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Opening Arguments

Happy birthday, George

So, did you have a big party for Presidents' Day yesterday? No? Then celebrate celebrate George Washington's birthday tomorrow:

In an era of brilliant men, Washington was not the deepest thinker. He never wrote a book or even a long essay, unlike George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams. But Washington made the ideas of the American founding real. He incarnated liberal and republican ideas in his own person, and he gave them effect through the Revolution, the Constitution, his successful presidency, and his departure from office.

What’s so great about leaving office? Surely it matters more what a president does in office. But think about other great military commanders and revolutionary leaders before and after Washington—Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin. They all seized the power they had won and held it until death or military defeat.

It's fun to argue about who should be on the list of best presidents ever and who should be left off. A lot depends on what you think should be honored -- presidents who got a lot of big stuff done or presidents who tried to honor the founders' call for a restrained government. One way to pick the best presidents, though, is to single out the ones who were present at critical points in history and were up to the job the times demanded of them. By this criterion, I think Washington has to be regarded as the best we've ever had. He had no blueprint to go by, and he had to get it exactly right or the great American experiment would have been over before it started. He got it exactly right.