It seems like it was over 200 years ago, but it was only Wednesday that President Trump, at a press conference called to defend Brett Kavanaugh, compared his Supreme Court nominee to the father of our country. "Look," he said, "if we brought George Washington here ... the Democrats would vote against him. Just so you understand. And he may have had a bad past. Who knows, you know?"
In the wake of a Senate hearing into the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh that appears to have been a disaster for Republicans (and a highly predictable one), the comment reads as even more bizarrely risible than it did when the president first uttered it. Washington's legendary abstemiousness and reserve — and even more so his resolute determination to stand above faction or section — contrast just too blatantly with both Kavanaugh's hard-partying youth and his relentlessly partisan career path, to say nothing of the scorched-earth fury of his testimony. Political cartoons of Kavanaugh beside the stump of a cherry tree, saying "that never happened" practically draw themselves.
But — to pull back from the drama and trauma of the nomination for a moment — is Trump wrong? Sure, Kavanaugh is no Washington, but wouldn't even a Washington nomination have some trouble in these days of hyper-partisanship and gutter politics that characterize the city that bears his name?
Well, there are indeed a few skeletons in Washington's closet that might be problematic, most of them related to the first president's extensive involvement in slavery. Washington not only owned slaves, but bought and sold them, including selling "difficult" slaves to the West Indies where conditions were harsher than in Virginia and expected lifespan much shorter. There are a variety of accounts of his severity as a master, making slaves work in freezing conditions or when seriously injured or elderly. During the Revolutionary War, some of his slaves escaped to seek protection from the British, and after the war Washington pursued their return (according to a British memo) "with all the grossness and ferocity of a captain of banditti." It's no surprise that he signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
That's not the whole story about Washington and slavery, of course. Over time, he came to see slavery as a doomed and destructive institution for the country and to see individual slaves as having more potential than he had once thought. He stopped selling slaves in 1778, even if they were no longer profitable to retain, so as to avoid breaking up families. He was impressed by the personal bravery and political courage of his aide, South Carolina-born abolitionist John Laurens, who advocated for arming slaves and promising them their freedom in exchange for service in the war. And in his will, Washington arranged for the manumission of all the slaves he personally owned (he had no right to free the slaves that were part of his wife's inheritance).
None of those mitigating facts would matter, of course, if Washington were up for confirmation to some high appointment today. If we imagine, for a moment, that someone who had personally owned slaves was still around and angling for office, it's obvious that he would be not only disqualified but clapped in irons himself.
Questions about Washington's character are only relevant now in considering his place in history, which, notwithstanding our contemporary obsession with moral perfectionism, is still a different matter from present representation. Slavery is a stain on the heritage of America as a whole, and in a sense we grade our forebears on a curve because of it. Because of greater awareness of how our history has been whitewashed in the past, we strive to give increasing prominence to early abolitionists like Laurens and to the long-silenced slaves themselves. But while there are certainly those who call for ripping down monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and other founders for the taint of slavery, most people can see a clear difference between men like them who profited from slavery and, say, John C. Calhoun, who devoted his peak years of political influence to the vigorous defense of slavery over all other issues.
Ultimately, we're far better off as people — and we'll be better Americans — if we grapple fully with Washington's whole character and history, not just a sanitized portrait of heroism. Not only will we understand him and ourselves better, we'll be in a better position to weigh what compromises and failures we're willing to forgive in today's would-be Washingtons and under what conditions. Because society is not static — thankfully. What we consider disqualifying for an individual called upon to represent us will necessarily evolve as our moral sentiments evolve — and if the individual in question evolves with us, they're usually forgiven. American politics is full of people who changed their views about homosexuality, for example, just as an earlier generation was full of politicians who had evolved on the question of legal segregation.
Which brings me back to Kavanaugh. While his personal transgressions, whatever their true nature, are his own, he is also part of a larger culture. If he had shown a scintilla of awareness that there was something troubling, at least in retrospect, about the beer-soaked prep-school culture in which he was clearly steeped, he could have talked about it while continuing to protest his innocence. It would have at least shown that he wanted to be the kind of justice who listens sympathetically even to claims he will rule against. Indeed, even if Kavanaugh is actually guilty of what Professor Christine Blasey Ford specifically has alleged, and he had — from the get-go — admitted as much and spoken contritely about his behavior, he might well have been confirmed notwithstanding that he would have admitted to assault.
Instead, before the hearings he chose to present a stone wall of rectitude. Perhaps he thought that was Washingtonian, but it is actually a product of a refusal to accept the past — of our country, our community, or ourselves — in its broken wholeness. And in the hearing itself he unleashed a torrent of partisan fury that — while completely understandable from someone who believes himself to be unjustly accused — is something Washington would have abhorred as much as he abhorred libel, calumny, and scandal. It is also manifestly incompatible with the temperament required for service on our nation's highest court.