There’s nothing like celebrating February 22, George Washington’s birthday, during a presidential campaign year. Mount Vernon, the historical site comprising George Washington’s home and plantation (oh, and the home of 300+ people legally owned by him and his wife, Martha), has been having fun this election cycle, with a tongue-in-cheek “George Washington for President” website, including videos with an actor playing our first chief executive spliced into primary debates and plenty of campaign gear for sale (among my favorites are the ones that mimic the Clinton logo, and poke at Jeb! (though now, of course, he’s dropped out), and parody Trump hats). Which begs the question: our first president, certainly one of its greatest, was elected unanimously twice. What sort of candidate would he be were he really to run in 2016?
Many Americans think of the founders as a cut above today’s politicians. Those men (as nearly all African Americans, Native Americans, and women of any ethnicity were forbidden from office, they were all white men) sprinkled their letters with references to philosophers and ancient history, and didn’t base their positions focus groups.
Nonetheless, as much as they achieved and as durable as the institutions they created have proven, we should be wary of assuming that those men, so successful in their time, would be equally successful in ours. There’s no question that George Washington had the organizational hand to run a political campaign: after all, he successfully commanded the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary War. He possessed a nose for politics, staying above the partisan fray as president. He also had an eye for talent, mentoring a young Alexander Hamilton and drawing him along with Thomas Jefferson into his first cabinet.
George Washington’s teeth were another matter. No, they weren’t made of wood, rather, he sported a combination of human chompers—some his own, others bought from slaves—and hippopotamus ivory lashed with gold wire to a lead frame. He would not have been telegenic, as these bulging dentures distorted his cheeks and lips, and they also gave him trouble pronouncing s’s and sh sounds. He feared laughing in public, lest, in opening his mouth wide, his spring-mounted bridgework would flip right out of his jaws. Then again, we might say that Washington would get a little better dental care now than he did in the 18th century.
Even before he lost most of his teeth, though, Washington had always been a weak public speaker, and avoided addressing crowds; he sent his State of the Union messages to be read aloud in Congress. A combination of his contemporaries’ respect for him and his aloofness made him stiff in private, too: there’s one story, perhaps apocryphal but with a ring of truth, of Gouverneur Morris (a contemporary), on a dare, giving Washington a friendly slap on the shoulder, and being greeted with a minutes-long withering stare so fierce it embarrassed not just Morris, but everyone else in the room. Those are not the habits of a 21st-century, glad-handing, baby-kissing, stump-speaking politician.
Then again, in some ways he may have been more like today’s politicians than we realize. There’s no doubt he was one of the 1%, one of the wealthiest landowners and slaveowners in Virginia. In addition, before he became president, Washington’s strong advocacy of national expansion into the Ohio River valley, to be facilitated by state-sponsored canals, not coincidentally had the potential of increasing exponentially the value of his western land speculations. That the District of Columbia was placed so near Mount Vernon and other of Washington’s land holdings, thus bolstering their price upon its becoming the nation’s capital, was no accident. I could be wrong, but today’s’ candidates’ opposition researchers might have a field day insinuating that Washington used his public position for personal gain.
All in all, just as today’s politicians may seem not to measure up to the founders, it’s at least as likely that George Washington would not be a good candidate in our 21st-century sound-bite, tweet-sensitive, spin-cycle political climate. So today, while we pay homage to George Washington on his birthday, we should not pine for him—though that realization doesn’t make today’s politics, with its emphasis on the next news cycle rather than the long-term health of the republic and its citizens, any easier to take.