In the 19 Republican presidential debates held so far, the candidates have invoked their beau ideal, Ronald Reagan, 124 times. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, has garnered nine mentions; Thomas Jefferson, the pen of the Revolution, five. George Washington—the first president, the father of his country—has received one.
Politicians seldom cite Washington because—unlike the jovial Reagan—he seems distant and cold. “Now we admire people for their authenticity, in terms of how quickly they open up and bear their emotions,” says Ron Chernow, whose biography of Washington won the Pulitzer Prize last year. Our national patriarch, by contrast, “had an old-fashioned belief that silence was strength and that you only very gradually let people enter your private thoughts and emotions.”
We could learn from the stodgy Washington’s style of leadership, Mr. Chernow argues: “He realized that a leader should be neither too remote nor too familiar.” And he understood a stubborn truth about people: “They don’t need to like you—much less love you—but they need to respect you.”
Mr. Chernow and I are sitting in the kitchen of his red-brick town house in Brooklyn Heights. Through the tall, broad windows behind him, sunlight illuminates the white wisps of hair atop his head. The 62-year-old bespectacled author is soft-spoken, often looking to the side as he talks. But he loves his subject. When he unveils an insight into Washington’s character, he clasps his hands, leans forward and grins widely.
He decided to write about Washington while writing a biography of Alexander Hamilton 10 years ago. During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton served as an aide-de-camp to Washington. In February 1781, he quarreled with the commander in chief over Washington’s reluctance to grant him a field command. Resigning his position in protest, Hamilton wrote to a friend that the great man would “for once at least, repent his ill-humour.”
“I was really quite startled by that statement,” Mr. Chernow remembers, “because it made the ill-humor sound habitual. I said to myself, ‘Is Hamilton saying the father of our country is this moody, irritable boss?’”
He was. Washington, in fact, had “a colossal temper.” He largely tamed it by the time he became president in April 1789, but on occasion it slipped the leash. In August 1793, for instance, Washington went wild when, in the midst of his attempt to keep America neutral in a war between Great Britain and France, he saw a pro-French newspaper cartoon of him being guillotined like Louis XVI