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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."

The deep voice made the hair on the back of my neck tingle. “Huh?” I muttered. Was I awake or asleep?

“It’s me, Washington,” the voice continued. “Now I’m on the Elysium side of things but I still worry about the confusing, contradictory country I helped to birth. Every so often I channel someone who’s likely to agree with my view of the enterprise.”

“I’m flattered, General.”

“You shouldn’t be. It means you’re in the minority. That’s always a troublesome place for an American to be. We’re all in love with popularity! I liked it when it came my way. But I gradually realized the popularity boys are almost always in the wrong.”

“No historian bats a thousand, General, including me.”

“Too many of them bat .150. Like that guy who said Barack Obama is the most intelligent president in American history. You should have seen how that went down with Teddy Roosevelt and Woody Wilson! Teddy graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and Woody was magna cum everything from everywhere!”

“Fascinating, General. Or should I say Mr. President?”

“I answer to both titles. On the whole I found more satisfaction in my accomplishments as a general. You’re one of the few who appreciate how I changed the strategy of the war in September 1776.”

“I'll never forget that letter you wrote to the Continental Congress, General. Especially the sentence that changed the whole history of the Revolution. Henceforth we shall never seek a general action. Instead, we shall protract the war.”

“It wasn’t easy, getting Harvard know-it-alls like Little Johnny Adams to admit they were totally, hopelessly wrong with their blather about winning the war in one big battle. The other principle was even harder to get through their heads.”

“An army to look the enemy in the face?”

“A trained army, with cavalry, artillery, quartermasters, commissaries. One of the irritations of reading current historians of the Revolution is their yammer about how we won by fighting a guerilla war, using militia. British writers are especially prone to this idiocy. But there were idiots in Congress who thought the same way until the day we ratified the treaty of peace and I resigned my command.”

“You don’t seem to think highly of Congress, General.”

“Congress has always been a necessary evil. One of the first things I did when I became president was write letters to every government in the civilized world telling them if they wanted to communicate with the United States of America, they should write to ME, President George Washington, NOT Congress.”

He pronounced Congress so harshly, it almost jolted me out of bed. “That makes me think you deliberately waited until Congress was not in session to declare us neutral in the war between England and France?”

“Of course I did. That was another key step in establishing the power and independence of the presidency.”

“Then came your decision on the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794?”

“Those hotheads in western Pennsylvania were talking about seceding from the union. I called up 15,000 men and smashed them flat in two weeks. If we’d left it up to Congress, they would have debated it for six months while the British in Canada shipped the loudmouths guns and money. A president can’t depend on Congress to DO anything. They have to be prodded in the right direction by a man who knows how leadership works.”

“I can see why you think the presidency is important, General.”

“Jemmy Madison deserves most of the credit for creating the office. I’ll submit a modest claim for my exhortations during Jemmy’s postwar visits to Mount Vernon. Anyway, we finally got a constitution that put Congress in its place. It’s up to every president to make sure it stays there. He’s got the power – all he needs is the skill—and guts -- to manage this.”

“Is there a book you’d recommend, General?”

“Woody Wilson’s Congressional Government. It’s a wonderful primer on how a president has to decide whether he’s the master or the servant of Congress.”

“If Wilson got that right, why was he such a terrible president?”

“You’re too hard on him. He had a good first term. But when he got into that so called world war he was --- what’s that word your generation likes?


“Woody was hopelessly pro-British. In my farewell address. I warned Americans NEVER to get too attached to ANY foreign country.”

“Especially Mother England?”

“There’s a saying I like. In every Briton’s heart, there’s a cold spot for America. They can’t stand the thought that the ex-colonists are bigger, smarter, tougher and richer than they are. “

“Are there presidents you admire?”

“A few. One may surprise you. That fellow from Missouri.”

“Harry Truman?”

“He and I have gotten to be great friends. It’s amazing to me and a lot of other people. After all, Harry’s a Democrat.”

“You have trouble with Democrats, General?”

“Democrats ARE trouble. Don’t you remember that letter I wrote in 1799? One of my last?”

“You said you wouldn’t run for a third term under any circumstances. Because your opponents would probably put up a dummy stuffed with straw, call it a democrat, and beat you.”

“That was aimed at the democrats of the 1790s. Tom Jefferson and his crowd. But Truman proved a president could be a Democrat without being a demagogue or an airhead theorist like Tom. Did you ever see those gunboats President Jefferson designed to defend our ports against the British Navy? They had one miserable cannon on them! You couldn’t get any naval officer in his right mind to take command of one. Tom did a number on the army, too. He appointed that congenital liar James Wilkinson commander in chief – while he was on the Spanish secret service payroll! Because Wilky sent him dinosaur bones he dug up in Texas!“

“Could we get back to Harry Truman, General?”

“You bet. Martha keeps telling me I shouldn’t get so overheated about Tom’s follies after 209 years. Harry really appreciated the presidency. He said it was the greatest political office in the history of the world. That’s one of the most important things any president has ever said. Even more impressive was the way he analyzed the job.”

“He said being president was really six jobs in one?”

“I’m glad someone’s remembered that. First, a president is commander in chief, responsible for the morale and readiness of the military. Second, he’s the leader of his political party. Third he’s a legislator, constantly sending proposals to Congress. Any president who lets those guys think up their own policies is on his way to joining Warren Harding and Jimmy Carter in history’s dustbin. Fourth the president handles the nation’s foreign policy. Fifth, he’s the head of state, greeting leaders of other nations in the White House. That’s gotten more and more important. It’s a chance to make friends—or offend influential people. Sixth, he’s the Chief Executive, making sure the laws he persuades Congress to pass are implemented and obeyed.“

“It’s a job and a half, isn’t it.”

“If a president does them all right, he may find himself unpopular. He can’t let that bother him.”

“You don’t put much in stock popularity polls, General?”

“They’re your modern substitute for intelligent thinking. Unpopularity is often PROOF that a president is doing a good job. People’s reactions to the presidency are mostly irrelevant. According to that Viennese guy, Sigmund What-his-name, they’re all mixed up with hating or liking your father. He came by one day and talked and talked and talked. I thought I’d never get rid of him.”

“You were pretty unpopular in your second term, weren’t you?”

“Every newspaper scribbler in the country started spitting on me after I declared America neutral. I had turned my back on the wonderful French Revolution! Secretary of State Tom Jefferson was at sixes and sevens all day every day. He came to see me one afternoon and talked for a full hour. When he finally ran out of breath, I told him: ‘Mr. Jefferson, I don’t agree with a single word you’ve said.’ He resigned a few months later and wrote that vicious letter to one of his newspaper pals, calling me a Samson in the field who’d allowed himself to be shorn by the harlot, England. I never spoke to him again. If I did, Mrs. Washington would have changed the locks on the doors at Mount Vernon and told me to take up residence in the outhouse.”

“Mrs. Washington had political opinions?”

“Of course. But the smart First Ladies confine them to the bedroom. Bess Truman was a champion in that department.”

“How do you think President Obama is doing?”

“It’s too soon to tell. I got in touch with you to let Barack know Harry and I and Ronny and Abe and Teddy and the rest of us up here are WATCHING him.”

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