This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Officially, today is Washington’s Birthday. Abraham Lincoln and other presidents got in on the deal later.
So let’s give Washington his unadulterated due this time. There are multiple reasons to honor the first president, including his crucial role in creating the nation, the Constitution and the executive branch. His single most important contribution, though, is something he didn’t do: cling to power.
The world is full of horror stories written by rulers unwilling to let anyone else run the show. One of those stories is unfolding right now in Syria, where long-time dictator Bashar Assad has spent 11 months spilling the blood of Syrians who are sick of him and tired of waiting for a change in management.
What started as peaceful demonstrations inspired by nonviolent revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt has become a brutal civil war that Assad will probably and deservedly lose.
This is the human race’s customary method of transferring power. To get rid of a dictator or king, you’ve got to defeat his army and kill him – the fate of Moammar Gadhafi in October. Dynasties and one-party regimes generally have to be shown the door the same way.
Then you’ve got a slippery guy like Vladimir Putin, who uses a hand-picked front man and legal manipulations to call the shots in Russia for what could turn into more than 20 years. He’s made himself a czar without violating the country’s conveniently flexible term limits.
The amazing thing about Washington is that he appears to have been genuinely horrified by the idea of a power grab. He had the means and opportunity to make himself a king or whatnot; unlike most in the same position, though, he lacked a personal motive.
Americans take limits on presidential power for granted because we’ve had them in place – thanks in part to Washington – for more than two centuries. But in his world, executives were superglued to their thrones. Even a constitutional monarch like George III of England had a lifetime lock on his job.
Washington used words like “abhorrence” and “painful sensations” to describe suggestions that he accept a crown. His most revolutionary act might have been his happy departure from the presidency after two terms.
Some biographers believe he wasn’t trying to create a two-term precedent so much as he was afraid of dying in office during a third term. He didn’t want America’s first president to die the way a king dies: scepter in hand, appointed heir waiting to receive it.
This year we’ve got Barack Obama defending his power and a squad of Republicans campaigning to take it from him. It’s a rebellion, but a peaceful rebellion observing constitutional limits.
One side will lose in November and do a lot of griping; then it will abide by the outcome. Peaceful transitions of power are hard-wired into the American political system. Washington deserves a lot of credit for that.