John Krull: Washington’s lessons for Roberts and Biden

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court greatly expanded the powers of America’s chief executive, both the chief justice and the president of the United States invoked the name of George Washington.

Sadly, neither John Roberts nor Joe Biden learned the lesson from Washington he should have.

Roberts wrote about Washington in the conclusion of his majority opinion expanding presidential immunity from prosecution. He drew upon Washington’s thoughts leading up to the constitutional convention but ignored the way our first president conducted himself while in office.

Biden spoke more accurately of Washington’s belief that the power of the president should be limited. But today’s president did not acknowledge the first president’s conviction that no leader is more important than the cause or country he serves.

Washington’s public career was punctuated by a series of renunciations, refusals and withdrawals. He bound the nascent American public to him by declining to plead for support.

Perhaps for that reason, no other American leader has commanded the unalloyed loyalty of the nation the way Washington did. He remains the only president in U.S. history to win unanimous support in the electoral college.

One of the reasons we have a constitution with an executive branch is that everyone knew George Washington would be the first president. Americans trusted Washington to govern with restraint.

That mattered in a nation early in its independence from a British crown that often had been capricious and arbitrary in its exercise of power.

For that reason, in his lifetime and afterward, Washington was called “the essential American.”

Again and again, Washington signaled he did not covet power for its own sake. His model was Cincinnatus, the general who eagerly returned to his farm after he had saved Rome.

At the Revolutionary War’s conclusion, when the newly independent nation struggled to find its footing, Washington, too, returned to his fields. As president, he resisted attempts to cloak the office in the trappings of monarchy—going so far as to submit his State of the Union messages in writing to Congress, rather than delivering them in person, to make clear that he was the servant, not the master, of the nation and its people.

After two terms in office, with his health beginning to fail, Washington chose not to stand for re-election even though he would have been returned to office again. His determination to relinquish the presidency helped set the American tradition of the peaceful transfer of power, but his desire to retire provoked tremendous anxiety.

Even such contemporaries as Thomas Jefferson who had become less than enamored with Washington’s policies believed he was the only leader who could hold the still-young nation together. They begged him to serve another term.

Washington refused, because he believed the test of the American experiment in self-government involved proving that no leader was indispensable, no president was bigger than the nation or its laws.

That is the point of Washington’s life that Chief Justice Roberts missed or ignored.

Washington did not seek to set the presidency above the American public. Rather, he sought to make the president subservient to the nation.

The truth President Biden missed was Washington’s rejection of hubris and his acknowledgement of vulnerability.

This was a key part of Washington’s appeal. He was, by all accounts, an austere and distant man, one whose formidable presence made him all but unapproachable.

In spite of this, he had a rare ability to endear himself to others.

In the days following the revolution the American economy was in shambles, many soldiers wanted—no, needed—the pay they were owed for fighting. They considered taking up arms against the government they’d just fought to establish.

Washington appeared before them to quiet the tumult. He pulled out a pair of glasses to read his remarks, a then-shocking admission of physical decline before men he had led into battle.

“Gentlemen,” Washington said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Veterans who stoically had endured the myriad terrors and hardships of a long, vicious war dissolved in tears. The mutterings about rebellion ended. The nation endured.

George Washington still has lessons to teach Americans about duty to and love of country.

It’s a pity neither John Roberts nor Joe Biden seems willing to learn them.

John Krull is director of Franklin College‚Äôs Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected].