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The Diffident Leader

Over a long career, George Washington seemed genuinely scornful of personal ambition. In the 21st century, a political leader displaying his humility and reticence is inconceivable.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Many years ago in Chicago, a bright young man named Brickley announced his candidacy for Cook County state's attorney. He agreed to appear on a "Meet the Press"-style news program and submit to questions from local political reporters. One of them asked why he wanted the job. "To tell you the truth," Brickley said, "I thought it would be a good career move." The panelists seemed stunned. It was an honest answer, but it violated a fundamental rule of political interviews: Candidates are not supposed to sound too ambitious.

I doubt that Brickley's candor had much to do with his defeat at the polls that fall, but it has stuck with me ever since. The American electorate is suspicious of anyone who acknowledges a desire for public office too openly. Every campaign for president - or mayor or governor - begins with at least a token statement of reluctance: "Friends have urged me to step forward" or "It's time to give something back to the community." Nobody starts out by admitting to a lifelong lust for the job.

Once the contest is over, and the candidate is sworn in to office, we want him to maintain a pretense that politics is the last thing on his mind - that he is free to do the morally right thing regardless of consequence because he's willing to accept defeat - he'd really rather be home with his family anyway. No legislator ever says, "I'd like to vote my conscience on this one, but I don't want to lose in November." They think it, of course; they just can't say it.

What we have in American politics is a culture of feigned modesty and disguised ambition. We are governed by people who are drawn to power but who are afraid to admit it because they know that voters find it unbecoming.

I'm not sure just how serious a problem this is. But I do wonder sometimes what it would be like if we were governed by the truly reluctant - by people who didn't care much about personal power and meant it when they said they'd be happier in private life. Would we be better off with a system purged of its false modesty? Or would a government composed of genuinely reluctant dragons be doomed to inertia and stagnation?

One way to explore that question is to look back on the career of the most reluctant dragon in the history of American politics: the first president of the United States.

This month marks - I hope you will trust me on the Latin - George Washington's terquasquibicentennial. It is the 275th anniversary of his birth. I have been invited to participate in a colloquium on the enduring significance of Washington's life, career and values. Knowing little about any of those subjects, I decided to get an early start on preparation. Reading the literature about the first president rekindled my curiosity about the whole subject of political ambition, past and present.

To say that George Washington was reticent about public office is to understate the case by a considerable amount. Over a long career as a military leader, Constitution maker and president, his reaction to every offer of power was the same: I'm not qualified for it, and I don't want it. I'll only do it if you insist.

Asked to take over the Continental Army in 1775, he protested that "I do not think myself equal to the Command," and that "I have used every effort in my power to avoid it." Then he accepted the job. Eight years later, victorious against the British and free to return home to Virginia, he rejoiced that he could once again live "under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree ... retired from all public employments."

But Washington wasn't allowed to remain beneath his fig tree very long. In 1787, with the newly independent colonies flailing under the weak Articles of Confederation, he was asked to attend the Philadelphia conference that would write a constitution. He tried to get out of it. "My name is in the delegation to this convention," Washington admitted, "but it was put there contrary to my desire and remains contrary to my request." Then he went and chaired the meeting.

When the Constitution was ratified, Washington knew that he would be called upon to become the nation's first president. And he knew he would accept. But he wasn't happy about it. "My movement to the chair of government," he wrote, "will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution."

Four years later, after one presidential term, Washington looked forward to retirement and asked his young protege, James Madison, to write a farewell address for him. Madison wrote the speech, but then told him the new country was in such turmoil that it might not survive if he left. So Washington stayed on.

It was only in 1796, 21 years after he had reluctantly accepted his army command, that he finally made good on his vow to retire. He sounded not only tired but also a little bitter, grumbling about his "disinclination to be longer buffited in the public prints by a set of infamous scribblers."

So ended the public career of America's first - possibly best - but definitely most diffident president. What are we to think, more than two centuries later, of Washington's endless complaints about holding public office, combined with his repeated decisions to accept it?

One possibility, of course, is that he was just playing games, the way so many present-day politicians do. Maybe he really wanted power all along and knew that he would get it even as he affected a crowd-pleasing modesty and reticence. But there's good reason to doubt that this was the case. For one thing, when Washington expressed his reluctance to serve, he wasn't doing it in press conferences - he was expressing it in personal letters that wouldn't become public until long after he was gone. There was little point in saying this sort of thing if he didn't believe it.

Joseph Ellis, Washington's most provocative recent biographer, concedes that "modern sensibilities make it difficult to comprehend George Washington's psychological chemistry on this score and dispose us to interpret his routinized reticence as either a disingenuous ploy or a massive case of denial." But Ellis warns against making any such assumption. He thinks Washington was genuinely scornful of personal ambition and "needed to convince himself that the summons came from outside rather than inside his own soul." In other words, he had to be persuaded that he was acting out of duty. Then he could take the job.

There will never be another George Washington in American government. That isn't to say nobody will ever match his qualities of leadership. Washington was a man of commanding physical presence, personal dignity, sound judgment, rigid ethical standards and unwavering loyalty to his friends. It was an extraordinary combination of virtues, but one that's within the capacity of modern human beings. It's conceivable that once every 100 years the nation might produce a leader as competent and perfectly matched to the times as Washington was to his.

What's inconceivable in the 21st century is a political leader of Washington's humility and reticence. Today's elected officials are skillful when it comes to lamenting the burdens of public life, but if any of them approached it the way Washington did - refusing to lift a finger in pursuit of their own election - they would never be elected to anything. In an age of sophisticated campaigns and massive requirements for fund raising, nobody is going to be dragged into high office kicking and screaming - no matter how admirable a person he or she might be.

How much have we lost with the disappearance of Washingtonian reticence from public life? It's impossible to say. There's no way to measure the missing contributions of the modest people who don't seek public office. What I think we can say is that raw personal ambition is not entirely incompatible with decent government. Rudy Giuliani burned with the desire to be mayor of New York, and for all his personal idiosyncrasies, he proved to be a creative and successful one. Bill Clinton started plotting a political career when he was in grade school, and while I don't expect everyone to agree with me, I think he was an excellent governor of Arkansas and a capable president of the United States.

So I'm resigned to the reality that we have a political system more or less permanently fueled by personal ambition. My one constructive suggestion is that, since we're not set up to reward real modesty, we stop encouraging politicians to fake it. When a candidate for governor tells us he's been lured into politics despite a preference for hearth and home, we should say to him, "Son, you're no George Washington." And when a legislator tells us he doesn't really care about reelection, we should offer to help him out by voting against him.

If enough of us did that, we might start seeing more candidates along the lines of Brickley - talking openly about ambition, maybe even confessing that they love power and can't wait to exercise it. This might not be a pretty sight, but it would return a measure of honesty to the political process.Since our current system is not set up to reward real modesty, we should stop encouraging politicians to fake it. This might return a measure of honesty to the political process.

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