With the presidential election only weeks away, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s Virginia home.
I stood on the long porch that looks out onto the Potomac. I went inside his historic mansion. I wandered the outbuildings. I went to his grave.
And in the wind, I listened for the president’s voice. I strained to hear: What would he want to tell today’s presidential candidates, or us, the voters? What would George Washington, our first president, say?
I looked for a sign. Then I saw it.
A distorted reflection.
At Mount Vernon, the window panes are thick and wavy. Look at them, and you see a rippling, blurry reflection of the world, a sort of impressionistic painting. It’s hard to see clearly. But it’s rather beautiful.
Clarity! Maybe that’s what old George was trying to tell me. In politics and life, you will not always see a clear way. But clarity of vision is vital to a president.
I entered the house and soon saw a second sign: The mansion has 11 bedrooms.
Apparently, Mount Vernon was something like Grand Central Station when it came to visitors, with up to 677 visitors a year during Washington’s lifetime. That’s a whole lot more than most of us could stand. But he and his wife, Martha, enjoyed it. The house was visited by dignitaries and relatives and ordinary friends, some of whom stayed for months.
Interest in others: Mount Vernon shouted it out.
All those bedrooms had a message that a president should enjoy all kinds of people. George and Martha either had an interest in others, or the ability to tolerate constant interruptions.
Day to day, Mount Vernon gets nowhere near the throngs of supporters that presidential candidates get at their rallies. But Mount Vernon still gets 1 million visitors a year. They are attracted to the beauty and serenity of the estate. They are attracted to the memory of the man himself.
It is easy to feel George Washington in the house, climbing the broad stairs, sitting at his solid desk or eating breakfast in the dining room with the strange green malachite-painted walls.
Charisma: George Washington had it, and after more than 200 years, he still has it.
It’s that indefinable something that makes a president a leader.
George Washington owned 317 slaves in his lifetime. He set his slaves free at his death in 1799, but the original sin of America still is a shadow over Mount Vernon, where you can visit not only the mansion, but the slave quarters, and see a new exhibit on the slaves’ lives.
Although Washington lived in a different era, it is still true that the bizarre foibles and personal baggage of both current candidates combined does not match the troubling legacy Washington carries in the morality department.
Mount Vernon, today and in George Washington’s day, harvests wheat, corn, pumpkins and other vegetables, and has expansive, verdant gardens around the house. During Washington’s lifetime, crops were carefully planned so that there would be enough to feed and care for all, plus support the estate.
Mount Vernon, which is about 11,000 square feet, is nowhere near the luxurious scale of a Versailles or Windsor Castle. As the home of a national leader, it is quite rustic, really, and simple. Still, as you take in the collections of paintings, furniture, outbuildings, carriages and lands, you realize that George Washington was a very rich man in his day. It’s just that he was low-key and tasteful about it. Today’s candidates may have more glamorous addresses, but President Washington likely would not trade his home with either one.
One big theme of George Washington’s life when you tour Mount Vernon is the idea that he retired as head of the military after the Revolutionary War, then retired again as president, walking away from power in order to strengthen the nation. George Washington had no interest in becoming king or dictator. Hogging the spotlight or clinging to fame was not his thing. He just wanted to go home.
Enlightened self-interest: The next president would do well to read up on Washington.
On the tour, I was astonished to learn that President Washington was only 67 when he died. He died in his bed at Mount Vernon after a two-day sore throat, and his wife was so heartbroken after he passed away that she closed up their bedroom and never slept there again. Washington is buried at a family cemetery at Mount Vernon, which you can visit. Both current presidential candidates are older than Washington was at his death.
After visiting Mount Vernon, I drove up the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway to pretty downtown Alexandria, Va., the city where George Washington spent many days. I ate lunch at Gadsby’s Tavern, which has been a watering hole since 1770. Near the tavern is a block of Princess Street made of cobblestones, to remind citizens that, once upon a time, the nation’s roads were rocky going.
As the election nears, one hopes that today’s candidates will keep their balance and remember in whose footsteps they follow.
If you go
Mount Vernon is about 15 miles south of Washington, D.C., at 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway in Mount Vernon, Va. It is open daily; tickets are $20, $19 for age 62 and older, $10 for ages 6-11; 703-780-2000, www.mountvernon.org
Gadsby’s Tavern, Alexandria, is at 138 N. Royal St.; www.gadsbystavernrestaurant.com