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Thanks, George: How America Avoided Egypt’s Fate

Stepping down is hard to do.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is the latest example of a ruler who simply cannot let go of power.  As the masses demonstrate for democracy in Tahrir Square, the octogenarian Mubarak stubbornly refuses to go gently into the night.  “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed.  “It never has and it never will.”  Examples of Douglass’s dictum abound.  From Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya to Kim Jong Il in North Korea, powerful, long-standing dictators remain entrenched across the globe.

Perhaps no continent has suffered more from the unwillingness of leaders to step down than Africa.  The intoxicating democratic excitement accompanying the overthrow of colonial regimes in the 1950s and 1960s has given way to half a century of disappointment.  From Angola to Zimbabwe, from Equatorial Guinea to Tunisia, too many African nations have suffered from despotic rulers who combine corruption and brutality to remain in power for decades.

Rare is the nation that can sustain a democratic revolution.  So how has America managed to avoid the temptations of totalitarianism and remain committed to peaceful, voter-driven transfers of power?

One major reason is George Washington.

Washington, paradoxically, is perhaps our most underappreciated president.  The aging fuddy-duddy who gazes impassively from our dollar bills certainly is no longer “first in the hearts of his countrymen,” as Henry Lee eulogized.  Where once school kids learned to revere Washington as an almost god-like figure unable to tell a lie (based in large part on Parson Weems’ essentially fictional account of Washington’s life), many Americans now see him as just another hypocritical southern slaveholder.  Neither portrait does justice to the man who helped our nation avoid devolving into a monarchy or anautocracy.

Washington’s achievements certainly are extraordinary.  He led a rag-tag army to victory over the world’s mightiest power, he skillfully guided the Constitutional Convention to produce an enduring document, and he served two exceptional terms as president during a tumultuous time.  Perhaps his greatest feat, however, does not involve courageous military exploits or praiseworthy presidential leadership.  It is what separates him from Mubarak, Mugabe, Marcos, and legions of other leaders-turned-despots:  he stepped down.

No Gallup polls were conducted to determine Washington’s “popularity rating” when he left office in 1797, but evidence suggests that he could have won an overwhelming majority had he chosen to run for a third term.  Indeed, it is unlikely that he even would have faced an opponent—he ran unopposed in both 1789 and 1792 and was the unanimous choice among presidential electors.

Given his popularity, Washington easily could have succumbed to the temptations of power.  He could have called upon his loyal followers within the military to create a standing presidential army to enforce his will.  He could have manipulated public opinion to demonize and punish potential political opposition.  He could have summoned the financial and political clout of the aristocraticSociety of the Cincinnati to resist democratic impulses from below.  He could have inflated threats from abroad or the frontier to create an excuse to consolidate power and suppress individual liberty.

But he didn’t.

Instead, he chose to leave office and return to his farm in Mount Vernon.  He did not anoint a successor or work to influence the election of 1796.  He did not involve himself in the growing factional disputes between his former cabinet members, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  He did not undermine his successor or opine about the decline of the nation due to his absence from office.

In so doing, he set our nation on a path toward a stable democracy.  He set the standard for presidents peacefully transferring power to their successors, and he established the tradition of presidents serving a maximum of two terms.  This precedent lasted until 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt had the temerity to run for a third term—though we quickly restored Washington’s equilibrium by passing the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution to limit all future presidents to two terms.

Washington’s birthday may no longer command its own national holiday, but the least we can do is understand and appreciate his role in helping us avoid the situation that Egypt now faces.  Stepping down with peace and dignity intact is not just hard, it’s much more impressive than that silly myth about the cherry tree.

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