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Why'd Obama Talk About George Washington?

I was totally fascinated that Obama chose George Washington as the touchstone American-history figure in his inaugural. This was not an obvious choice. Lincoln, FDR, or even MLK would have been. But ol' sterile, ancient, powder-wigged, pink-cheeked George -- who's ever thought of him past fifth-grade history class, or perhaps fleetingly, when you look at a quarter?

A conservative friend notes, too, that, in the last half of the last century or so, George Washington was appropriated by right-wingers as "their" founder, thereby somewhat diminishing our collective access to him as an inspirational figure. (A conservative foundation set itself up at Valley Forge; the Daughters of the American Revolution have an obsession with him; etc.) Maybe this was a bit of a sly move, part of Obama's project to reach across party lines. Another conservative friend (okay, my staunchly Republican mom) told me after watching Obama's speech that "one of the things that has always nagged at me about Obama, as a conservative, is, 'Does this man care about the founding? Does he even think about it?'  So I was astonished to hear it invoked ... the evocation of Washington was great." And the story Obama told about George worked perfectly in the moment: Its images of "shores of an icy river" and men huddled against the bitter cold feathered in with today's weather.

But the most interesting thing about Obama's use of George Washington in his speech is how differently these two political figures -- the Washington of history, that is, and the Obama of the campaign -- are perceived. Obama ran as a transformer, a "change agent," and liked to drop the phrase "new birth" in reference to his political project. I got the sense this idea then galloped away from him, and he became irritated with the ensuing assumption that a Prez BHO would radically overhaul the country. But he was always seen, nevertheless, as a politician in the mold of Reagan or Lincoln (from whom, of course, the idea of a "new birth" for the country originates), and not of Washington, who made himself out as the opposite of transformative.

Washington resisted (if feebly) the early impulse to turn him into a Mosaic figure. His own First Inaugural begins in a sort of frantic lather of humility: "The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me, being sufficient to awaken in the wisest and most experienced of her citizens a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications, could not but overwhelm with despondence one who (inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpracticed in the duties of civil administration) ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies ..." It was Washington who established the model of the president as a humble caretaker of the Republic, not its reshaper. He was widely seen in his day not as the most brilliantly clever man around, but as the one with the most unquestionable integrity, the kind of doorman (to use a crude analogy) you can leave your most precious jewelry with when you go away on vacation.

I thought Obama ended his speech with Washington today in order to tweak his image. He's not here to change everything about America, or even to change everything that his progressive supporters don't like, the end of the speech said. He's here to safeguard it like the unflappable Washington, to "carr[y] forth that great gift of freedom and deliver ... it safely to future generations."

--Eve Fairbanks