Channelling George Washington: The Learning Curve





Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the eighth in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

To see this country happy is so much the wish of my soul, nothing on this  side of Elysium can be placed in competition with it."

“You’re sounding very cheerful tonight, Mr. President.”

“I’m feeling hopeful about President Obama.”

“What’s he done that’s encouraging?”

“He’s discovered the learning curve.”

“The learning curve?”

“Every president has to learn on the job.  Some – too many—have flunked this test.  I was close to giving up on Barack after the mess he made of the health care bill.  He finally extricated it from total disaster.  But it got that way because he sat there and let Congress write the thing.  Then I found myself watching my celestial TV in amazement while Barack issued an executive order allowing us to drill for oil in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico!”

“That was pretty amazing.  His party’s left wing didn’t like it very much.”

“Didn’t like it?  They gave a perfect imitation of Tom Jefferson and the other proto-Democrats of 1791 when I announced we were going to stay neutral in the war between France and England.”

“President Obama also talked back to the left wing, justifying the decision rather well.”

“Then came another surprise.  His flying trip to Afghanistan.  I thought –wow – he’s going to stir up the anti-war crowd this time.  Another crucial part of his left wing.  His intentions may have been good.  But I’m afraid his performance over there left a lot to be desired.”

“What troubled you?”

“The visit was too short.  Most of the time while he was in the country it was night.  He didn’t say or do anything to encourage the troops.  It was all top-drawer business.  A conference with General McChrystal and that disastrous meeting with President Karzai.”

“What troubled you  about that?”

“He publicly lectured Karzai about corruption in his government.  You just don’t do that to an ally in a war.  How can someone who attended Harvard Law School know so little about American history?”

“I’m not sure what you mean by that.”

“Corruption and fighting wars go together like vermouth and gin.  It’s inevitable.  During a war you do everything in a hurry.  The focus is on winning.”

“Can you give me some examples?”

“Let’s start with my war.  Surely educated types should know that half or two thirds of the Continental Congress were on the payroll of the French ambassador.  By 1780 those so-called lawmakers were so obedient, they did everything he told them.  Like passing resolutions ordering our diplomats in France to do or say NOTHING without the approval of King Louis XVI and his cabinet.” 

“That may shock some people.”

“That’s what growing up is all about.  Absorbing shocks.”

“There was corruption in our other wars?”

“You’ve heard the term shoddy?  That was invented in the Civil War to describe the millions of dollars of worthless stuff the government bought from manufacturers.  Shoes that fell apart, guns that didn’t shoot, food that made thousands of men sick.”

“Ugh.  Did things get any better in the next century?”

“In World War I, Woody Wilson spent at least a billion dollars to achieve the glorious goal of sending fifty thousand planes to Europe.  Instead, we never built a single plane that could get off the ground.  But a lot of businessmen got rich.”

“Surely we learned better by World War II.”

“That’s good for a laugh.  My friend Harry Truman organized a Senate committee to try to put a brake on corruption.  He found millions being wasted building army camps that fell apart in the first windstorm, tanks that couldn’t survive for ten seconds against a German panzer.  I could go on and on.  Harry estimates he saved us a billion dollars a year – and tabulated five times that much in wasted efforts and padded payrolls and phony deals.”

“So we’re a little like the pot calling the kettle black?”

“A lot like it.  I thought it was especially poor of President Obama to be throwing the word corruption around.  He’s from Illinois. The governor, Rod  Blagojevich – was caught trying to sell President-elect Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder!  Blago still hasn’t gone to jail!  And the guy who bought it is still in the Senate!”

“But the trip to Afghanistan was still a good presidential move?”

“Essentially, yes.  Even better were those fifteen recess appointments, made after Congress adjourned.  They were a bold use of executive power.  That’s the way a president gets things done.  When Congress refuses to cooperate with him, he’s got to show those smug incumbents-for-life (they all hope) that he’s got Constitutional power in his own right.”

“Three cheers for the learning curve!”

“It’s too early to cheer.  But the president is starting to understand that the job is synonymous with leadership.”

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/16/2010

"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," was the refrain.

For at least sixty years after he died he was always mentioned in the halls of Congress with the prefix "great" in front of his name.

During the Civil War he was claimed by both sides, and posters of him were usually included in patriotic demonstrations.

There was George Washington, and then there were all the rest. That was the view of our ancestors who knew him well, and we ought to go back to it. He remains our genuine national hero.


R.R. Hamilton - 4/13/2010

A "fair and balanced" article on HNN? Is this a trick?

I'm trying to remember what it was that was said about Washington that made him, arguably, our greatest president. It was something like the alliterative "listen, learn, and lead" motto of Newt Gingrich, but that's not quite it. ....

Darn, I don't remember, but it was a four-step process that was, essentially, "decide slowly, then act resolutely".

Btw, I give Obama credit for pushing his health care insurance bill through. I think it will cost his party the House this year, and maybe end his presidency in 2012, but at least Obama can say that, like Washington, he acted resolutely.


R.R. Hamilton - 4/13/2010

A "fair and balanced" article on HNN? Is this a trick?

I'm trying to remember what it was that was said about Washington that made him, arguably, our greatest president. It was something like the alliterative "listen, learn, and lead" motto of Newt Gingrich, but that's not quite it. ....

Darn, I don't remember, but it was a four-step process that was, essentially, "decide slowly, then act resolutely".

Btw, I give Obama credit for pushing his health care insurance bill through. I think it will cost his party the House this year, and maybe end his presidency in 2012, but at least Obama can say that, like Washington, he acted resolutely.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/12/2010

I find it hard to believe that George Washington, especially after all this time, would be both short-sighted and cynical. The nearly post-modern concern with the optics of the presidency instead of the substance is shallow beyond words.

Mr. Fleming may have actual historical points to raise, but these daydreams are just pathetic.