I hear the term "Washington is broken" thrown around by politicians, citizens and journalists everyday. I've been privileged to play General Washington on the AMC show Turn for the past three years -- so immersed in the life of the man that I immediately think they are saying that "General Washington is broken." It's very painful to me. It makes me sad to think of his name being thrown around to score political points, or further partisan hardening. Washington is not just the name of the place where government is practiced. It is first the name of General George Washington, who with his selfless acts started us on the path to become the greatest country our world has ever known. What if we remembered who we were referencing when discussing our capital city? I can imagine what The General is thinking watching down from above. He can't be proud of how things are going.
When I was first cast to play General George Washington I didn't know much beyond what I was taught in American History class. He struck me as almost a marble figure of a man who was busy, serious, and looked annoyed. I had a lot to learn about the man. General George Washington was a rock star of his time. He was a charismatic giant on the battlefield, the dance floor and on horseback, but most importantly, he was a man of great humility. On set I ask myself one question: "What would George Washington do?" Everyday I ask for his permission to stand in his boots, and that in portraying him, I might live up to his standard of excellence. What if our leaders asked themselves that same question? What if they set George Washington as their daily standard?
As a young man, George Washington was a rebel. Washington is considered to be responsible for starting the French and Indian War with his actions at the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Then, a young Lieutenant Colonel, he made a rookie mistake accepting responsibility for the assassination of a French diplomat. Washington was young, bold, and egocentric. He was 22-years-old and in far above his head.
Arrogant and with a burning desire to climb in the ranks; young brash George Washington worked hard but often battled with his superior officers. He disagreed with some of their methods and plans and he brazenly spoke up. Despite the honorable reputation he earned, he was disappointed in his desire to receive a British commission. Washington eventually chose to return to his home at Mount Vernon and with a new wife and her two children; he went about the business of becoming a farmer and over time and reflection, a wiser man.
I often think about those years at Mount Vernon as Washington's most formative. He had suffered from his impulsive early years, and decided to reshape himself into the man who would become the father of his country. He learned to listen first rather than talk, to discuss ideas instead of argue positions, and to ask questions as opposed to voicing opinions. He had seen that his audacious ways weren't getting him far in life, and thus endeavored to control his mind as well as his passions. General Washington gained true humility.
Washington always thought of country ahead of self. Even after accepting the challenging position of general, it became clear that his reputation, his fortune, and his future would be destroyed if the army failed at their goal of achieving independence. He selflessly took that risk.
Throughout the war, enduring years of lost battles, both character and actual assassination attempts, and betrayal, Washington thought first of these United States. Without ego, he held the center while those around him panicked and fragmented. Washington's greatest wartime legacy was his decision to surrender his commission to Congress, affirming the principle of civilian control of the military in the new United States.
You see, when the war was over, Washington, whose "approval ratings" struggled during the conflict, was never more popular. He was the leader that our young nation was grateful for. There were some who suggested that Washington should take his place as King of America. He rejected that notion out of hand, making clear that the country was bigger than any one person.
Six years later he was once again called into service as the first President of the United States. During all of his years in service to the country, Washington never reached for power. He accepted the responsibilities of office, and in doing so, was given the authority and power as needed. It is a subtle but important distinction, and one that I believe is particularly apt today.
General Washington's greatest gift was the ability to bring and hold the country together. He warned in his Farewell Address against the dangers of "political parties" and "factions." Over time he feared political parties would change our vision of ourselves as Americans who are all one people, to warring enemies. Enemies don't listen to each other. They don't seek to understand each other. Enemies seek only victory over their opponents.
It takes humility to act in concert. Washington was always looking for consensus. He was always cognizant of his responsibilities as the first President. He knew his choices would set precedents for all future generations.
What if our leaders held themselves to that standard?
I look at General Washington like an ancestor who left his descendants a great and bountiful inheritance: the peaceful transfer of power. At the end of his second term, he refused to stand for a third. He wanted the country to be self-sufficient, and not dependent on any one person.
The spirit of General George Washington is strong. It's the political process that is broken. If we were following General Washington's vision of our country we wouldn't be having these specific problems. It feels deeply unfair to use his name so thoughtlessly.
What if we all asked the question "What would George Washington do?" What if our leaders imagined that our Founders are watching? If each member of our political class asked not what would make them the most popular in the moment, but what would the father of our country think? How would that transform our political landscape? If the example of Washington's humility was in the consciousness of our leaders, then perhaps "Washington" would cease to be broken. That might make the old man smile.