George Washington isn’t the sexiest of American presidents in our public imagination, nor the most accessible. Perhaps we are all too weighed down by the “father of his country” image, the cherry tree myth, his powdered wig and bone-and-ivory (no, not wooden) teeth.
But author Aaron David Miller argues in his new book, “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President,” that of the three undeniable “greats,” Washington actually had the hardest job.
Harder than Abraham Lincoln, who had to steer his nation through its Civil War? Harder than Franklin Roosevelt, who had to tame the Great Depression and wage World War II?
Yes, said Miller in our interview — because unlike Lincoln and Roosevelt, Washington didn’t even inherit a real nation. “He had no predecessor, he had no established country. He said himself, ‘I trod unproven ground.'”
Miller’s book expands further. “Even in extremely threatening circumstances, Lincoln and certainly Roosevelt had inherited an established country to govern,” he writes. But in Washington’s case, “America had yet to demonstrate it could exist and function as a unified polity … Having won independence, Washington was now expected to help create a nation de novo — a republic, no less, for which there was no real precedent — and to fashion it out of a group of former colonies lacking a strong center and without a tradition of central authority.”
Washington had a “conviction that the early Republic needed a strong central authority,” but that wasn’t easy to fashion in a post-colonial climate of deep public suspicion on any such authority.
How did Washington do it? “I call it ‘presidential improv,'” Miller told me. “He was making up a lot of it as he went along.”
Watch the PBS NewsHour tonight to hear Margaret’s full conversation with Aaron David Miller.