It seems to reach up to the sky. Yet in many ways, it is the anchor of official Washington.
The simple stone obelisk that is the monument to our first president, sits on “holy ground” — an open space within view of both the White House and the U.S. Capitol.
It is almost as if the ghost of George Washington is keeping watch on those who govern our country today. More than two centuries after his death, we can still learn from the man who led the United States through its infancy.
These days, his words are turning up online in far-off China, where university students have been posting quotes from Washington’s farewell address in an effort to shine a light on political developments in their own country.
In that final message to Congress and the American people, Washington wrote about his decision to voluntarily give up power after two four-year terms as the nation’s first chief executive. He said a democratically elected leader should not serve for life.
It seems Chinese President Xi Jinping has chosen a different course. And the current President of the United States is raising no objections.
China’s Communist Party has proposed abolishing term limits on the president — effectively, allowing Xi to stay in power indefinitely.
So much for the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who established rules for the modern Chinese presidency back in the 1980’s as a way to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution.
Xi’s desire to extend and consolidate his control has been evident over his first five-year term in office, which began in 2013. He has purged political opponents and stifled the media, for starters. Gradually, he has become part of an international authoritarian trend exemplified by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan — “democratically-elected” leaders who demand loyalty and crack down on opposition.
It’s the kind of governance George Washington warned us about.
And here’s what worries me. Our current occupant of the White House is no longer sounding the alarm.
Actually, Donald Trump seems to have a bit of an affinity for autocrats. He has repeatedly praised Xi, Putin, Erdogan and even Roberto Duterte of the Philippines (who Trump has singled out for his stand on suspected drug dealers which amounts to, basically, kill them first and determine their guilt or innocence later).
When the Chinese Communist Party agreed to lift term limits for Xi, Trump’s most notable comments came at a closed-door luncheon with supporters at his Florida resort.
An audiotape of his remarks— possibly made on a smartphone — made its way to CNN. On the recording, Trump is heard saying “Xi is a great gentleman… he is now president for life.”
And then came the punch line: “I think it’s great. Maybe we will give it a shot someday.”
The White House downplayed the comments as a joke… and spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters that the term limits move was “a decision for China to make about what is best for their country.”
In other words, don’t expect us to challenge the authoritarian tendencies of other world leaders.
That is troubling. From the days of George Washington and that famous farewell address, other nations have looked up to the United States.
Now we have a president who regularly slams the free press… complains endlessly about his political opponents (one need look no further than his Twitter feed for proof)… and believes those whose job it is to uphold the laws of this country should be at his beck and call.
And then there is his plan for a big military parade in Washington – inspired, he says by the Bastille Day parade he witnessed last year in France.
But it seems what he is imagining is more like the type of military extravaganza seen in places like Russia and North Korea – a big display of force to stoke the ego of the man in charge.
The Bastille Day parade is actually a celebration of unity as opposed to military might, and foreign troops are often invited. The message is more one of nations coming together in peace than showing off the military prowess of the French.
But traditions and history don’t seem to matter much at the White House these days. That, in its own way, is also a cause for concern.
President Trump might just do himself and the country a great service by going back and reviewing the words of his predecessors — starting with the man who came first.
As a teenager, Washington wrote:
“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
And as he approached the end of his life, George Washington had this advice for those who would follow:
“My anxious recollections, my sympathetic feeling, and my best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever, in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom.”
It is a message as important today as it was back then. Maybe more.