Nobody set trends like George Washington.
He instilled some of the most basic guidelines we associate with the American presidency, like the title of “Mr. President”, the two-term limit and the cabinet appointments.
There’s a section of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History reserved for Washington, and rightfully so. He’s heralded as a Revolutionary War hero, a respected man and strong leader.
On a board in one of his displays is an explanation of how he stepped into the presidency. The sign reads, “His reputation was beyond reproach and his mere presence during the debates eased the fears of many delegates that a strong executive would naturally evolve into a monarchy.”
Those words are especially resonant now, as our congresspeople revitalize a stalled government and Americans simmer from a weekend of protests. The two-party system, which Washington fiercely opposed, must take some responsibility for the conflicts in tow.
Take the government shutdown: whether it’s the “Schumer Shutdown” or the “Trump Shutdown”, something about the system is not working. As the two parties argued back and forth, the potential for a resolution floated further away.
At the Women’s March on Washington Saturday, protestors held signs ridiculing the president — insulting his intelligence, attacking him with profanity and picturing his face above a toilet. In response, I heard whispers of “Man, people are so disrespectful”, as March for Life stragglers from the day before squeezed by. If this is how we treat a representative we elected, I bet the 1776 revolutionary protest signs were insane.
Imagine the passive-aggressive “GOT TEA?”, or the witty “I’VE SEEN BETTER MONARCHS IN SPRING”, or the line-crossing “KING GEORGE DID 9-11”. Maybe my time periods are mixed up, or maybe colonists were tragically perceptive.
I was sad that there wasn’t much of a dialogue between the two sides during the shutdown or Marches this weekend. It felt like it was just groups of people shouting their ideas at one another. The First Amendment grants that right — to assemble, to petition and to speak — but it comes with the unwritten rule to be heard.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il.) spoke on the Senate Floor Friday about how he longed for the “honest, open debate” that Congress once fostered. On Monday, he returned to the floor saying he was encouraged by the “constructive, bipartisan conversation” that took place to negotiate the government’s reopening. He seemed so validated, like the look on my dentist’s face when she says she can tell I’ve been flossing — such pride! And I think it’s sweet, really, I do, but a bit unrealistic. I think we need more than one weekend of what Senator Durbin describes as encouraging conversation.
It’s worth noting that Senator Durbin conceded that he “might have an old-fashioned view of things” and complained that the president “is impossible to negotiate with”. Even he, I hope, knows there is more work to be done.
Though President Washington’s tenure affirmed to delegates that the executive branch wouldn’t become overbearing, the polarized two-party system may have stripped the government of the power to proceed.
Washington tried to set the tone for the democracy: one of moderation. “The first wish of my heart was, if parties did exist, to reconcile them,” he wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Though these values have begun to slip away, the opportunity to reconcile may be ahead. And maybe it’ll start with a new sign at the next protest: “JUST TRYNA MAKE GW PROUD.”