Our Politics Has Yet to Turn Up a Better Man: Joseph Epstein on George Washington

Washington Crossing the Delaware. Emanuel Leutze. 1851.

I have been dipping into Joseph Epstein’s Essays on Biography in which collection he writes about important figures ranging from the 5th century BCE (Xenophon) to the 21st century (V.S. Naipaul).  The essays are arranged into the categories of “Americans,” “Englishmen,” “Popular Culture,” “And Others.”  The first essay, equally parts commentary on leadership and biography, outlines the career and myth of George Washington.  He begins writing about this topic, which is subtitled “An Amateur’s View” with:

In The American Commonwealth, his book of 1888, Lord Bryce, considering American political institutions, provides and early chapter titled, ‘Why Great Men Are Not Chosen President.’  Most Americans, without needing to hear the argument, are likely to agree with the chapter’s premises.  the planetarkhis, the modern Greek word for ruler of the planet, the President of the United States may well be, but we can all be assured that, whever he is, nowadays he is almost certainly likely to be a mediocrity.  ‘Besides,’ Bryce wrote, ‘the ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity.  He has a lower conception of the qualities requisite to make a statesman than those who direct public opinion in Europe here. He likes his candidate to be sensible, vigorous, and, above all, what he calls “magnetic,” and does not value, because he sees no need for, originality or profundity, a fine culture or a wide knowledge.’ Mr. Ford, Mr. Carter, Mr. Regan, Messrs. Bush, Mr. Clinton, and Mr. Obama—take a bow, please.

So if the last five decades of American leadership are the epitome of mediocrity, then what, you might wonder as I have, does Epstein make of the current administration?  In an op-ed piece for the The Wall Street Journal last month, he compared Mr. Obama’s successor, Number 45 to Kaiser Wilhelm II and had this to say about his leadership style: “…He does share with Kaiser Wilhelm volatility, instability and a combination of paranoid touchiness and megalomania, along with a boundless self-confidence lashed to an often astonishing ignorance.”  Epstein goes on to compare the current president to a high school boy who resorts to constant, cruel name calling.  But personally I think this is insulting to my high school students who are much more mature and, quite frankly, kinder than the current occupant of The White House.  A comparison to my friend’s toddler who gets irrationally upset for the slightest reasons—someone looked at her the “wrong” way, she doesn’t have her favorite outfit on for ballet class, her sister touched her stuffed animal—seems more fitting.  But, then again, this comparison might be insulting to the three-year-old.

Epstein argues in his Washington essay that the founding father was by no means perfect.  Even while he was alive, the myth of Washington grew and grew.  He had a very rigid sense of honor, was seen as aloof, and constantly worried about his reputation.  He was the right man, at the right time, for the right position.  But, Epstein argues, the single most important belief that Washington upheld was that a political leader ought to be a moral and honorable man who is above party interests:

He believed that honorable conduct was crucial to public life.  He believed that a political leader needed to surmount the parochial interests of party.  He believed that good character meant more than anything else—than special interest, than idealism, than any theoretical concerns—and worked to develop a character of the kind in himself that proved his point.  Washington was not a great military mind; he was a good though not a saintly man; he was no master politician.  In the end, his genius was perhaps the rarest kind of all: a genius for discerning right action so strong that he was utterly incapable of knowingly doing anything wrong.  He was our founding father, and our politics has yet to turn up a better man.

In light of what has gone on in my country in the last two years, Epstein’s words are….depressing.  If only…

(Some of the otherbiographical essays in this book I am eager to read are those on Henry James, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, V.S. Naipaul, Xenophon, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.)

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Our Politics Has Yet to Turn Up a Better Man: Joseph Epstein on George Washington

  1. This sounds like a very interesting collection: I would particularly like to read his take on Solzhenitsyn. And I enjoyed your caustic thoughts on your President very much…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vishy

    Wonderful post, Melissa! This book looks quite fascinating! I feel that ethical and moral levels have definitely declined since the time of George Washington, but I think that Epstein’s comment that there has been no good American President since then – I am not sure I agree with that. Also, from what you have written, he seems to imply that there were great European leaders but no great American ones. I feel that this is just another version of the old biased thought that America is just an inferior version of Europe and by extension American leaders are inferior to European leaders. I disagree with that. However, I feel that the quality of political discourse has gone down, not just in America but across the world. It is odd, because education levels across the world have gone up, people have become more well informed and smarter, but the quality of politicians has gone down. Even well educated politicians speak stuff which is not well informed, is sometimes rubbish and is divisive. (George W. Bush went to Harvard and Yale). I don’t know whether there will be an inflexion point in the future and this will all change. I loved what Epstein has said about George Washington. It is so nice to know that there is an essay of Xenophon there. I read parts of one of his book a few years back and it was fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Happy reading! Will look forward to hearing your thoughts after you finish reading this book.

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