The virtue to withstand the highest bidder

“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” From the ‘Rules of Civility’ transcribed, in his youth, by George Washington.

Recently I tore through Joseph Ellis’s biography of George Washington; ‘His Excellency’.  It’s a fascinating portrait of the man who was arguably the most important yet the most enigmatic of America’s founding fathers.

Washington is a difficult figure to get to grips with.  His early military career is marked more by his having emerged blameless from his failures than by his successes, while his generalship during the revolutionary war was not always very distinguished – hence John Adams’ quip; “In general it appears that our generals have been out-generalled.”

In office he said little and one could make a case that he was less a brilliant innovator than a sure handed steward.

However as Ellis remarks in his introduction: “It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute.  Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior.”

Putting aside the slight underselling of most of Washington’s contemporaries, Ellis then sets out to establish why he was simply accepted at ‘primus inter pares’, or first among equals for those of us who don’t chat in Latin.

If I was to be a little flippant I’d say Ellis’s two key conclusions were that Washington owed much to his tremendously imposing height and bearing and to the fact that he didn’t say much.  One could argue that Barack Obama has a little of the same; he is tall and has enormous presence and he speaks very slowly (though he does seem to say quite a lot).

However there is something deeper at play and it is a lesson that the politicians of our age seem to have forgotten and would do well to relearn.

Washington, certainly from the time that he took command of the Continental army, was avowedly more concerned about his reputation than anything else.

However in our age reputation has become widely and increasingly confused with legacy and disassociated with character.

Both Tony Blair and George W. Bush have rightly suffered for pursuing a legacy rather than ensuring that their reputations were above reproach.

Indeed Mr Blair now says he would have sought to remove Saddam Hussein even if there had been no evidence of his regime having weapons of mass destruction.  One can well believe it since it would appear that such evidence as was found was seen as rather tenuous by some of those with access to it.

The question is not whether it was a good thing that Iraq was saved from the evil of the Saddam regime.  Indeed it was.  Few Iraqis had much cause to love Saddam.

Rather the question is where does one stop?  If Saddam then frankly why not Kim Jong Il?  The North Korean regime is vile.  If we have limited evidence of its brutality that is as much because it’s nigh on impossible to gather any but we do know it possesses WMDs.

How about the Mugabe government of the same period, the Burmese junta, the governments of some of the more wayward central Asian states, Belarus, Iran and others.

It’s no surprise that people have linked the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to the need to control oil supplies (with Afghanistan the pertinent issue is that it sits aside potential oil pipeline routes out of central Asia that conveniently bypass Iran, Russia and China).

Few are apt to forget that Saddam had done Dubya’s pappy wrong, as they say somewhere between Kennebunkport and Crawford, and there was a sense of a score being settled.

All in all there seems to be an absence of consistency, of a moral standard and above all a failure to meet the requirements set by International law, which are at least consistent even if they are often not as moral as they might be.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is not something to be lauded.  Nor is doing the right thing when it suits and not when it doesn’t or doing right when it’s easy and not when it’s hard.  Right may not be an absolute but it does make demands – and neither Messers Blair nor Bush met those demands.

Both men seem to have been focused on the ends, goals which were to constitute their legacy, and oblivious to the moral defensibility of the means.  With Mr Blair it may be guilt by association, but with Mr Bush and his colleagues the sins committed in pursuit of those ends were most certainly ones of commission – and fully conscious commission at that.

One suspects that George Washington, if not all of his associates, would have asked himself what posterity would have made of his actions rather than simpy his achievements.  Indeed Washington’s great achievements were his actions; his surrendering of his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and withdraw from public life, his decision not to pursue a third term as president thus overseeing the democratic transfer of power to his successor, his consciously not founding a dynasty.

In the context of his day all were remarkable precedents.  Told that Washington was expected to return to his farm after surrendering his command King George III remarked; “If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.”  Generations since have considered him the greatest man of his age.

Washington’s fellow Virginian Representative Henry Lee wrote the following as part of his eulogy following the former President’s death; “Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues…”

Washington realised that right actions emerge from right principles, right habits if you like.  Only by being inwardly of good character could a man expect to sustain the virtue to withstand the highest bidder, to consistently do the right thing.

It’s sadly a principle that seems to have eluded most of our generation’s political leaders.


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