Bush and Washington: A Tale of Two Georges

On Jan. 20, 2005, George W. Bush was sworn in for the second time as President of the United States. As I listened to the inauguration ceremony, I couldn’t help but contrast our current president with another George who found himself in the same position over two centuries ago.

George Washington, remembered as a noble and wise leader, kept his second inaugural address brief:

"Fellow Citizens:

"I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

"Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony."

Those four sentences comprised the entire speech. George W. Bush, on the other hand, dragged his out for about 20 minutes.

Brevity aside, there are some stark differences between the two speeches. Bush spoke of his idealistic crusade to spread freedom throughout the world; Washington mentioned no such thing. He realized that his duty to the country was to “execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate” within the bounds of the Constitution, and that left no room for a global quest to make the world safe for democracy.

Although Bush did say in his speech that “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling,” the bulk of his inaugural address – not to mention his actions in the Middle East and his subtle threats to the rest of the world – made it perfectly clear that he will continue pursuing an interventionist foreign policy: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Unlike Bush, Washington strongly opposed foreign entanglements, believing that it was our neutrality that helped keep America secure. His Farewell Address is seen by many as the benchmark for all U.S. foreign policy decisions: “The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled, with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”

I think it is safe to assume that both Bush and Washington would agree that freedom is a precious commodity that should be enjoyed by the people of all nations. However, I believe that they would disagree on the role the U.S. government should play in helping that dream become a reality. While our current president would readily seek a military solution, the Father of Our Country would rather see our government lead by example. Bush has shown that he has no problem waging pre-emptive war against sovereign nations to send a message to other governments that they had better shape up. Washington would most certainly view the Bush Doctrine as a miscarriage of justice, a betrayal of the Constitution and a prescription for creating even more enemies.

Perhaps the distinction between the two Georges boils down to a different understanding of the nature of the presidency. Note Washington’s challenge for his fellow citizens to hold him accountable for his actions. Compare that to what we heard from President Bush when he brushed aside concerns about granting the federal government more police powers: “Those who criticize the PATRIOT Act must listen to those folks on the front line of defending America. The PATRIOT Act defends our liberty …” Even Attorney General John Ashcroft had stern words for those critical of the administration. In an appearance before the Senate, he said, “Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends.”

The only conclusion one can draw from such remarks is that our political leaders believe we are not qualified to question their actions. They believe they are above reproach. They see their electoral victories not as the result of voters settling for the “lesser of two evils” but as the enthusiastic endorsement of their policies.

Citizens as well as politicians should look to George Washington’s humble example. He was a public servant in the truest sense of the term. That’s the George we need today.