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The Greatest American

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gw.gifAs any book publisher will tell you, the Founding Fathers are hot, baby, hot. David McCullough's rousing 1776 leads the New York Times non-fiction list this summer. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin have all enjoyed superb runs, along with myriad works about the rest of the Founding Brothers. Indeed, Mssrs. McCullough, Ellis, and Chernow have tapped a renewed vein of intense - and profitable - interest in our founding saga.

As we drove up through the Hudson Valley last weekend to the battlefield at Saratoga and finally to the massive encampment of reenactors marking the 250th anniverary of the French and Indian War at Fort Ticonderoga, my kids kept peppering the driver with the same question: "Dad, did you vote yet?"

Well, yes - back in November. Losing side, I recalled, frowning slightly and turning the Explorer expertly through the winding trails of this blue state's beautiful borderlands.

"No, Dad, you know, for the Greatest American."

Ah, the Greatest American. As in Ronald Reagan, our 40th President, who defeated Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington and Franklin to cop the top spot in the brilliantly conceived contest created by A&E and America Online - a contest cleverly promoted but clearly rife with voter fraud. How else to explain the triumph of Reagan over two Founding Fathers, one civil rights legend, and the man who saved the Union? You can almost feel the AOL copywriter's embarassment at the ballot-stuffing in the snippet bio that - shall we say - damns with faint praise:


"Actor, governor, and president, Ronald Reagan played many roles during his lifetime."


Snap! In any case, everyone knows the Greatest American is George Washington. Why? Because my son and daughter agreed on him, for one - a rare occurrence. She voted for Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt (good lass), and he selected Washington, Lincoln, and Jackie Robinson (good lad).

Moreover, Washington is rightly called the essential American, the one human without whom this country may not have come into being. You can argue that Lincoln and FDR saved the nation during perilous moments, that Dr. King reformed it, and that Reagan portrayed it, but none of them - nor Dr. Franklin - led it by force of will into being. And he did it, literally, under enemy fire through the long, wintry slog of the Revolution. The glory of the founding year was just the beginning; Washington endured till peace came in 1783.

And then came one of the two greatest moments in his momentous 69 years of life: at the pinnacle of military power on this continent, he resigned his commission in the Continental Army and rode back to Mount Vernon. He gave up power. Thirteen years later, he did it again: declining to run for a third term as President, he handed over the ship of state to John Adams and his feuding cabinet. That was the great American precedent Washington established, and after a bloody revolution: the peaceful transfer of power.

It is a principle that has guided us since. But Washington, strangely, doesn't get the automatic votes in the big national contests that he should. He finished fourth in the big AOL Finals this weekend, out-rebounded by Reagan, boxed out by King and Lincoln. Too often, he seems a distant,unreacheable character from the gauzy fabric of the ancients. Not cuddly enough. No reality show potential. A man on a democratic throne, chilly and aloof.

This, of course, ignores all of the actual fact. Washington was an energetic, grasping, society-climbing entrepreneur of a man, impatient with the pace of Virginia society, given to rage at slights by his perceived "betters" in the British regular army, driven slowly to revolution, but driving the rest of a reluctant and divided country to independence and victory. He explored the frontier, survived one massacre and oversaw another in the French and Indian War, speculated in the land boom, experimented with crops and science, and berated his London dealers for better prices on goods, going and coming.

Most importantly, he endured during the Revolution, which was the longest war in United States history. Did anyone find it strange that two contributors to the Op-ed page of the New York Times both invoked Washington's will on the same day last week? David Brooks used Washington's Valley Forge hardship to scourge those who would toss in the towel in Iraq. and architect Daniel Libeskind also named-dropped the big GW in his call for sticking with plans for a 1,776-foot Freedom Tower at Ground Zero:

When I hear the naysayers carping about the supposed lack of progress, I like to think of a phrase written by George Washington in a letter during the bleak early days of the Revolutionary War: "Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages." The record of achievement in America then and now affirms my optimism and sustains my resolve.

It shouldn't - not in Iraq, nor at the empty, soul-defying depths of Ground Zero. That's because Washington's greatness as a general was political, more than tactical. He learned to combine perserverence to the cause with an uncanny ability to cut and run at the right time. (He also had this thing against foreign entanglements, Mr. Brooks). Indeed, when New York became untenable in 1776, Washington reluctantly moved on.

So he gets my vote. I give you, fair Huffingtonians, George Washington: first in war, first in peace, and fourth in the hearts of his countrymen. Huzzah.