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Washington: The First Decider

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I find George W. Bush’s tendency to butcher presidential history one of his most irritating traits. Praising George Washington’s unbreakable will, ability to stand up to multiple challenges, and belief that freedoms ought not to be enjoyed by Americans alone, President Bush stopped just short of asserting that President Washington would have supported the Iraq War, although he did suggest that the Iraq War and the Revolutionary War were of essentially the same character. Bush also tried to turn Washington into Harry Truman, saying:

My attitude is, if they’re still analyzing No. 1, 43 ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right, and make the tough choices necessary.

Quite. Goerge Washington did what he thought was right, made the tough choices necessary, and was rewarded by enormous popularity and the adoration of the American people. What President Bush, apparently on a deep personal level, still fails to understand is that it’s not enough simply to decide; one must make some effort to ensure that those decisions are correct and well reasoned. This is why George Washington was among the greatest Presidents of the United States and George W. Bush among the very worst.

President Bush and his supporters might also learn something from President Washington’s Farewell Address, a speech that makes a cogent defense of a modest foreign policy. Washington certainly believed that people other than Americans deserved freedom, but he just as certainly thought that America should lead by example, rather than through direct interference in the politics of foreign nations. His words:

So, likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld; and it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation….

Cross-posted to Tapped.

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