example for all who follow him in holding the office that is considered by many to be the most powerful position in the world.

In 1796, Washington did something astonishing and unprecedented for a strong, popular leader. He stepped down. He declined to run for a third term. He returned to farming.

George Washington became a private citizen. It was a great decision!

Thank you, President Washington.

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