What would George Washington think of the 2016 campaign?
© Getty Images

When asked about Republican presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWashington Post reporter compares DC rioters to Boston Tea Party Women's march reaches Antarctica Steinem: If Trump creates Muslim registry, we'll all register MORE's (R) public vulgar language before the 2016 New Hampshire primaries, fellow candidate John Kasich (R) reflected on something his wife told him when he became governor of Ohio.

"'You're the father of Ohio, act like it,'" he said, quoting his wife. Kasich added this about Trump's public profanity: "If you're the president of the United States, you're the father of America, act like it."

George Washington, of course, was the father of our country and he acted like it.

ADVERTISEMENT
As Americans celebrate Presidents Day — the federal holiday observing Washington's birthday — what might our first president say today about the 2016 presidential race?

Though he'd recognize that we still have three branches of government, Washington would be disappointed in our two-party system. To him, political parties were "sharpened by the spirit of revenge."

He feared that the absolute power of an individual, who was more successful than his competitors, would turn to "the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty."

Yet, because Washington gave up power by retiring from the presidency after eight years, he would be happy that the presidency is now constitutionally limited to two full terms, which provides a check on our two-party system.

Something that would likely stun Washington about today's politics is that confidence can turn to cockiness with the speed of a tweet. He chose his public words carefully.

When Abigail Adams first met then-Gen. Washington in 1775, she wrote excitedly that "modesty marks every line and feature of his face" and that he was "built by hands divine." If he were alive today, politeness and respect would permeate his posts and tags.

For example, shortly after the Continental Congress chose him to be the commanding general of the Continental Army in 1775, he responded, "I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with."

Leaders need a balance of hubris and humility. Washington didn't lack self-confidence or ambition. Rather, he lacked self-importance and arrogance.

This year marks the 240th anniversary of 1776. Washington subsequently won the Revolutionary War in part because he preferred to preserve the army by ordering a retreat, even if he lost momentary glory. He chose his attacks carefully.

Washington would see that modern politics often lacks proportionality when evaluating the mistakes of leaders. Having a joke fall flat in a debate is not a moral failure. Repeating the same line four times in the same debate doesn't indicate a lack of character. Though stagecraft has long been a part of politics, Americans aren't electing an entertainer in chief, but a commander in chief.

While our first president might be envious over the technological reality of a computer server, in evaluating one candidate's current email troubles, he would likely see the issue as one of questionable judgment.

After all, as Washington left the presidency, he hoped that "every department [in government] may be stamped with wisdom and virtue." He also reminded Americans that "honesty is always the best policy" in both public and private matters.

Something our first president would smile about today is when modern politicians express their love for America and cast a vision of hope and optimism, whether it's a Cuban-American using inspirational rhetoric about the American Dream, a slogan about making America great or a commercial using a folk rock song from the 1960s about America.

Above all, Washington was an optimist. During one of the darkest times of the Revolutionary War, he kept his hope alive.

"Between you and me, I think our affairs are in a very bad situation. ... I think the game is pretty near up," Washington wrote his brother on Dec. 18, 1776.

Things were bad. Very bad. The British had driven Washington and his army out of New York. One of his generals had recently been captured. Washington's army was about to disband unless he could give them a reason — nay, a victory — to stay.

Letting optimism rule his heart, Washington allowed the cause of liberty to guide him.

"However, under a full persuasion of the justice of our cause, I cannot entertain an idea that it will finally sink, tho' it may remain for some time under a cloud," he concluded in this letter to his brother.

Seven days later, Washington and his men crossed the icy Delaware River and trounced the enemy at Trenton, N.J. Enough of his troops stayed in the army and the revolution eventually led to independence.

Washington, however, believed that liberty didn't come without some help from above.

When he gave up his generalship at the end of the war, he noted that America's victory came from the "the interpositions of Providence," which clergy of the era defined as God's presence, not good luck.

He added that "the unparalleled perseverance of the armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle."

When he gave up his presidency years later, he said something similar:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. ... The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.

Before the Revolutionary War, "God Save the King" was in vogue. "God Bless America" has replaced it.

From Presidents Day to Election Day 2016, Washington should pray that God would bless America with a president who will honorably and optimistically lead America in this new century.

Cook is author of nine books, including Stories of Faith & Courage from the Revolutionary War, American Phoenix and the upcoming 2016 book, "The Burning of the White House." She is the founder of revolution240.com, which celebrates the 240th anniversary of the year 1776.