WWWD: What Would Washington Do?

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It's become cliché to claim that if George Washington were alive today, he would look at his namesake city and say, "Shame on you!" I disagree. I think he'd be more likely to say, “Get it done!”

A default to action was hard-coded into Washington’s character just as it is in our nation itself. And it’s that imperative to act, that willingness to do what it takes to “get it done,” that’s so clearly missing in national government today.

Many observers have bemoaned the lack of civility in modern Washington, and the unwillingness of elected officials to make the hard choices that governing requires. In modern political parlance, “civility” is for sissies and “compromise” is just capitulation. But compromise is also the lifeblood of our entire system of Constitutional governance. Without compromise, nothing happens.

Governing has been replaced by a perpetual fight for petty and fleeting political advantage. While recent reports of cooperation across the aisle and across the Hill do give Americans cause to breathe easier, there are still reasons to remain skeptical. I still see too many local political factions trying to punish officeholders who do their jobs the right way, so invariably I also see too many officeholders who feel forced to put their responsibilities second to the parochial interest of re-election. It is maddening.

When a manufactured crisis shut the government down, many Americans didn’t notice; others wondered why it was reopened. When dereliction of duty produced the budget sequester, locking in bad policy and making real reform impossible, many Americans cheered -- at least their government was doing something. Except the sequester isn’t action, it’s inaction. George Washington would be appalled. He knew that true leadership was about getting things done.

-- On Christmas Eve 1776, the safe and sensible move for General Washington and his tired, cold and hungry army would have been to retreat to winter quarters. Instead, Washington acted. He led his troops to a shocking victory at Trenton.

-- When the Continental Army threatened to march on Congress to demand the pay they were owed, the safe and easy choice would have been to let things play out. Instead, Washington acted. He quashed a coup that would have changed history.

-- When pressured to help fix the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation, the safe and sensible choice for Mount Vernon’s retired gentleman planter would have been to decline. Instead, Washington acted. His involvement made the Constitutional Convention possible; his leadership made it successful.

-- When his Cabinet was feuding over assuming state debts, the safe and (as a Virginian) profitable option would have been to stay out of it. Instead, Washington acted. He brokered a deal between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton that laid the foundation for America’s financial security.

-- When religious prejudice infected his young nation, the safe and sensible choice was not to get involved. Instead, Washington acted. He visited the Truro Parish Synagogue in person, setting the standard for American religious tolerance.

The last two examples are often rightly cited as evidence of Washington’s own commitment to compromise and civility. They were his tools, his methodology for getting things done. But his focus was on the doing. Ours should be too. We need to demand that our leaders “get it done” and we need to hold them accountable.

I have spent over 50 years in public service of one sort or another and believe deeply that the contract between Americans and their system of government is our nation’s greatest source of strength. I see Americans learning to accept conflict and incivility from their leaders, and we are deeply troubled. The next step, and I fear it is close, is a loss of confidence in the ability of government even to function. That would be devastating to everything the United States represents.

Come to think of it, if Washington were alive today, he might say, “Shame on you.” More likely, he wouldn’t waste his breath. Presiding over the Constitutional Convention, he rarely spoke. He sat at the front of the room, on a dais, in a high-backed chair, and watched his fellow Founders in debate. At 6-foot-4, and with an imperious air, his mere presence demanded as much respect as did his leadership in the War of Independence. Surely that gaze of expectation and responsibility that produced the Constitution would work on Congress today. Get it done. 

David Abshire is a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  He is currently vice chairman and counselor of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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