He couldn't be president today

Salena Zito
| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 8:47 p.m.


For a handful of people, inspired reflection can come from standing where a pivotal moment in history occurred and wondering what our forebears would think about how we have carried on with what they started.

In 1754, in this small patch of Western Pennsylvania woods, a 22-year-old George Washington saw his first combat. He led his men, a group of scouts surveying land, in a 15-minute battle with the French that set in motion a chain of events leading to a world war and a colonial rebellion.

His actions changed the course of history in North America and the world.

Twenty-two years later, on a terribly cold December day, Washington — a man who preferred the life of a wealthy planter — stood along the Delaware River and assessed what faced him: His Continental Army had been badly mauled and driven out of New York City, Congress had been forced to flee Philadelphia, 1,600 of his soldiers were sick, the enlistments of many others would expire at month's end, and morale was low. Even subordinate officers had started to question his generalship.

Then he assessed what was at stake.

Washington's fear at that moment was that the revolution might collapse, according to Curt Nichols, a Baylor University expert on the first president.

“The heady excitement of July, when the young country declared its independence, seemed so long ago ... and America's future was fading away into the snow like the soldiers that were starting to desert his army,” he explained.

Washington knew he needed a victory, Nichols said. “So on Christmas night — with the weather getting progressively worse, turning from drizzle to rain to sleet and snow — Washington crossed the Delaware with about 2,400 troops to attack the Hessian troops serving under the British crown (and) encamped in Trenton.”

After marching through the night in hurricane-like winter weather, the Continental Army attacked and caught the Hessians unprepared. More than 100 Hessians were killed or wounded and 1,000 captured, with just three Americans killed and six wounded.

The dramatic American victory inspired rebels throughout the Colonies. With the success of the revolution in doubt a week earlier, the army had seemed near collapse; the battle of Trenton inspired soldiers to serve longer and attracted recruits.

Had Washington surrendered to despair in Jumonville or on the banks of the Delaware, who knows if our great little experiment in democracy would exist today.

One thing is certain, though: Had he run for president today, he would never have made it out of the primaries in either political party.

Today's elections are about math, not people — and certainly not about issues. They hinge on which candidate's team effectively wins over a type of voter. They also hinge on some 10 states, not all 50, and on “likability” — which candidate you'd prefer to drink a beer with.

Last Tuesday's exit polls showed our president to be lacking on critical issues, such as jobs and the economy. Yet everyone thought he was more likable than his opponent, and so he won.

George Washington would never pass today's likability test; he was aloof at best. Also one of the elite: He was arguably the country's richest man at a time when wealth was measured by the amount of land you owned, because his holdings stretched from Virginia to Mingo Junction in “Ohio Country.”

In his farewell address to the nation, Washington wisely warned of the division that political parties would create, saying: “They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests.”

Standing in the hollow where Washington fought his first battle, you have to wonder what he would think of the divisiveness and the class warfare that was fought to hold onto the presidency in our latest national election.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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