“While much of Washington’s life does seem to be summed up in the title Right Place At The Right Time,” writes J.L Wall, “perhaps his key virtue was in recognizing that he was in the right place at the right time, and taking advantage of it — or, in lesser moments, simply not screwing it up.”
I’m increasingly of the view that a talent for correctly assessing the place you’re in and the opportunities it is affords is the key virtue for presidential leadership. Campaigns, which are generally about how transformative a president’s leadership will be, are mostly misleading. As political scientist George Edwards has written, “there is not a single systematic study that demonstrates that presidents can reliably move members of Congress, especially members of the opposition party, to support them.” So I don’t diminish the size of the compliment Wall — and Chernow, whose biography he’s summarizing — is paying Washington. But I still don’t think it gives the first president enough credit.
Washington’s range of possible opportunity was really quite vast. He could’ve made the United States into an effective monarchy, or a military dictatorship. He could’ve stayed in office for many terms. Congress was potentially quite weak, and his deference to the institution helped make it strong. Much of his legacy was in what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do. And what he didn’t do were things that most leaders in his position would’ve done, and historically have done.
What makes Washington rare is that he didn’t conflate greatness with power. And because he was after greatness rather than power, he was able to give up power at key moments because he realized that doing so would give him greatness — and give his young country a shot at a real democracy. I don’t think that’s merely being in the right place at the right time, or not screwing up. That’s a counterintuitive decision of enormous consequence, made at a crucial moment, that paid off incredibly well. I don’t think you can assume that most other war-hero-cum-national-leaders would’ve made the same call, and as such, I think you have to give Washington a lot of individual, as opposed to circumstantial, credit.