As a nervous nation watches the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola crisis, many Americans have concluded that the country’s top health officials seem more concerned with stopping the spread of panic than stopping the spread of the virus. But Americans’ fear is only growing, and one reason is that too few people believe what the president of the United States says anymore.
A recent poll asked Americans this question: “How often does Barack Obama lie to the country on important matters?” Not about sex. Not about whether he really likes baseball. Not whether he still cadges an occasional cigarette when Michelle isn’t looking. But whether he dissembles on important matters. The dismaying answers: 37 percent said “most of the time,” another 24 percent said “some of the time” and 20 percent said “only now and then.”
Fifteen percent—and God bless them for their loyalty—answered “never.” Perhaps they missed it when the president said that if they liked their health plan under Obamacare they could keep it. Maybe they missed the administration’s repeated claims that the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was a spontaneous reaction to an Internet video. Maybe they really believe that the IRS targeting of conservatives was, as the president put it, dreamed up by “two Dilberts in Cincinnati.”
But enough people did hear those statements, and found them wanting, that the president’s credibility has taken a hit at the precise time when a medical crisis confronts the country, and when placing trust in the men and women running this government is a life and death question.
I’m reminded of another president—Obama’s predecessor, in fact—whose ability to lead was impaired during his last two years in office by voters’ lack of trust. That got me thinking about another president named George, and I don’t mean Dubya’s father.
At a private reception preceding the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner during George W. Bush’s first term in office, I had the pleasure of introducing a man named James C. Rees IV to the president of the United States. Much cherished by Washington journalists who appreciate history, Jim Rees was president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
It can safely be said, as it was at his memorial service earlier this month, that Jim Rees was the consummate Virginia gentleman. He was also George Washington’s greatest modern advocate: His entire career was devoted to re-acquainting Americans with the words, deeds, and character of the general who led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolution and became our first president, an office he more or less invented.
In the days leading up to his inauguration, George Washington would remind his confidants, “I walk on untrodden ground.” At Mount Vernon, Jim Rees lived and worked on trodden ground, but ground he feared was being forgotten. Jim’s mission in life was to change that. He realized that modern academics are unexcited by the “great man” theory of history and that elevating those who’d been too-long ignored in the telling of the American story would necessarily crowd some people out. But George Washington? This bothered Jim Rees, as it should bother all of us.
“The qualities Washington possessed just aren’t as appreciated as they were,” he once said. “Honesty. Good judgment. Modesty — my God, who in late-20th-century America gets credit for being modest anymore?”
And so when I introduced the 43rd U.S. president to the caretaker of the first president’s home and good name, Jim saw his chance. Taking both of the president’s elbows in his hands, Jim exclaimed, “You must come to Mount Vernon!"
Continuing to hold the president’s elbows in his hands, Rees noted that first lady had been to Mount Vernon, which the president knew. We are talking, he added, about another president named George! He simply must come to Mount Vernon.
Moments later, Jim was briefly mortified. “Did I just touch the president of the United States?" he asked his dinner host. “Yes,” he was told. He seemed sheepish, but pleased by his encounter with a 21st century George. Jim kept a framed photograph of that encounter between himself and Bush in his residence on the Mount Vernon grounds.
At the head table later, Bush and I briefly discussed the encounter. I told him that one surprise of the White House beat is realizing what a long shadow George Washington cast over all those who’d come after him. Bush was interested in that and we talked about it briefly before he quipped that being named George hardly lessened the pressure.
George Washington’s determination to serve only two terms—a precedent followed by every successor except Franklin Roosevelt and now codified in the Constitution—is well known. But there’s much more. It was also GW who concocted the “Mr. President” title and who crafted a dignified public role that somehow combined grandeur with populism.
When thinking of that dowdy dude on the one-dollar bill, modern Americans are apt recall Washington’s wooden teeth. But GW was a dashing figure in his day. Jim Rees like to call him an 18th century “action hero.” Washington played it up, too. At a time when horses were modern conveyances, he was considered one of the great horsemen of his era. If his horse-drawn carriage was “Air Force One,” the presidential limo was a white steed named Nelson that Washington would mount before riding into a city.
Washington also came up with the idea of an inaugural speech, decided that the State of the Union report prescribed by the Founders be delivered before Congress, first chose a cabinet of prominent Americans with ambitions of their own, delivered a farewell address to the nation—and employed speechwriters (James Madison and Alexander Hamilton) to help him craft it.
The most enduring line in that speech is Washington’s famous warning that the United States should “steer clear of permanent Alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” But the key word in that sentence may be “permanent.” George Washington was no isolationist, and he couldn’t possibly have foreseen World War I, when honoring diplomatic and military alliances brought the world to its knees. That was the problem to GW. Permanent treaties could bind a nation to a course it might not want to pursue.
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy,” is how he put it in his farewell address. “I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.”
To Jim Rees, this “honesty is the best policy” line is George Washington’s essence. In his book, “George Washington’s Leadership Lessons,” Rees wrote that Washington penned some 20,000 letters in his life, “and it’s hard to find a lie—more than that of flattering a friend who didn’t deserve the compliment—in a single missive.”
Unlike most historians, I happen to believe the veracity of the famous story of a young George Washington admitting to his father that he chopped down a cherry tree because he “cannot tell a lie.” Jim Rees thought it apocryphal – but useful to teach children anyway.
Modern politics allows for a lot of leeway when it comes to truth-telling, and the rewards for deliberately misleading voters can include victory at the ballot box. But presidential prevarication, as we keep re-learning, has a high cost—to the president’s reputation, and the nation’s health.