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George Washington vs. Donald Trump

By John M. Crisp Tribune News Service (TNS) Published: July 11, 2017 4:00 AM

Americans are fond of rankings. We even rank our presidents. An internet search reveals dozens of presidential rankings by historians and news organizations. The details vary, but in general they confirm what we probably expect: great presidents such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson are always near the top; the not-so-great such as Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding are always near the bottom.

It may seem unfair to hold our president of a half-year, Donald Trump, up against the mirror of our previous 44, but eventually we will place him somewhere on the list. And Trump himself hasn't been shy about comparing himself to previous presidents, even to some of our most prominent.

During a cabinet meeting on June 12, for example, Trump said: "Never has there been a president, with few exceptions -- case of FDR, he had a major depression to handle -- who has passed more legislation and who has done more things than what we've done." (This isn't true, by the way.)

And on Feb. 18, Trump situated himself in the good company of Jefferson, Lincoln and "many of our greatest presidents," who, like himself, he says, clashed with the media and called them out as liars.

So I don't think that Trump will shy away from comparisons with presidents of the past. Let's consider one of the greatest:

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Last week's July 4th celebration happened to coincide with my reading of Ron Chernow's "Washington: A Life," prompting this only-semi-facetious question: Why can't our current president, Trump, be more like our first, Washington?

Washington had his faults, but he was an impressive man, essential to the American Revolution and the founding of our nation. Nevertheless, as he faced the formidable tasks of winning the war and creating a new government, he expressed a surprising amount of self-doubt and uncertainty about his ability to live up to the challenges.

When Washington was given command of the Continental Army, for example, he offered this self-effacing disclaimer: " I beg it may be remember(e)d by every Gent(lema)n in the room that I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I (am) honoured with."

When Washington became our nation's first president, he said: "While I realize the arduous nature of the task which is conferred on me and feel my inability to perform it, I wish there may not be reason for regretting the choice."

While there may be more to these expressions of modesty than meets the eye, there's little reason to believe that they aren't basically sincere. But they're in jolting contrast to the attitude of the current occupant of the White House, who said, at the Republican national convention, "I alone can fix it."

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Here's another striking distinction: Washington wasn't very good with money. Like many Virginia planters, he was land-rich and cash-poor. His extravagant tastes kept him in financial trouble his whole life. Yet when he became commander-in-chief of the army he renounced the $500 per month salary.

Further, when Washington became the nation's first president, he tried to decline the sorely needed $25,000 per year salary -- Congress insisted that he accept it.

Trump's finances are obscured by his refusal to release his tax returns. But a June financial disclosure indicates that Trump's Washington hotel pulled in $20 million during its first few months of operation and that his Mar-a-Lago resort has made millions more than it had previously. It appears that the presidency is going to be very good for the Trump brand.

Although few of our presidents can withstand comparison with our greatest, thinking about Trump in terms of Washington is worthwhile. At this stage in his life, Trump is unlikely to develop the humility and self-sacrifice of our first president, nor to experience the kind of uncertainty and doubt that precedes wisdom. Still, as we evaluate our current president, the fact that he is unlikely to change shouldn't keep us from remembering what true presidential greatness looks like.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at jcrisp@delmar.edu.


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