A Tale of Two Georges - and Two Takes
By Susan Dunn
December 23, 2001
WILLIAMSTOWN, MA - The "eyes of Argus are upon me," wrote
George Washington, alluding to the mythological Greek giant with
100 eyes. The president was painfully sensitive about making appointments
to the federal government and how they might
appear to others. How different from another George - George
W. Bush - who, it was disclosed this month, has decided to give
bonuses of up to $10,000 to political appointees while setting pay
raises for career civil service employees below what Congress was
Patronage was a thorny issue for George Washington
too. It was the one area of his executive responsibilities
that he disliked the most. "I alone am responsible for a
proper nomination," he wrote.
It was an unpleasant, onerous task, office seekers always
knocking on his door. Thomas Jefferson had to advise people
not to importune the president: "To overdo a thing with him
is to undo it."
But Washington had set up strict guidelines for himself, underscoring
his intention to act only with regard to the "public good,"
refusing any consideration of "blood or friendship."
He wanted his appointees to be educated men who were respected
in their communities and who were also supporters of the Constitution.
If his administration was not yet a meritocracy, it was not, in
Washington's mind, filled with political appointees. On the contrary,
he often repeated that his aim as president was to "overlook
personal, local and partial considerations." Under the eyes
of Argus, Washington shunned favoritism and nepotism. Especially
because others might be jealous of appointments that were "honorary
and lucrative," he could not risk taking any unpopular measures.
When his nephew Bushrod Washington asked his uncle for the position
of United States district attorney for Virginia, Washington tactfully
declined, explaining that the young man had neither the experience
nor the standing "of some of the oldest and most esteemed General
lawyers in your own State, who are desirous of this appointment."
Unlike the British Chancellor of the Exchequer Robert Walpole
who, in the mid-18th century, cynically wailed, "Have I acted
wrong in giving the place of auditor to my son, and in providing
for my own family?" the first American president was determined
to be "exceedingly
Washington's unimpeachable integrity is not the product of two
centuries of myth-making. It was as real as he was. Even the leader
of the opposition recognized it. "The President," wrote
James Madison, "was the last man in the world to whom any measure
whatever of a deceptive tendency could be credibly attributed."
Washington understood that it was his own character, as well as
the Constitution, that buttressed the fragile nation in the early
1790s. Through him, people developed respect and affection for their
new federal government.
Washington's character issued not from words - at which he was
not particularly skillful or eloquent - but from deeds. "With
me," he wrote, "it has always been a maxim, rather to
let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions."
The gift that Washington offered to Americans was the gift of character.
But two hundred years ago, people expected nothing less of the first
- Susan Dunn is co-author, with James MacGregor Burns, of the
forthcoming "George Washington" (TIMES BOOKS/HENRY HOLT).